The Probabilistic Soap Opera
or The Consolations of Fantasy Baseball

McCaffree sighed impatiently. “What if, Woody, we have passed, without knowing it, from a situation of sequential compounding into one of basic and finite yes-or-no survival, causing a shift of what you might call the equilibrium point, such that the old strategies, like winning ballgames, sensible and proper within the old stochastic or recursive sets, are, under the new circumstances, insane!”

“Hmmm,” said Woody Winthrop. Only word he was sure of was the last one.

—Robert Coover, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

The dog days of August are marching in dreary procession. And I am in fantasy baseball purgatory.

There have been the usual assorted bad breaks: Kerry Wood is pitching hurt. Shea Hillenbrand cannot beg, borrow or steal a hit. Jorge Julio, the obverse: they hit him like a snare drum, the entire American League. Luis Castillo — is he saving himself for the big free-agent contract he thinks is out there? Or is his hip still bothering him? He had 48 stolen bases last year; he won’t get half that number this year.

But worse than all that, I’ve mismanaged the season. A month ago I was in third place in the league, but a distant third; the smart thing would have been to retrench and plan for next spring. But I came home from vacation in late July, and an e-mail message was waiting for me from C____, my old friend and fellow league member. He offered me a trade: he would give up two veteran players who are having good years, in exchange for two of my youngsters, potential “keepers” for the future. A classic instance of mortgaging tomorrow for today. The clincher came when C____ buttered me up, saying, “This will help you make your dramatic stretch run!”

I fell for it. I pulled the trigger on the trade with C____, which opened up two holes in my lineup, which led me to two other trades on which I overreached. None of these has panned out. And the folly of the trade I made with S____ in May (Goodbye Bobby Abreu, hello Adam Dunn? Brilliant) becomes more and more apparent. Today I’m in fifth place, and I may fall even farther.

Vanity. Hubris. I have set no store by harvest. There’s not too much to do at this point except set my daily lineups (Dammit, why did I feed Ted Lilly to the Green Monster of Fenway Park? Beware of mediocre lefthanders pitching in Boston) and watch the season tick down.
Why am I doing this again?

For anyone unfamiliar with fantasy sports: I’m part of a “league” of 15 online acquaintances who have picked teams of big league ballplayers — guys on the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves and so on. We compete using a scoring system based on how well our players perform in real life (how many hits they get, runs they score, etc.). We have a page at Yahoo where we can check our scores, make changes to our rosters or lineups and communicate or trade with our fellow owners.

The winner in fantasy baseball is the one who does the best job of predicting who will play well. In many ways, it is not unlike picking stocks. We allocate resources, we study the available commodities. Risk, reward and probability. Buy low and sell high.

Like stock trading, fantasy baseball has exploded in popularity thanks to the Web. Centralized databases simplify score-keeping enormously, and baseball discussion sites allow like-minded fans to find each other in cyberspace. One estimate places the number of Americans playing fantasy sports online at nearly 30 million. (“Almost as popular as porn,” remarked one newspaper, with no discernible smirk.) There are pay-to-play sites with advanced features (although Yahoo, where our league plays, is still free). There are preseason draft guides for sale at newsstands, e-newsletters you can subscribe to for a fee. It’s a substantial industry. Some fantasy leagues even play for cash prizes.

Not our group. We’re all about bragging rights. This is a by-invitation league, in its fourth year. We consist of 14 men and one woman, scattered in “real life” across the U.S., except for one guy in Finland. We’re mostly in our 30s, mostly white-collar types: businesspeople, a couple of lawyers, a couple of teachers.

Many of us have been talking baseball online for four or five years. We’ve enjoyed a continuous series of spirited arguments: who should be MVP this year, should this guy be in the Hall of Fame — standard baseball fan stuff. Our fantasy league is just a framework for making each baseball season into a running argument, with a clear winner at the end.

It’s a sickness for some of us, though. For several years previous, I was the only person I knew for whom fooling around with a spreadsheet program and a table of baseball stats counted as a good time. (This, honestly, was the reason I bought my first home PC, pre-Internet.) Certain members of my family were beginning to talk.

So it has been, shall we say, validating to find some companionable fellow geeks out there. But we encourage each other’s neurotic behavior. These are my vices: I drink too much coffee. I eat too much junk food out of the vending machine at work. And when the occasion compels me, I will drop whatever I am doing, call up an Excel file or do a Web search, and determine which relief pitcher I should pick up off waivers.

By coincidence, about the time I was going on my ill-advised fantasy trading binge, I stumbled on an online book club that was reading The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover. It’s the heartwarming tale of a man who loses his job, his friends, and his grip on reality, due to his unwholesome obsession with a simulated baseball game. A man after my own heart, in other words.

The game is like Strat-O-Matic or other true-to-life baseball simulations, except that Henry Waugh’s Association is entirely fictional, i.e. the players are made-up characters. Waugh’s game entails not only the action of a baseball game, hitting and pitching and fielding, but his dice and charts also determine his players’ private lives: their births, sex lives, children, deaths. Waugh’s game-making obsession has evolved: he had devised a business-and-politics game, somewhat like Monopoly, designed for multiple players. But that project fails (nobody else can match Henry’s enthusiasm), and he turns to a game based on baseball, a game he can play solitaire-style:

And so, finally, he’d found his way back to baseball. Nothing like it, really. Not the actual game so much—to tell the truth, real baseball bored him—but rather the records, the statistics, the peculiar balance between individual and team, offense and defense, strategy and luck, accident and pattern, power and intelligence. And no other activity in the world had so precise and comprehensive a history, so specific an ethic, and at the same time, as strange as it seemed, so much ultimate mystery.

Coover is getting at the thing that attracts me and many others to the microcosm of baseball statistics: It’s life-like, but it improves on life in some ways. It makes more sense. Almost everything that happens in a baseball game can be counted. Every out made, every base gained, every run scored can be credited to the team and the player responsible. Elsewhere in the book, Henry Waugh praises baseball for its “accountability,” and it’s no accident that Waugh himself is an accountant. For his Association, Waugh publishes “daily” box scores and compiles “yearly” totals. The statistics represent an orderly, intricate, comprehensive universe, dense and allusive, rich in narrative possibilities.

Coover’s novel deals with lost innocence, and one of the echoes of this theme is baseball statistics: the abstract numeric system derived by adults from the flesh-and-blood, leather-and-wood game played by children. (Note the contrast between Henry Waugh’s love of his simulated league and his indifference to actual baseball.) Indeed, I feel the novel fits into a pattern of developments in the post-World War II history of baseball. Like many aspects of American life and commerce, baseball was being subjected to the scrutiny of management science, and the role of the fan became more analytical and, in a way, professional. The trend was toward viewing the group enterprise of a baseball team as the sum of its individual structural components, the players, and the players themselves as the sum of their measurable contributions. The timeline includes the boom in baseball card collecting in the ’50s and ’60s, the introduction of realistic tabletop baseball games like Strat-O-Matic and APBA, the 1969 first edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia, the emergence in the ’70s of the Society for the Advancement of Baseball Research (SABR), and the invention of Rotisserie (fantasy) baseball in 1980. (The Universal Baseball Association was published in 1968, and it seems certain that Coover had played tabletop baseball games.)

SABR was, and remains, an amateur movement, but one made up of middle-class professionals: chemists and economists and software writers who, in their spare time, apply their technical skills to dissect the corpus of baseball records. In the process they have developed some analytic tools that have real predictive power. The current bestseller Moneyball traces the development of “sabermetrics” and looks at the blurring of the lines between insiders and outsiders in the baseball business. The old stereotype of baseball talent scouts — a jockocracy of tobacco-spitting ex-players who rely on stopwatches and shoe leather — is giving way to a new breed: Ivy League MBAs who chose careers in baseball instead of on Wall Street. Michael Lewis, the author, is a former Wall Street bond trader, and he sees these young baseball execs as akin to the authors of financial derivatives — they use advanced math to analyze players as statistical entities and find market inefficiencies that they can exploit.

This mirrors the “fantasy,” such as it is, of fantasy baseball: the possibility of assembling a make-believe team that is much more talented than any real-life one. The pleasure or ego gratification is in demonstrating statistical numeracy and insight superior to that of your opponents, and arguably even to that of the scouts and executives in charge of the actual teams. It’s a triumph of the vicarious over the “real,” outsiders trumping insiders.

Almost every Little Leaguer eventually confronts the reality that he’s not that good at playing baseball. Roaming center field in Dodger Stadium is not in his future — sitting in the center field bleachers is. Bookish boys like me take this regret and intellectualize it. The daydreams of great performance fade, but we seek to replace them with great understanding. We will never play for the Dodgers, but what if we could run the Dodgers’ front office?

And so begins the process of settling into safe middle-class adult American life. Gradually it sinks in: I won’t produce things with my hands or my muscles; instead, I will analyze and manage the things produced by others. Fantasy baseball plays into this dynamic: it instills the habit of viewing baseball not as a physical game of hitting and running, catching and throwing, but as a vicarious exercise.

A couple of owners in our fantasy league are upfront about having favorite teams. They are loyal followers of the Red Sox or Twins or whomever. This is actually a bit of a faux pas in fantasy leagues. The Red Sox fan may overvalue Red Sox players and be taken advantage of in trading or drafting. The correct attitude is the Gordon Gekko attitude: don’t get sentimental about a player.

I sometimes think that all of fantasy baseball can be reduced to one issue: judging the shape of a man’s career. Be wary of aging veterans; be on the lookout for bright young prospects. Will this guy be a perennial star? Or is he a one-year wonder? (And if the latter, is this “his year”?) These questions get asked, of course, in music or movies or publishing or any other field that has performers and spectators. But in baseball the answers to the career question are uniquely concrete, and they take a form that fans like me recognize from when we were 8 years old, studying the back of a Topps baseball card. The lifetime of sweat, dreams and disappointment, pitilessly captured in a table of numbers. We fantasy owners pore over the tables like Kabbalists.

Is this a constructive pastime? A healthy diversion? Never mind the time we spend on it, a lot of it during working hours. Look at us: careerists ourselves, economic free agents nervously considering the next entry on our resumes, wondering whether we are on the rise or on the wane. And look at the pawns in our game: these athletes who on average peak at age 27, whose careers are sometimes finished by age 30. (Just scanning the Date of Birth column in the pre-season rosters can give me a lump in my throat.)

Of course it’s not constructive or healthy. Rationalistic terms like these miss the point. There’s something almost spiritual going on here. Fantasy baseball is akin to other geek pop subcultures, from comic books to Barbie dolls to Dungeons & Dragons, that evolved from youth culture fads. Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers have reconstituted and reimagined them, and made them remarkably vital avenues for adults to reconnect with childhood and find meaning. People don’t pursue these hobbies to be “constructive.” Through ritual and arcane knowledge, they are forming social bonds and, paradoxically, asserting their humanity.

In Moneyball Michael Lewis quotes sabermetrician Dick Cramer: “Baseball is a soap opera that lends itself to probabilistic thinking.” After we’ve done all we can with the probabilities, there is something left that eludes analysis: random variation. Dumb luck, many would say. Robert Coover called it mystery. The late great baseball man Branch Rickey called it “the residue of design.” The old-style fans (the loyal team supporters, the sentimental ones) may see signs not merely of individual attributes, but of collective virtues: hustle, teamwork, courage, grace under pressure. These are imponderables. We can’t do anything with them.

There is a long-running controversy in sabermetric circles about “clutch performance”: the idea that some players are at their best at the most dramatic moments, the late stages of a close contest. Nobody has proved statistically that clutch performance exists. It seems to be a matter of luck, combined with our imperfect cognition, whereby the ninth inning of a playoff game looms larger than a more everyday moment. Yet some stat heads persist in looking for clutch performance; it’s a kind of Holy Grail.

I have to believe in clutch play, and I’ll express my belief through my fantasy team. I’ll drop some player who is just running out the string with an also-ran team and substitute a player who’s in the thick of a pennant race. This probably won’t help me in the league standings. It’s just a wish. If I were writing the story, this is the kind of ending I would give it.

All images © The Topps Company, Inc. Used by permission.