A conversation with the Founding Father of Fantasy, Dan Okrent

I sat down with Dan Okrent, a league mate of mine and the founding father of fantasy baseball, to reminisce about the original Rotisserie league, share stories and thoughts about baseball, and see if I could solicit some fantasy advice. Sadly, I failed on the last front, but my chat with Okrent reminded me of why I love this game so much.

Sometimes the real reasons we play get lost in the murkiness of big business bullying (see: “Worst Rotisserie memory” below) and often, money is intertwined with the game itself and the competition becomes based solely on a payday. It may not be innocent fun and games, but it is all fun and games, and sometimes, I feel as though money clouds the real meanings: the joy of owning a self-selected baseball team, the experience of connecting to the game on a deeper level, and the gratification of living out the childhood dream of running a front office.

Below, Okrent shares some stories about how it brings us together and allows us to make new friends, and how one man enjoys himself without ever having the glory of victory (which says a lot about fantasy baseball’s lust in and of itself). Fantasy ball a tremendous creation, and we should all tip our cap to him for it. Here’s some of our conversation:

Photo used with permission from Dan Okrent.

What emotions does it stir up, seeing this huge business that you effectively invented and didn’t make more than a dollar on?
Well, for a while it bothered me, and for a while we tried to make money off of it and were never able to. We never made meaningful money, and in fact in the ’90s, a professor at the Stanford Business School used it as a case study. He asked his students: “How would you have made money off of this if you had invented it before there was an Internet?” That’s the problem. If we’d have invented it 15 years later, you can see how using the Internet, you can very quickly establish your presence and set out your boundaries, but there was no way of doing it then. So I used to get pissed off at myself—“How could you be so stupid” and “there are those who exploited your idea”—but now… I have a nice house, I have two kids, I have two cars.

I was at spring training one year in the late ’80s in Tampa, and we went to a game one day in St. Pete, and these two blond guys in their 40s came up to us—and they turned out to be identical twin dentists from Indianapolis—and one of ‘em recognized me from the Ken Burns documentary on baseball and said to me, “Thank you for this. It’s the most important thing in our lives besides our families and we just love it so much and it’s so great to meet you.” And the other one says, “And to think that you just gave it to the people!” F**k me. (laughs)

So it’s stirred up mixed emotions certainly but I’ve gotten over it.

And you really couldn’t have made that much money on the premise, since you tried to call it Rotisserie and people stole it and turned in into “fantasy.”
I think if we had invented it in 1995, we could have gone to ESPN saying “here’s this game, and we’re going to own it, and here’s how you begin to get attention for it,” we could have taken a position somewhere. Would we have been smart enough? Probably.

But the rules are so simple; see, it wasn’t just trademarking the name, because we tried that with Rotisserie, and thus came the generic name “fantasy,” but the rules are so obvious that there was nothing to protect. There was nothing to buy to be able to play this.

But I remember talking to John Walsh I would guess in ’89 or ’90, just pre-Internet, and they were trying to figure out things to add onto “SportsCenter” and I said, “do Rotisserie,” and he checked with his marketing guys and they did a survey of the people who watched ESPN, who watched “Baseball Tonight,” who watched “SportsCenter,” and they asked them how many of them played fantasy sports and they came back with 1.5 percent. Now, if he had asked that question seven years later, it would’ve been 30 percent or whatever.

We were too early. It was 1980, and I used to do the stats by hand. One interesting thing about the development of Rotisserie: people asked about the eight categories, and people would say, “Why’d you count batting average? Everyone knows on-base percentage is a much more important thing.” I knew that even then when I made the rules, but walks weren’t in the box score. That wasn’t until USA Today came out with the extended box score that now everybody uses. But if you couldn’t find out in the morning paper how your guys did, it was pointless.

What’s your proudest Rotisserie moment?
I never won! I once lost to Rob Fleder on the last day of the season. It was something as simple as if John Candelaria had gotten one more out, or something ridiculous. I know what my proudest moment was, though. We used to live in Western Massachusetts, and when we moved to New York City, my son, about 10 years old, started a new school, and the kids were mean to him and nobody wanted to talk to him and he was very, very unhappy in this new city. And one day, a kid who he did become friendly with took him home and introduced him to his parents, and his father said, “Are you related to Dan Okrent?” And John said, “Yeah, that’s my dad!” And the father of his friend said, “He invented Rotisserie baseball, he changed my life,” and the kid who was with him said, “Your dad…?!” The next day at school, he was the most popular kid.

What was your worst Rotisserie-related memory?
The worst moment in my career, as Mr. Rotisserie inventor, was when this guy came to us in the ’80s, Bill Junkin, was a newspaper promotion-circulation guy, and he was interested in buying Rotisserie baseball, and was going to use it to build circulation games. But we were so naive, and our lawyer never composed a non-disclosure agreement, and he spent weeks interviewing us, and talking about us, and he disappeared. Suddenly, these circulation games are popping up all over newspapers that were connected to the chain he was working for. He just stole it. And there was nothing we could do about it.

Do you have a best deal you’ve ever pulled off?
I only pull off bad deals. (laughs) I’m a good drafter and a bad trader, and I’m not as good of a drafter as I used to be.

What are your main strategies?
Well, it changes every year because nothing I’ve tried works. One year I might forget about saves and save that money for stolen bases, or whatever. Someone makes the case, I read, that you should give up on both power categories, and if you do that, you’ll have enough money to get 60 points and win (note: this applies to a 4×4 league, where the eight categories means 80 points is the highest possible total). In that case, you have to get the pitching right, but my problem as a player is that I never do get the pitching right.

When do you typically start with your draft prep?
Really, it’s in the last few weeks before. When I was playing more seriously in the ’80s and ’90s, I used to follow it more seriously, but I don’t play in the same way anymore.

How much do you follow it today?
I play every day; I set my lineup daily, I like that. The most interesting thing to me—you started playing when you were 10, right? (Right.) Were you reading box scores every morning before you started playing? (I was, I think that’s why my dad brought [fantasy] to me.) What were you looking for? (I have no idea.) But you would spend hours on it, right? (Right.) That was from the time when you were probably six until you were 10. I spent from the time I was six to the time I was 31, every morning during the season, I could spend half an hour or 40 minutes reading box scores. So I founded the Rotisserie league in 1980 and the “last” season in the original league was 1995, and then the 1996 season comes, and I get the newspaper, and I turn to the box scores. What am I looking for? I’m not looking for how my players are doing, because I don’t have players anymore. I used to look at these and get something out of them. I don’t know why I looked at them, and I never figured it out!

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

How do you pick your minor league players?
I look at top-prospect lists and try to correlate them to teams that have weak people in the corresponding positions.

If you could fix three things in baseball as a sport, and one thing in fantasy baseball as an entity, what would those fixes look like?
In real baseball, the length of game would be the first thing I change. I would impose that by a pitch clock. That’s radical, and it might disrupt rhythms too much, but the other way would be to limit the number of pitching changes, which might even be more radical.

If you’re going to have divisions in baseball, and I can see a case for it, then the team with the best record in the league should get more than the home field advantage. So it would be like, in a seven-game series, the pennant-winning team would have to win three games before the other team wins four. You get these races that aren’t races, and I would change that tomorrow.

The All-Star game system is corrupt, and if you’re going to have home field advantage for the World Series on the line, let the nine best players play the whole game. It’s just dumb.

I’m playing fantasy the way I want to play fantasy, so I don’t feel like I need to change anything. I would like to find a way to win.

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12 years ago

Thank you Mr Okrent for hours of enjoyment over the years!!

Anthony W.
12 years ago

Here’s hoping you win your league in 2012, Mr. Okrent.  You are an original!  Do you have a favorite team you follow?

Nick Fleder
12 years ago

He follows the Cubs. Should’ve added that bit of our conversation. Had a good story about how his son sort of introduced a new level of Cub devotion to him, and how he used to be an AL fan but when he created Roto (while writing Nine Innings, which took an in-depth look at a Brewers-Orioles game from many angles), he needed to do NL-only because Nine Innings required press passes to AL teams and the gambling conflict might get his press pass rescinded. As it happened, the first people he approached, including Lee Eisenberg, were Phillies fans, so it worked out quite well.

Anthony W.
12 years ago

Thanks for the follow up, Nick!

12 years ago

Thanks for the article and a thanks to Dan for developing something that has added to so many people’s lives and connected so many lives.

How about an interview or two with Peter Kreutzer aka Rotoman, or Mike Gianella of Roto Think Tank or the great Alex Patton?

Derek Ambrosino
12 years ago

Nice piece, Nick,

Early in 2011, I wrote this. Knowing what I know about Mr. Okrent, it will probably make him blush, but here it is –


Ben Pritchett
12 years ago

We all owe these guys more than they’ll ever receive in financial compensation. But Dan, you’ll always have a seat at my dinner table if that means anything.