In Defense of Fantasy Baseball

This Lenten Season, I — like many Catholics — have given up a vice. But it’s neither chocolate nor beer from which I’ll be abstaining for these forty or so days. I don’t particularly care for the former and view the latter less as a vice and more as a type of awesome medicine.

Here’s what I’ve given instead: apologizing for my interest in fantasy baseball.

Of course, given the amount of time I spend thinking about it, “interest” might be a bit of an understatement — but let’s leave that consideration for another day. There are real benefits provided by fantasy baseball that no other pastime, so far as I can see, is capable of providing.

Having meditated real hard all up on this line of thought, I could discuss said benefits at some length. For the sake of brevity (relatively speaking, of course), here are three actual reasons why fantasy baseball is of legitimate benefit to your life. Keep them at the ready in the event that your wife/parents/boss confronts you with what they’ll inevitably call your “problem.”

1. It’s Good for the Mind Grapes

Yes, while rotisserie almost exclusively concerns baseball — in terms of content, that is — it’s clear to anyone who’s ever played that other skills are necessary to fantasy domination than a simple knowledge of players and their stats.

In fact, fantasy baseball offers a number of the same benefits that Steven Johnson (in Everything Bad Is Good for You) attributes to video games like Sim City or Grand Theft Auto — that is, games which feature open-ended narrative structures and, therefore, require a greater deal of player interaction.

Because he’s smart, Johnson hands the mic over to John Dewey for the theoretical underpinnings. It’s in Experience and Education that Dewey writes:

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.

By way of commenting on the collateral benefits of video games, Johnson himself goes on to say that, “far more than books or movies, games force you to make decisions.”

He continues:

All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding.

I’m probably preaching to the biggest ever choir when I say that, n’doy, fantasy baseball requires decision-making skills. The fantasy owner must understand the scoring mechanisms of his league, must weigh that information against the players available, must understand what skills those players have, must understand those skills separate from context (team, ballpark), must understand those skills separate from luck, must assimilate news reports about a player’s projected playing time or injury status, blah to the blah to the blah. And that’s even before the draft/auction begins.

2. It’s Good for Male Friendships

As a rule, I’m averse to hugging. Oh sure, there are some exceptions. Like, I’ll hug either of my parents. I’ll hug someone who’s just gotten married (more for consolation than congratulation). Sometimes, if she makes me, I’ll even hug my wife. But generally speaking, I’m not what you’d call a casual hugger.

And yet, especially as I get older and see my friends getting older, see some of them, in fact, getting sick in ways that can be a little frightening, I’ve begun to realize that it’s sometimes advisable — indeed, necessary — to tell these same friends that I care about them. Having had little experience with this sort of venture, however, my attempts are a little clumsy.

Luckily, fantasy baseball allows people like me — that is, with little in the way of emotional intelligence — to display affection in a highly ritualized, but still very real, way.

For example, I’ve been in this one keeper league going on about five years now. In said keeper league, I own Jeff Clement, who still qualifies at catcher even though he’ll almost definitely begin the season as the starting first baseman for the Bucs. This, as you might know, is a boon to Clement’s value, as he won’t be subject to the physical demands of the catcher position.

I’ve recently utilized the the league’s message board to inform the rest of the owners in the league about how Clement qualifies at catcher and about how he’ll be starting at first base and about how awesome that’s gonna make my team compared to their dumb teams.

To this, another owner has replied that Clement is a piece of junk. A third owner has suggested I have a fun time finishing in fourth place. I, in turn, have invited both of these guys to “cram it.” While, to the outsider, this might seem like open hostility, any sociologist worth his salt will see all the goodwill spilling out of us. Basically, what we’re really saying to each other is stuff like: “You’re a good guy” and “I’m happy you’re my friend.” It’s like Love Fest 2010 over here.

3. It’s Unimportant in the Good Way

Very often we’re asked — and by “we,” I mean middle-to-upper-middle class, college-educated men* — we’re asked to care deeply about things over which we have very little control. This is, to some degree, the entire modus operandi of media: to draw our attention outward.

*According to Sociologist Donald Levy of the University of Connecticut, overwhelmingly the demographic that plays fantasy baseball.

To illustrate, consider three headlines from this past Sunday’s edition of the New York Times:

– Burmese Refugees Persecuted in Bangladesh
– Portugal Landslides’ Toll Rises to 42
– Pakistan Kills 30 in Airstrike on Militants

Suffice it to say, these are legitimately terrible things happening to very real people. The thing is, my ability to do anything about their respective predicaments is minimal. Still, there’s an ethic that is popular among the class to which I belong, an ethic which holds that it’s one’s duty to “stay informed.” In lieu of affecting change in far-off places (largely impossible), we make offerings of our own well-being as penance. We say, in effect, “Though I’m unable to help, I’ll set aside a part of my day to consider you and your problems.” I’ll argue that, while the intentions of such an act are good, the practice itself is not.

Fantasy baseball provides almost the exact opposite experience. With the exception of my opposing managers, there are exactly zero people who care about my fantasy team. Yet, for every problem that arises — an injury to a starting pitcher, a second baseman traded to another team — I’m fully equipped to deal with it. I go to the waiver wire, I propose a trade: whatever the solution, it’s fully within my capacity to affect change.

Some might suggest that I’m burying my head in the sand. I think that’s untrue. I contend that it makes me a healthier citizen. I spend a great deal of time dealing with situations that are wholly within my control. I find that I’m able to take problems in stride, with the idea that, through some combination of patience and ingenuity, I’ll be able to solve them. In turn, the world does not appear to be such a dark, forbidding place.

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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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