The fight for the soul of my fantasy-baseball league.

The stadium scene.
March 27 2008 5:06 PM

Otto von Bismarck at the Bat

The fight for the soul of my fantasy-baseball league.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

This week, I begin my fifth season as a player of fantasy baseball. I humbly submit that I am entering my prime. Over the past five years, I have learned how to plot a smart draft, work around the inevitable injuries, and keep an eye out for the late-season call-up who can spark a flagging team. (I'll never forget you, Zach Duke of August '05!) As this season approached, however, I found myself contemplating an early retirement. It wasn't that I'd grown tired of the game—on the contrary, I'd spent February happily poring over PECOTA projections. The problem was that a nasty dispute had riven my league—and threatened to destroy it altogether.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

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What set off this existential crisis? A proposal to switch the league's seventh pitching category from complete games to holds. The choice between these two relatively obscure statistics may seem like a trivial matter to the uninitiated. Actually, even I didn't anticipate that it would be a big deal. But by switching from complete games to holds, our league commissioner forced us to confront a fundamental question we had never properly considered: Is it more important that fantasy baseball be fun, or that it be realistic?

Over the years, the league had struck a tacit balance between the two, and had it not been for the brinksmanship of this year's commissioner, this dispute might never have come about. As is the case with most fantasy-baseball leagues, ours is a democracy, though were our unwritten rules to be set down, they'd look more like the Articles of Confederation than the Constitution. The commissionership rotates from player to player each year, and in essence he is merely a functionary: He has the power to veto lopsided trades, for instance, but the league can override that veto with a simple majority vote.

This year, the league commissioner is my college roommate Simon, who has been playing fantasy with friends from his hometown of Port Washington, N.Y., for more than a decade. This is not Simon's first stint as commissioner nor his first brush with controversy. The last time he held the office, he brought with him a theory of the unitary executive that would have made Dick Cheney's look meek by comparison. Here's how he described his first term in office, in a recent e-mail to the league that served as his second inaugural address:

A few years back, as many of you remember, I approached the commissionership of this league with the realpolitik that was the hallmark of Otto von Bismarck's tenure as chancellor of Prussia, and then later, Germany. This "iron and blood" philosophy led to a couple of major initiatives, first and foremost, the timely arrival of all league funds prior to the start of the league.

Getting the league finances in order had been a major accomplishment, and, as a result, Simon was remembered by most members as an enlightened despot. Emboldened by the achievements of his first term, however, he endeavored to make more drastic changes during his second.

Traditionally, our league has used seven hitting categories and seven pitching categories; the higher you rank in each category, the more points you're awarded, and the guy with the highest cumulative point total at the end of the season wins. The titanic change that Simon envisioned? Dumping complete games from the list of pitching categories in favor of holds, an arcane statistic that's awarded when a middle reliever comes into a game and doesn't cough up the lead.

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