The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Field and Fantasy

May 7, 2006

So here it is, the beginning of May, the end of the Spring semester, when grading piles up and other closing-out-the-academic-year chores loom and threaten. So I, like a fair number of other academics, have been spending a fair amount of time thinking about baseball. Seriously. It’s not that I’m avoiding doing my other work (okay, not really . . . maybe just a bit . . .) , or that I find baseball infinitely more enjoyable than grading (grading being, in my opinion, right up there with administrative paperwork as my least favorite parts of the academic life) — it’s also that, with a month of the Major League Baseball season completed, there is finally enough information to start making substantiated claims like “Albert Pujols (16 home runs through 30 games, OBP .473. SLG .840) is probably the best hitter in baseball” and “Mike Mussina (5-1, 2.34 ERA, .978 WHIP, .9 k/9 — all of which are better than Randy “I’m getting too old for this sort of thing” Johnson) is the best starting pitcher on the Yankees staff.” The n is creeping up there, and the really consistently good performers will be once again able to take advantage of the unique features of the regular Major League Baseball season — its length, the number of games, the opportunity for results to have genuine statistical significance — to demonstrate how good they really are.

Ah, baseball. There’s no sport like it.

I could spend the rest of this post talking about in detail how the Yankee pitching staff is doing this year (short form: pretty poorly, except for Mussina and a couple of the late-inning relievers [not Rivera, who’s has a shaky start to the year, but he’ll get better], and the main reason for the Yankees’ current record of 17-11 is their sick, sick offense), but I won’t bore you with the results of my meticulous tracking of all of the Yankee pitchers this year unless you really really want me to. Instead, I want to talk about something a little, well, orthogonal to Major League Baseball: fantasy baseball. And in particular, I want to talk about the strange relationship between these two kinds of game.

I first want to debunk the notion that fantasy baseball is somehow less “real” than on-the-field, Major League Baseball. This kind of opposition is ordinarily signaled by the use of the term “real baseball” to designate the endeavor in which guys like Mike Mussina and Albert Pujols and hundreds of other players, coaches, managers, and front office staffs are engaged in. Yes, that endeavor is manifestly “real” — there are stadiums, contracts, telecasts, a specialized portion of the media, and live bodies trying to accomplish difficult tasks in a relatively constrained environment of rules and resources. Oh, yes, and win-loss records — everyone involved is trying to improve theirs. So sure, this is all “real” in the sense that if I personally were to close my eyes and ignore it, it would still be there, a manifest social fact, an experienced reality for millions of other observers. But exactly the same thing can be said about fantasy baseball, too. While it may not be physically as difficult to perform well in a fantasy competition, it’s still a competitive, rule-governed environment — just as much of a game as that thing that the Yankees and the 29 other Major League clubs do 162 times a year in the regular season is a game. No more and no less “real.”

I think that there are two major reasons why our conventional ways of talking oppose fantasy baseball to something called “real” baseball. The first is a kind of material/physical bias: in our ordinary forms of life, “real” often denotes physical. But this is (metaphysically) silly, unless one wants to go all the way and maintain that all thought and all consciousness is an illusion of some kind — or that there’s a non-social “reality” out there someplace of which all of our thoughts are mere representations. While this latter position may have some traction when we’re dealing with what Ian Hacking calls “invariant kinds” — trees, DNA, fissible nuclear material — it’s a much, much harder case to make when we are taking about “interactive kinds” which are only produced and sustained in and through social action. Baseball is clearly an interactive kind, since no one would ever claim that baseball was some sort of natural byproduct of human evolution (even the late, esteemed evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould — who should know — doesn’t go this far in praise of the greatest game ever invented by human beings). Hence: there’s no philosophical warrant for calling on-the-field baseball more “real” than fantasy baseball.

The second reason is a bit more plausible: fantasy baseball takes its input from what happens on baseball fields throughout the regular season, and because it’s derived from that former endeavor then it’s less “real.” And this is, on the surface, a little more plausible, because it is in fact how fantasy baseball is organized: fantasy players get Major League Baseball players on their fantasy teams (initially either through a draft, an auction, or some combination of the two; subsequently, through trades between fantasy players in the same league, or by adding and dropping players throughout the season), and how the fantasy player does depends on how the players on her or his fantasy team do in their on-the-field competitions. If the skills involved in on-the-field baseball involve hitting a round ball with a round bat, catching and throwing that ball with immense accuracy, and repeatedly pitching the ball over the 17-inch-wide space called “home plate” from 60 feet 6 inches away and consistently doing so in such a way that batters can’t hit the ball well, the skills involved in fantasy baseball involve knowing who is likely to perform well this year, correctly valuing players so that you don’t “overpay” for them, managing the number of innings that you get in your league, making deals to fill holes in your roster, and so on. And plausibly, these are skills appropriate to a secondary, less “real,” competitive endeavor.

But not so fast. For one thing, the skill-set required to play fantasy baseball is very similar to the skill-set required to put together a competitive on-the-field baseball team: you have to be able to reliably forecast how players are likely to perform, how much they’re worth, what the holes in your roster are and how to fill them, etc. So there’s at least a part of “real” baseball that looks suspiciously like fantasy baseball. Also, online baseball sites like The Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus provide reams of statistical information and analysis that is useful in both fantasy baseball and on-the-field baseball — and not a few general managers of Major League Baseball teams have talked openly about how they use that information to manage their the same way that a fantasy player uses it to manage her or his team. And it’s possible to go even further, like this guy did, and manage one’s fantasy team based on discussions with players that one has on one’s fantasy team and assessments of how they think they’re doing and even to urge field managers to deploy their players so as to improve one’s fantasy team’s statistics, which just deepens the interpenetration of the two games.

For the sake of terminological convenience and precision, I’ll designate the game of baseball as played by teams like the Yankees and players like Mike Mussina field baseball (organized, in their case, as Major League Baseball), and the game of baseball played by players like me and the other members of my fantasy baseball league (including my Dean, the beating of whom in the final standings is my proximate goal every year I play in this league — and I’ve always managed to come in ahead of him before now) fantasy baseball. Neither is any more or less “real” than the other, even though fantasy baseball takes its bearings from field baseball to a much greater extent than field baseball takes its bearings from fantasy baseball. Although even this is debatable — statistics like on-base percentage, slugging average, and the Defense Independent Pitching Statistic (DIPS) that tried to measure how well a pitcher is doing while controlling for how well the defense is playing behind him, all of which are making impact on how field baseball teams are composed and how field managers use their players, first came to prominence among fantasy players trying to figure out how to best calculate the value of players for their fantasy teams. Voros McCracken, inventor of DIPS, is a consultant for the Red Sox. Several of today’s general managers were avid fantasy baseball players before they became professionally involved with field baseball. So there is a flow of influence in the other direction, too: fantasy baseball is not purely a derivation or reflection, but exercises an impact.

But it’s a limited impact, nowhere near the impact exercised by that greatest of all fantasy enterprises: the stock market. I am not using “fantasy” here in the dismissive sense common to many Marxists that would oppose the “unreal” values exchanged in the market to the “real” values created by labor-power and expropriated by capitalists; instead, I am using “fantasy” in precisely the same technical sense as I was using it to describe fantasy baseball. The stock market takes information about how a corporation is doing and plugs that into a slightly different set of rules in order to value that corporation; the market valuation, in turn, affects how the corporation can borrow money, pay its executives, and so forth. Here we have a situation in which the fantasy game directly impacts the real one, and in some cases (such as when a corporation downsizes because of pressure from investors, and not simply because of its average marginal costs and profits) dominates it. It’s as if field baseball players going up for contract negotiations included, in addition to a record of their on-field performance, some information about how highly they were drafted in fantasy leagues — or in fact modified their on-field style of play so as to improve their fantasy baseball standing. (Like most professional sports, Major League Baseball has strict rules against this sort of thing, coming as it does dangerously close to gambling on baseball . . . and we all know what Major League Baseball thinks about that, don’t we, Pete Rose?).

So there’s no warrant for calling field baseball “real” and fantasy baseball “unreal.” Instead, there’s a complex relationship between the two games, and their interaction and interrelationship needs to be teased out very carefully. This is particularly the case if we take a page from Jean Baudrillard’s celebrated analyses of Disney World — particularly his point that one of the functions (whether intended or accidental I will strenuously refrain from speculating about) of Disney theme parks is to reinforce the notion that the world outside of them is “real,” because of course the theme park is only a “representation” of that “reality” — and suggest that, just perhaps, the existence of fantasy baseball helps to reinforce or reproduce the “reality” of Major League Baseball itself? Perhaps it is no accident that the renaissance of Major League Baseball in the 1990s and the popularization of fantasy baseball, borne on the wings of the InterNet and its power to provide real-time statistical information, went hand in hand? Perhaps, by playing fantasy baseball, all of us who do so are in an important way shoring up the game of field baseball?

At least, that’s what I tell myself when I take time out of my busy schedule to manage my fantasy team. John Lackey is pitching for me against Toronto today, and he’s only given up one hit through five innings at the time I’m writing this . . . I hope he strikes some more guys out, because that’s really what I need from him today. Maybe I should drop him a note.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.