Silly little idea

I know my readers normally expect me to try to give helpful advice about playing or structuring fantasy baseball, but today I’m going to deviate from that aim to ask a simple question. Perhaps I’m in need of a sanity check and, if so, I’m confident THT’s trusted and wise readership will not disappoint.

This past holiday season, I was given the first half of the ESPN 30 for 30 box set. One of the documentaries is titled Silly Little Game covers Dan Okrent, who is the inventor of rotisserie baseball. In the film, Matthew Berry (better known as the Talented Mr. Roto) offered the opinion that Okrent should be in the Hall of Fame—the actual, real Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The film doesn’t stress this point except in the extremely general sense that Okrent and his inaugural league mates are widely under-appreciated and unknown with the culture they birthed.

Okrent himself is extremely humble and even embarrassed to accept public accolades. Though he did agree to participate in a film about his invention that was to air on “the worldwide leader,” there was nothing sensational about the piece, Okrent himself, or the inaugural rotisserie baseball league. Recently, The New York City Council held a ceremony to honor the founding fathers of rotisserie baseball, but Okrent did not participate; you could tell he saw it as contrived and generally weird.

But, if Cooperstown came calling, he’d have to show up, right? After the movie was over, I sat back and reflected on Berry’s proposition for a few minutes, and I have to tell you, I think I agree. Is it absurd or outlandish to think that the inventor of rotisserie baseball should be in the Hall of Fame?

I tried to talk myself out of it, but I couldn’t. In fact, the more I thought about it, the less crazy it sounded.

Okrent and his buddies debuted their game in 1980. I asked myself what the most important developments have been in fan culture over the past 30 years. I asked myself what innovations to the game, developed specifically to either enhance the game itself or the experience of interacting with the game, occurred over that time period that deserved serious consideration to be recognized in the Hall of Fame. And, finally, for any such development, is there an individual or small group of individuals who could be directly identified and honored as having been responsible for such an innovation? Judging by those criteria, two developments sprang to mind.

The internet age of baseball fandom has been dominated by the proliferation of fantasy baseball and the evolution and expansion of sabermetric analysis of the sport. Further strengthening the case for fantasy baseball’s founder as a Hall of Famer, I feel that these two movements aren’t exactly separate.

I’ve long advocated the theory that fantasy baseball has been and will continue to be the wedge by which advanced metrics will infiltrate and eventually conquer the old-guard glamor stats. Because the focus on so many of the advanced stats is to isolate that which is core and repeatable, because these stats are supposed to be more predictive of future events than traditional numbers, it is through playing fantasy sports that most lay fans are now introduced to core sabermetric principles.

I don’t need to go in-depth to rehash the value of fantasy sports to the actual sport to the THT Fantasy readership, but suffice to say that nothing transforms the causal home team fan into the sport-wide obsessive like participating in fantasy baseball. The result of such a transformation is an economic growth engine for the entire sport. Fantasy baseball is estimated to be a $2 billion industry unto itself. To today’s younger generation of fans, fantasy baseball teams are their baseball cards.

So, I support Dan Okrent for the Hall of Fame. And, for the record, I support Bill James for the Hall of Fame as well.

In a final bit of romantic serendipity, or maybe predictable mutual interest, the first piece of widespread exposure Bill James ever received was a profile in Sports Illustrated that ran on May 25, 1981, entitled, He Does it By the Numbers. The article was accompanied by the byline of a one Daniel Okrent.

Will those inside the institution of baseball’s golden palace ever come around to agree with me and the 90210 savant, Mr. Berry?

There are plenty of old guard fans and “baseball men” who hold unfounded, reactionary contempt for fantasy sports. “You’re not building a fantasy team” is still a popular ad hominem tossed around by failed managers, room temperature IQ broadcasters, and the Carl Sagans of sports talk radio. But, there will always be Luddites and those all too proud to be on the wrong side of history.

It gives me tremendous pleasure to be able to answer the question, “How many rings does Bill James have?” by saying, “twice as many as Darren Erstad!” Seeing somebody like Dan Okrent get serious consideration for baseball highest honor would not only be similarly sweet vindication for the marginalized sports geek finally gaining acceptance in the mainstream scene, it would be the most appropriate praise and honor for Mr. Okrent.

Okrent and his friends began what is today a $2B industry, and from it not a single one became rich. But, as Okrent said in the film, he’s okay with that because none of them did for the purposes of making money. They did it to have fun; they did it out of love for physical sport of baseball. And, essentially what they created was a vehicle that helps millions of others fall more deeply in love with that game.

When somebody acts out of love, that person isn’t seeking money or fame, that person is simply seeking that love be first understood, then appreciated, and finally requited. Despite the absolute explosion on fantasy sports from a cultural perspective, I think its relationship with the institution of baseball is remains stuck in that first stage of understanding, as many people seem to still see rotisserie baseball as dichotomous to real baseball instead of an ode to it.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

I hope that one day, the institution of baseball becomes learns to love some of its most devoted right back. And, there would be no more dignified and fitting way to do so than to award somebody like Dan Okrent baseball’s highest honor, not just as the inventor of what is today fantasy baseball, but essentially as the embodiment of what it means to be a pure fan.

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12 years ago

I started playing ball at age 8, but my love for the game cooled as I moved through my adult years. Then I discovered Fantasy a few years ago, and found my love of this game rekindled. Now, about the only thing that can hold my attention for more than a few minutes is a baseball game. And if one or more players on the field are on my fantasy team, so much the better.

Mr. Okrent probably has a better chance of getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Now there is a sport that has benefiited tremendously from what he and his friends started 30+ years ago.

Does the city of Las Vegas have a HOF? He’d be a shoe-in.

12 years ago

If Okrent is truly the ONE to pioneer the game, then I say he should be in the Baseball Hall as such.  I also think John makes a great point, and the the NFL would be another reasonable place.

I’m not 100% on the history, but it seems like the idea needed at least 8 guys getting together to play.  Was it definitely something Okrent had in his brain and went to his buddies to say, “Hey, I have this fun, totally nerdy idea!”

12 years ago

Sy Berger had a similar impact on earlier generations.  Should he also be elected?

12 years ago

The Hall of Fame has a museum attached.  It certainly would be appropriate to recognized Okrent and the impact of fantasy baseball there.  As for the enshrined legends part . . . um . . .no.

Marc Silvestrini
12 years ago

I don’t have a big problem with either Okrent or Berger being included. I think you could make an argument that they each contributed at least as much to the game’s status and mystique as, say, Warren Giles or Ford Frick. They made the game more fun and more accessible for millions of folks who weren’t good enough to play the game at a high level or wealthy enough to participate from the owner’s box.
I would also like to see the founders/inventors of APBA and Strat-O-Matic considered for similar reasons.

Carl J.Martinez
12 years ago

Hi Derek. Back in 1972 I started recreating the entire Puerto Rico’s winter baseball season ( about 60 games each team (6)),using real baseball cards and a set of two dices. Assingning six numbers for offence and five for pitching. That was my own personal baseball fantasy league. Started playing fantasy leagues when I moved to Georgia in 1984. Okrent invention was gaining traction back then. He should be awarded entry to the HOF on his first try.

Josh Shepardson
12 years ago

Really enjoyable read Derek.  I wouldn’t mind seeing Dan Okrent enshrined.  As you said, he began the game as something fun, and never seeked attention or money for his creation.  Fantasy sports have added an element of league wide awareness to the casual fan, and not simply awareness of the players on one’s favorite team or their direct rivals.  For that, I think he should be applauded and recognized.  Also, don’t get me started on the old guard, the same old guard who’s players were all, “clean,” and didn’t need performance enhancing drugs to help them perform… just greenies.  Give me a break… I’ll end this now before I go off on a rant.