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Dream Team

Fantasy is changing the way Americans follow sports, but is it for the better?



As Benny Santiago steps to the plate, the 50,247 fans at Dodger Stadium first get quiet and then start screaming for Guillermo Mota to throw a goddamn strike. Mota, the Dodgers’ wiry middle reliever, has just walked two straight batters to load the bases with two outs in the top of the seventh.

He steps off the mound, tugs his cap and then toes the rubber. He looks nervous, which is quite the opposite of when he came into the game 28 pitches ago, practically skipping to the mound—a 2.11 earned-run average, a nasty fastball and an 8-1 lead produces a certain amount of levity. It didn’t hurt either that the Dodgers were about to move into a first-place tie with the hated San Francisco Giants in the National League West—a spot the Giants have held since Opening Day.

But now, Mota is in a jam. The top of the seventh began harmlessly—Mota got Felipe Santos to fly out to center and then blew a third strike past Marquis Grissom. When Edgardo Alfonzo singled to right, it was nothing more than a hiccup. But then Mota walked Ray Durham, bringing up Barry Bonds—the most feared batter in the universe. With one swing, Bonds could have cut Los Angeles’ lead in half, but Mota walked him, too. That loads the bases for Santiago, the Giants’ catcher.

And that’s when I enter hell.

Like my beloved Dodgers, the Cape Canaveral Challengers got off to a bad start this season and have been staring up at division rivals since April. Despite a lineup that includes Jason Giambi, Jim Thome and Luis Gonzalez, the Challengers have hovered around .500 for months and are in danger of missing the playoffs. A loss tonight to division-leading Knoxville and Cape Canaveral’s fans start thinking about next year. Unfortunately, the Challengers are in the same predicament as the Giants—down 7-3, Cape Canaveral needs a miracle from its catcher, Benny Santiago.

Santiago digs in and stares back at Mota. Mota shakes off the first pitch and then begins his wind-up. As the ball rips toward home plate at 94 miles per hour, a strange feeling comes over me—I actually want Santiago to drive it into the left-field bleachers. Even if he hits a grand slam, the Dodgers will still probably win, I rationalize. But if Benny chokes, the Challengers lose.

I love the Challengers nearly as much as the Dodgers, even though the Challengers only exist in my imagination and in the Snow Cup Fantasy Baseball League. The 14-team league has been around since 1995, and the Challengers have been a part of it since 2000. That’s when I took over a pathetic franchise, moved the team to Florida, gutted the roster, drafted well and miraculously won the Eastern Division in my first year. It’s been all downhill since then, and there have been a lot of nights like this one, when I’m waiting for my players to start producing.

So when Santiago comes to plate, it’s decided. I’m actually hoping a Giant—a Giant, for hell’s sake—hits a grand slam against the Dodgers. I actually feel sick to my stomach. I mean, one of the greatest moments of my life was when Kirk Gibson hit that walkoff homer in Game One of the 1988 World Series—it’s seriously right up there with my wedding day and the birth of my son. I bleed blue, baby, and I’ve stuck by my Dodgers through a championship, a current six-year playoff drought, the sale of the team to Rupert Murdoch and the trade of both Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza. I’ve trained my son, who can’t quite yet pee in the toilet by himself, to love the Dodgers, too. We went to a Dodgers-Colorado Rockies game last month and, like a good boy, he cried when the Dodgers lost, claiming that the Rockies “are mean, dad.” I agreed.

So this sudden thought, which popped into my head faster than it takes Guillermo Mota’s fastball to travel the 60 feet and 6 inches to home plate, doesn’t come lightly. I’ve got a serious problem on my hands, the beginnings of a Sophoclean character flaw. I’m a sick, sick person. I need help.

I’m not alone. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), between 10 and 15 million people played fantasy sports last year. I’ve played fantasy baseball for four years now in an RBI-only league [for a primer on how fantasy works, see sidebar on page 20], mostly to have something to care about when the Dodgers are 12 games back in July. Unfortunately, those four years have been more complicated than figuring out how to calculate fielding percentages. My loyalties are tested almost nightly. Like this night, when I’m hoping and praying that Benny Santiago drives in four runs at the expense of my boyhood team.

Santiago is known as a first-pitch hitter, and he doesn’t disappoint tonight. He takes a cut with his oversized bat, swinging so hard I almost expect his rotator cuff to pop out of his shoulder. But Santiago can’t keep up with Mota’s gas—he makes contact, but late, and sends a pathetic pop fly to right field. Inning over. The Dodgers go on to win 8-2 and move into that first-place tie. The Challengers, however, lose their third game in a row and fall seven games behind the Knoxville Hicks.

The next morning, I walk into the office wearing my Dodgers hat, but as I talk about the possibility of another World Series title, I can’t stop thinking about that choker Benny Santiago.

Fantasy is changing the way we watch and follow sports. If you don’t believe me, tune into a Sunday Night Baseball game on ESPN, where announcers Joe Morgan and John Miller talk about their fantasy teams between pitches. Or log on to a major sports Website and try to avoid any mention of fantasy. It’s virtually impossible, by the way; even a recent minor trade between the Rockies and the Chicago Cubs prompted articles about the trade’s fantasy impact. Those tickers running along the bottom of your television screen—thank fantasy. The “Touch ’Em All” list of home runs on Baseball Tonight? A fantasy-driven feature.

Even the box score has changed because of fantasy. What was once a basic color-by-numbers recap of the previous night’s games, the box score has evolved into what The Las Vegas Sun called a “detailed blueprint of diamond minutiae.” Statistical categories that didn’t exist a decade ago—like the pitching hold—exist now to satiate fantasy geeks. And for the uninitiated, a pitching hold occurs when a reliever doesn’t relinquish an inherited lead before yielding to another relief pitcher—that’s how arcane this gets.

Fantasy’s impact reaches well beyond box scores and Baseball Tonight, however. Its biggest contribution to sports is its ability to attract the fringe fan, turning him (and it’s almost always a him) into somebody so obsessed with winning his league that he spends an average of 37 minutes per day managing his fantasy team through lineup modifications, Internet research and performing transactions. According to the FSTA, people who normally couldn’t care less about the Detroit Tigers or the Detroit Lions spend an average of 2.75 hours per week working on their fantasy baseball squads and 3 hours tweaking their football dream teams. And that’s the average—I know people who spend up to 20 hours per week on fantasy sports. I spend about 10 hours during the baseball season and another 15 during the fall tweaking my football team.

There is fantasy everything—fantasy bass fishing, fantasy bowling, fantasy badminton. I recently came across a fantasy high school track league, and I wish I were making that up.

All four major sports leagues—the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball—have embraced fantasy, running leagues and providing editorial content on their Websites. Not only is it big money—CBS Sportsline generated $11 million in revenue from fantasy sports last year—but professional leagues realize that fantasy draws fans more effectively than promotional giveaways and is safer than gambling.

But purists argue that fantasy isn’t changing things for the better, and regard it with the same disdain usually reserved for the designated hitter and betting line. There is the whole loyalty conflict, where you find yourself rooting for Benny Freakin’ Santiago. Then there is the intense focus on individual efforts that fantasy exacerbates. American fans have always valued the long ball and long touchdown runs over sacrifice flies and plunges on third-and-1, but fantasy takes it to a whole new level, where the only thing that truly matters to millions of fans isn’t the final outcome of a baseball game in June but what’s contained in the box score.

That’s a pretty bleak outlook, and if it’s true, it makes you wonder why sports fans would ever snort that first fantasy line score.

It’s tough to be a sports fan these days. It’s even harder if you root for teams other than perennial winners like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers. Only one out of about 30 teams in each league wins a championship, meaning the vast majority of fans end the season disappointed that another year went by without a ticker-tape parade. And because of free agency and salary caps, it’s difficult for fans to feel any affection for players who will end up chasing bigger paychecks and more playing opportunities on a different team next year.

If you’re unhappy with your team’s performance, you can buy a ticket for $50 and show up at the stadium wearing a paper bag over your head, but that’s about it. Sure, you can bitch out Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi for his lousy .266 batting average from your upper-deck seat, but unless you’re George Steinbrenner, you can’t bench his ass.

One of the great ironies of sports is that fans feel somehow empowered. It’s a fallacy taught to fans at a young age—before I knew any better, I thought I had actually played a part in a 1990 Los Angeles Rams upset win over the San Francisco 49ers thanks to a chant I yelled continually at the television. It’s also a fallacy that is constantly reinforced during every playoff series, when talking heads blither endlessly about the importance of home-field advantage and how the crowd can be a “sixth man.” In reality, fans have about as much powers as does the Yankees’ assistant to the traveling secretary.

But in fantasy, you are Steinbrenner.

Eric Karabell manages ESPN.com’s Fantasy Games section, as well as six fantasy baseball teams. On one of those teams is Philadelphia Phillies left fielder Pat Burrell, who is almost single-handedly sinking Karabell’s hopes for a title with his .201 batting average. Burrell is killing the Challengers too, so Karabell and I have words for him.

“This is your way to be a general manager—you decide what to do. Sports fans, especially of bad teams, feel like they don’t have a say in making their team better but this gives them the chance,” he says. “[Phillies manager] Larry Bowa isn’t going to bench Pat Burrell, but I have.”

Larry Curtis and his Macon Babies have won the last two Snow Cup Fantasy Baseball League titles, and it’s been one hell of a satisfying ride for the Deseret News employee. Through deft transactions—such as signing Albert Pujols when the St. Louis Cardinals slugger was a rookie, and trading washed-up centerfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. for all-world shortstop Alex Rodriguez—Curtis is building a dynasty in our five-man keeper, RBI-only league. Every time Pujols and A-Rod combine to drive in 10 runs to crush hapless teams like the Challengers, it’s hard not to throw out the chest a little bit.

“It’s empowering because guys can get traded, they can be free agents, but in the fantasy world, you can own a multi-millionaire,” he says. “The Macon Babies don’t need to pay A-Rod anything but he still produces.”

Without fantasy, Brandon Winn isn’t sure what he’d talk to his friends about. There’s always football, which is the University of Utah graduate student’s obsession, but if his friends didn’t participate in fantasy league, they’d probably think the Colts still played in Baltimore. Between his part-time assistant coaching position at Taylorsville High, watching NFL and college games, and participating in fantasy, Winn estimates he spends between 40 and 50 hours every week during the fall on football. A couple of those hours are spent on the telephone with fantasy-playing friends, alternately talking smack and lamenting his players’ disappointing weekly performances.

“Fantasy football gives us another outlet to make fun of each other,” he says. “The guy you’re matched up against, you spend as much time coming up with one-liners as you would strategy. That adds to the draw. It’s a way guys can bond.”

The bonding in Winn’s league consists of making allegations of homosexual encounters with star running backs, and claiming to have run off with a friend’s wife and dog. Anything is fair game, making fantasy sports message boards and functions like Draft Day one of the last bastions of testosterone-soaked maleness—at least outside of Georgia country clubs.

It’s last year’s Draft Day for the Financially Underfunded Football Unorganization, and Winn is in form. When a fellow owner selects Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in the second round, Winn yells out, “Did I fall asleep? Is it the seventh round already?” The other owners assembled in the non-descript conference room laugh, prompting the Vick owner to slump in his chair. Winn probably spends as much time coming up with jokes—many of them lifted from ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons—as he does coming up with a draft strategy. That Winn should have spent more time preparing for the draft is evident when he walks up to the dry-erase board in the third round and scribbles in the name of always-injured running back Fred Taylor.

“Hey, nice pick Winnie!” somebody yells out, the sound muffled by a mouthful of doughnut. “Maybe next round you can draft a spare hamstring!”

“Yeah, I know,” he mumbles as he sits back down at the conference table, “but I needed a running back.”

Draft Day is the highlight of the season for most fantasy team owners. It’s usually the one time of the year everybody, or at least most everybody, gets together. The amount of research involved in order to even have a marginally successful draft rivals anything I ever worked on in college—I typically spend about 40 hours over the course of a month researching players to pick, and once took a two-inch stack of printed statistical projections on a camping trip. It usually doesn’t pay off, and invariably somebody mutters halfway through the five-hour proceedings that he already hates his team. Last year, it was Winn.

In Richard Crepeau’s first encounter with fantasy sports, he didn’t think it was just fun and games, or a way for guys to bond. He didn’t even see it as a way for fans to feel empowered. He saw it as a direct threat to the integrity of the game.

“I went to a baseball game with a friend of mine, another baseball historian, and he was in a fantasy league. At odd moments, he’d start cheering. At one point, I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and he said, ‘Oh, that’s my shortstop and he just got a double.’ It was like the game didn’t matter. It struck me as an odd way to watch the game … and I vowed never to do it.”

That was more than a decade ago, and Crepeau, author of Baseball: America’s Diamond Mind and a history professor at the University of Central Florida, could already see how fantasy could forever change how fans followed sports. He could see the loyalty conflict, and it bothered him. He was also put off by how fantasy made some fans care just about particular outcomes—like a random double in the middle of a game—instead of the overall result. Even now, he sees the potential of fantasy’s negative impact on the game, even if he’s half joking when he addresses it.

“In the ultimate fantasy team moment, it’s going to be a case like the Black Sox scandal,” he says, referring to the controversy that erupted when members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of fixing the 1919 World Series for gamblers. “A pitcher is going to have a fantasy team, and in the World Series, he’s going to face a batter from his fantasy team knowing that this guy needs a home run. So he grooves a pitch down the middle, gives up the home run, loses the World Series but wins his fantasy league.”

It’s an unlikely scenario, but even Crepeau understands the pull of fantasy sports—despite those initial misgivings, he started playing in a fantasy baseball league with some friends about 10 years ago and has owned a team every year since then. He rationalizes by selecting as many players as possible from his two favorite teams, the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves.

“It’s fun and it’s interesting. It makes you more attentive to the game in a general sense, and you’re much more aware of what’s going on than you would be,” he says. Crepeau is so into it that when he recently spent a month traveling, a week of that in Europe, he had a friend manage his roster while he was gone. “It’s kind of like asking somebody to watch your dog,” he says.

That’s cute and all, but there is a dark side to fantasy sports. Like a lot of other things on the Internet, fantasy sports can be highly addictive. I’ve wondered myself if I have a problem. There are nights when I get home from work, head directly to my computer, and watch baseball games unfold on constantly updated online box scores for the next three hours, emerging to eat dinner and tuck my son into bed.

It’s not unlike a sports-gambling addiction, mostly because gambling and fantasy sports go together as naturally as hot dogs and baseball. The vast majority of leagues require some kind of entry fee, which is thrown into a pot and given to the eventual winner. Don’t tell the IRS, but this past January, I pocketed a cool $120 from my fantasy football league for winning our version of the Super Bowl. That’s peanuts compared to other fantasy leagues. For example, The World Championship of Fantasy Football requires $1,350 entry fee, with the winner taking home $200,000. Not surprisingly, this year’s draft is going to be held at the Rio Casino in Vegas.

And then there are the folks who take fantasy a little too seriously. It won’t be long before a fan, angry at one of his guys because he just struck out again, jumps down on the field and tries to unleash a season’s worth of frustration. And who knows, maybe the fan who recently plunked Texas Rangers centerfielder Carl Everett in the head with a cell phone was motivated by fantasy—Lord knows the thought would have crossed my head a few weeks ago, when Everett’s eighth-inning home run resulted in yet another heartbreaking loss for the Challengers.

Karabell, the Fantasy Games manager, spends a fair amount of his time umpiring disputes between rival owners. “It can get out of hand. People can get too into it,” he says. “Sometimes it’s like Little League—it can get too competitive.”

There’s also the creepiness that ensues when fantasy owners forget it’s imaginary. Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George told a Nashville newspaper a couple of years ago that he has received mail from his “owners,” thanking him for scoring a touchdown the previous Sunday and helping the fantasy team win the week’s game. Some of the most extreme fantasy owners are known to attend NFL training camps and Spring Training to get in-person inside peeks at potential Draft Day gems. And before the advent of the Internet, pro teams fielded hundreds of phone calls from fantasy owners trying to get the scoop on injuries, transactions and coaching moves.

“When fantasy leagues first started in the late ’80s and I was with San Diego, we used to get a ridiculous number of calls,” says Mike Swanson, now a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ front office. “This was before the era of voice mail and you literally spent half of your day on the phone answering [questions] about ‘Tony Gwynn’s stats.’”

Swanson says he hasn’t received a fantasy-related phone call in years, thanks to the Internet, but he’ll occasionally hear fans berate players for their fantasy performances: “I’ve been in public or down on the field during [batting practice] when players get called out by an overzealous fan who tells that particular player he drafted him and he’s ‘letting him down.’”

Of course, it is just a fantasy. While batting and earned-run averages often correlate with a baseball team’s success, statistics don’t mean a damned thing when a batter is staring back at a middle reliever with the bases loaded. In fact, if statistics were the only measure of a team’s success, the Los Angeles Dodgers wouldn’t have won that World Series title in 1988.

That year, the Dodgers had an anemic .248 team batting average (just fifth in the 12-team National League), hit just 99 total home runs (eighth in the NL), scored a measly 628 runs (sixth) and had only 437 walks (10th). Sure, that team’s pitching numbers were impressive—a team ERA of 2.96 (second in the NL) with 24 shutouts (first) and 49 saves (also first)—but the Dodgers made the playoffs that year by doing the small things and winning close games. Even in the postseason, the Dodgers relied on moving runners into scoring position, getting timely hits and then using quality pitching to hang on to the lead. And when Kirk Gibson stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth in Game One to face Dennis Eckersley, the most feared closer of his time, it didn’t matter that Gibson had only hit 25 homers that season—it was the one that he smashed into the right-field bleachers that did, especially to a certain 13-year-old kid.

Even with the darker side of fantasy, sports leagues aren’t complaining. Fantasy is creating a new cadre of obsessed sports fans, and at a time when TV ratings for sporting events are down, advertising is sagging and people don’t have the disposable income to shell out $50 for a decent seat, that’s worth more than the estimated value of the New York Yankees. Fantasy is simply good business for leagues, and so far their only complaint is that sports networks and Websites are making a fortune off the licensed names of their players.

The health of a league often depends on its ability to attract the casual fan who brings the family to the stadium on a Sunday afternoon. That’s why you see bobblehead giveaways, the marketing campaigns that feature household names and interleague games between cross-town rivals. But more effective is appealing to the fan through gambling and fantasy sports—if there’s money, a fantasy title or both on the line, the casual fan will likely tune into Monday Night Football.

“The thing that’s always held football as the No. 1 sport in this country, whether they’ll admit it or not, is gambling. To be successful, you have to appeal to the fringe fan and the fringe fan is someone who doesn’t own a jersey,” says Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN. “It’s someone who watches for other reasons, whether it’s because they have a fantasy team or they’re gambling.”

Rovell doesn’t have figures, but he estimates that a hefty portion of the people tuned into Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts are watching because they have a fantasy player or two participating in the game.

“If you have more than one player on your team playing in a particular game, you might watch Sunday Night Baseball, even if you’re not a fan of either team,” Rovell says. “That general carryover helps the sport overall.”

If my experience is anything like the millions of other people who play fantasy, then Rovell is right on the money. I recently tuned into Sunday Night Baseball to watch Giambi go 0-for-2 with two walks against the New York Mets in a game about which I otherwise couldn’t have cared less. And because Atlanta Braves second baseman Marcus Giles is on my team, I’m helping add to the nightly ratings for TBS’ broadcasts.

Rovell believes that it’s only a matter of time before somebody develops a way to tap into fantasy fans’ viewing habits. For example, it’s not like I watched the entire Yankees-Mets game—I watched Giambi’s at-bats and then changed the channel.

“I’m wondering if, in the future—and probably the not-too-distant future—if you’ll be able to program a baseball DirecTV package to see certain at-bats. You would enter your team [lineup] into the TV and when your guy comes up, it interrupts live programming and I get to see that at-bat,” he says.

DirecTV itself has undoubtedly seen a positive impact through fantasy sports. Every fall, Winn purchases the satellite network’s Sunday NFL GameDay Ticket, which, for $150 per year, allows viewers to watch every NFL game live. The package is ostensibly for fans who love a particular team but don’t live in that team’s TV market. It’s also for geeks like Winn, who watches up to eight games at once for fantasy purposes, flipping through channels between plays.

“By the end of Sunday, I seriously have a callous on my thumb from hitting the remote so many times,” Winn says.

Like anything else involving sports, it’s all about keeping things in perspective. Most fantasy owners would trade their league titles for the chance to see their favorite team win a real-life championship, and most of us aren’t going to leap out of the stands to pummel Pat Burrell.

After Winn won his league championship in 2000 in dramatic come-from-behind fashion, he proudly displayed the trophy in his apartment before handing it off to the 2001 champion Lehi Dreams.

“It was the first thing people saw when they came to my apartment,” he says.

But it just wouldn’t compare to watching the Lions win a Super Bowl. Fantasy might help him feel empowered to change at least one team’s fortunes, however imaginary, and he might enjoy the bonding, but if the devil offered to get the Lions a title on the grounds that he never play fantasy football again, Winn would sign in blood.

“For some people, fantasy teams are more important, but I’ve been a Detroit Lions fan a lot longer than I’ve played fantasy,” he says. “I root for them first.”

It’s possible that fans like Winn will be in the minority in another decade or two. As reality sports alienate fans with ties at the the Mid-Summer Classic, the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs, work stoppages and millionaire teenagers warming benches, it’s possible that a spot in a fantasy league will become more sought-after than season tickets.

The future of fantasy sports is brighter than LeBron James’. With Internet technology allowing even more instantaneous statistics and the opportunity to follow games from your Palm Pilot, and with the major leagues and sports networks jumping on the bandwagon, fantasy isn’t going away.

“The numbers are going to keep rising,” Karabell says. “We’re eating it up.”

What remains to be seen is fantasy’s lasting impact. Maybe someday a pitcher does pipe a pitch to win his fantasy league. Maybe 13-year-old kids get emotional when one of Benny Santiago’s progeny hits a grand slam in a relatively unimportant game in the middle of June. Maybe fantasy becomes more realistic, where hard-to-quantify statistics, like sacrifice bunts, are incorporated into the game.

Or maybe fans get burned out from the nearly nightly justification and rationalization that occurs when fantasy meets reality and decide they’re going back to basics. Not likely, but it’s a thought.

It’s been a week since Benny Santiago popped out to right to end the seventh inning—and end the Challengers’ chances of moving up in the standings. The Challengers are down 4-2 to the Saginaw Pickles, the worst team in the Eastern Division, and I need Santiago to drive in some runs. Only thing is, the Giants are playing the Dodgers again, with first place still on the line.

Santiago goes 1-for-3, with a single. He doesn’t drive in a single run, and the Challengers end up losing.

I couldn’t be happier.