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Strike Intrudes on Fantasy Baseball Followers’ Reality

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Rose lives in a world in which he can trade speedy second baseman Chuck Knoblauch for veteran pitcher Roger Clemens. He can send faxes to his fellow owners dictating the terms of free agency. He can bench Jose Canseco.

But on Monday, Rose was powerless. His world--the fantasy world of rotisserie baseball--was shattered.

As Major League Baseball’s strike moved into its fourth day, Rose and millions of other “roto-geeks” faced another bleak morning with no box scores--and thus no new statistics to drive their simulated baseball leagues.

Rotisserie “owners” create teams by drafting players from big league rosters. Some hard-core rotisserie teams actually bid for the various players using real money, just like real owners. Of course, in rotisserie there are salary caps. It is, after all, fantasy baseball.

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Although each league may have slight differences, the object is to pick players who can rack up the best statistics, whether in home runs or strikeouts. Whatever team achieves the best statistical performance wins.

Frequently compared to a narcotic, rotisserie has claimed between 2 and 4 million followers since its popularity swelled in the mid-1980s.

That means a lot of people are now going through serious withdrawal.

“I’m in a lot of agony. I just can’t get any more stimulus from the morning paper,” said Kevin Klein of Encino, whose team is mere points out of first.

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The work stoppage is depriving rotisserie owners of their reason for living. Many, such as Rose, a Burbank finance manager, say they haven’t even spoken to fellow owners since the strike and fear losing touch. Others are trying to keep the flame alive, but it’s tough.

Jeff Little had dinner at a fellow fantasy owner’s home this weekend. “We ended up talking about his sister-in-law’s wedding,” said the Fresno engineer. “That’s how bad it was.”

Some owners report disturbing trends in their lives. “I’ve become more productive,” Rose realized Monday, his first day in the office after the strike. “It’s scary.”

Rotisserie owners usually spend their spare time religiously watching baseball shows on the cable sports network ESPN, or talking trades with one another on the phone. Now “the ritual is definitely gone,” Rose said. “The ritual is box scores in the morning, ‘SportsCenter’ (an ESPN show) at 11, and now there’s no point to either.”

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The effects of rotisserie deprivation could be wide-ranging, considering that National Security Adviser Anthony Lake is a rotisserie buff. When asked how the end of rotisserie would affect Lake and other White House fantasy owners, a press officer would say only: “I’m sorry, we can’t speculate on that.”

Named after the New York City restaurant where it was cooked up by some friends--referred to as “The Founders"--rotisserie has spawned a cottage industry of publications offering advice on how much to spend on players both famous and obscure. What’s more, there are stat services that crunch the numbers and tell owners where their teams stand.

Those businesses will also suffer from the work stoppage.

“We knew we were going to lose money this year,” said Mark Ferguson, co-owner of the Midwest Stat Bureau in Dayton, Ohio, which, like many other services, plans to offer a partial refund to subscribers if the strike drags on. “We were hoping it wouldn’t be this bad. We’ll be OK as long as they play baseball next year.”

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But if the strike lingers into next season, Ferguson fears that he and his partner “will have to go get real jobs again.”

Other, larger statistics corporations are forging onward, strike or no strike. Stats Incorporated, in conjunction with the makers of a baseball video game, is running a simulated season, playing out the remainder of the major league schedule.

Ross Schaufelberger, Stats Inc. director of marketing, said the simulated season may offer some solace to the strike-afflicted masses of roto-junkies.

“It’s kind of fantasy fantasy,” Schaufelberger said.

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But that’s not good enough for Steve Rose, even though he’s sure that his team would move to the top in a simulated season. “In real life,” he said, “anything can happen,” which is the charm of rotisserie.

Andrew Stavisky, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, has been studying the sociology of rotisserie baseball.

The typical rotisserie players, he said, are males in their 20s or 30s. “It’s definitely a guy thing,” Stavisky said, adding that rotisserie leagues provide an illusion of control over reality in a depersonalized, “McDonaldized” world.

He speculated that those players will now be forced to explore other facets of their lives. “Maybe they’ll spend more time with their families,” he said. “Maybe they’ll find something new on TV.”

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John Hunt, who writes a fantasy baseball column for USA Today’s supplement Baseball Weekly, isn’t worried about the societal impact of millions of rotisserie-less owners. “Roto-geeks are human too,” he said. “We can adapt.”

Besides, not all rotisserie owners are grieving. Some accept their fate. Mike Comins, a New York City advertising executive, is stuck in second place, just a few wins short of the $1,000 pot. He’ll just have to cope if there’s no more baseball this year and he remains an also-ran.

“I should have never traded Pedro Martinez,” he said glumly of the Montreal Expos pitcher. “I deserve second.”

Chad Troxel, 22, a door host at Legends sports bar in Costa Mesa, wishes that if the strike had to come, it would have happened just a tad earlier.

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“I was fourth place the first month and a half,” he said, explaining that in his league, only the top five teams win cash.

“Now I’m in eighth place out of 18 teams.” The strike, he said, “probably means that’s where I’m going to stand"--out his 50 bucks.

The owner of another sports bar, Lookers in Westminster, said baseball rotisserie is passe. His customers have moved on--to football rotisserie.

The “attitude of my customers is, ‘Who cares, football’s here anyway,’ ” David Connelly said. “I don’t know of anybody doing rotisserie baseball this year. I think the bloom’s gone off of that. With my customers it has.”

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The “problem is you really have to stay on top of it,” he said. “Rotisserie football is easier because you only have to look at the paper once a week.”

However, some confirmed rotisserie baseball players just seemed to be glad for a respite from what had become a very dismal season.

Times staff writer Mark Landsbaum contributed to this story


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