It's already building by the time the players start showing up in Florida and Arizona. When the first drowsy spring training games appeared on television, I could feel it. And so it was with great excitement and anticipation that I did what countless other baseball fans did as Opening Day approached: I turned on my computer and started studying. About a week before the big leaguers began their season, I began mine. Not in sunshine but in the lonely blue glow of my computer, and not with the crack of the bat but with the click of the keyboard.
I am far from alone in this pursuit: Sixteen million people played fantasy baseball in 2006. In basements that smell like pizza and dudes, in conference rooms on the company clock, or in notional, Java Applet-powered online "draft rooms," we fantasy baseball GMs build the teams over which we will obsess for the next six months. And I have no problem with that. The strange part, I have come to realize, is that the baseball team I care about the most this summer will be my fantasy squad. This doesn't mean that I've stopped caring about my favorite big-league team. But it's a certainty that I'll spend more time worrying about a team named "Garkness Visible" (after Indians first baseman Ryan Garko) than about my beloved New York Mets.
I'm sure this indicates that I have any number of problems. But, once again, it's not just me. Over the last decade, fake sports, be they fantasy sports or video-game sports, have come to rival in popularity the professional sports they reference and emulate. Fantasy newbies and nonbelievers are well within their rights to ask why.
The cliché answer is that, as rising ticket prices and surly players push pro sports further from the average guy in the seats, fans need a new way of connecting to the game. A trendier answer would be that fantasy baseball allows the all-powerful You, defending Time Person of the Year and know-it-all fan that you presumably are, to put your brilliant baseball mind to work. For me, fantasy baseball's most appealing draw is the opportunity to do what actual baseball GMs can't: cut that struggling second baseman, pull off a blockbuster deal without taking payroll into account, and fail without having the local sports section make cruel puns on your last name. For those of us who glow with pride recalling the time we plucked a future 20-game winner off the waiver wire—the type of people most know as "dorks"—there are few bigger thrills.
It seems reasonable to assume that most of my co-dorks came to fantasy as I did: through a lifelong love for baseball and a wish to be closer to a game that we can no longer play. Where my troubles began, however, is with the introduction of a competitive element into the placidly passive act of watching baseball. I love the Mets, but I will also watch a televised baseball game over almost anything else. This extends even to soporific Braves/Rockies broadcasts on TBS and early-season Devil Rays/Yankees games at the perpetually underpopulated and underlit Tropicana Field. Fantasy baseball changed my viewing habits, and changed me, by giving me an active rooting interest in these games—or, rather, a rooting interest in one or two players who happen to be playing in them.
These formerly anonymous Twins, Mariners, and Brewers have the potential to help me feel smart and maybe win some cash. Certain Mets can help with that, too. (That is, those on my fantasy teams.) Since I don't gamble on sports and am not someone who favors using the first-person plural when talking about my favorite team, the Mets' success or lack thereof this season won't make me feel much savvier. While it doesn't stop me from watching or caring, I know that I will have no influence on their season unless I learn to throw the knuckleball and make it to the bigs by September. I do have an impact on my fantasy teams, though, and my decisions on trades, waiver pickups, and lineup swaps can affect their fortune. It's a crass, zero-sum calculation, but as much as I love the Mets, those guys on the other channels—guys I didn't care much about until I randomly called their names during my fantasy draft—have a far larger impact on my self-image. That meant lots of White Sox games and many hours of ESPN's seizure-inducing, update-fest Baseball Tonight.
It started with simple flip-overs to WGN from Mets games. You know, an innocent, Oh, I wonder if Jermaine Dye is up—I could really use a two-run single and two stolen bases from him. Then it became a full-on addiction. I watched my fantasy players' at-bats with an intensity that I can't bring to Mets games until the weather starts getting cold. I watched them not only instead of Mets games, but also instead of whatever else I was supposed to be doing. I write "watched" instead of "watch" because, after hitting bottom a couple of weeks ago, I'm trying to change.
My moment of clarity came on a beautiful April afternoon at Shea Stadium. For the first time in my Mets-attending life, I was treated to the spectacle of the Mets putting a nice, easy walloping on the Atlanta Braves, their longtime divisional nemesis. But there was a complicating factor: One of my fantasy pitchers, Chuck James, was starting for the Braves. So, while I enjoyed watching the Mets pound him silly, I felt empty high-fiving my friends as runs five and six crossed the plate. My mouth said the right things, but my fantasy-sodden brain wondered why a nice 3-1 win (with, say, one of the runs being unearned and James registering eight or so strikeouts) couldn't have sufficed. It was then that I decided that I needed to get a handle on this.
For the Obsessive Fantasy Person, innings revolve around when or if OFP's players come to the plate. OFP pumps his or her fist in celebration of meaningless home runs in routs. OFP pulls for a strikeout-laden 1-0 pitchers duel when two members of his or her pitching staff face each other. OFP is a pretty pitiable figure, all things considered. But if you're seeking a truly pitiable figure, consider the person who has to watch baseball with OFP. This person listens to the half-frantic, half-embarrassed diatribes about how some midtier slugger is "due," endures the channel flips—away from whatever, and whenever—to WGN to check whether Ryan Theriot stole a base in the last 10 minutes. I'm not sure how my girlfriend bears it. I'm sure we'll be fine, though. At least until Chuck James faces the Mets again.