A new season of humiliation begins

Was it just trash talk at my fantasy baseball draft? Or the sound of evolution in reverse?

For millions across the continent, a new season of baseball means a new season of fantasy baseball—a game invented in the 1980s when Americans came to the shocking realization that beer alone was no longer enough to make their national pastime watchable.

Fantasy baseball is an awesome game of skill that isn’t at all stupid and for losers, no matter what most ladies who are my wife say. Rather, it’s a terrific way for today’s modern man to prove his superiority over other men without resorting to such antiquated pursuits as “fighting to the death” or “actually getting up.”

For the uninitiated, here’s how it works: a dozen or so enthusiasts come together to conduct a “draft” of major league baseball players, whose real-life performance in various statistical categories is measured over the course of the season. You want position players who’ll hit home runs and steal bases. You want pitchers who’ll win games and strike out batters. It is these stats that determine which “fantasy team” emerges victorious. (Spoiler alert: not mine.)

In the weeks leading up to the draft, a typical participant devotes dozens of hours to reading reports from spring training and rating players by position. Then, if he’s anything like me, he ignores all that to impulsively pick some little-known Cuban teenager about whom someone said something semi-positive on the radio during the cab ride to the draft. Three days later, like clockwork, this can’t-miss prospect will be sent to the minor leagues or revealed to have only one arm. It’s the circle of fantasy baseball strife.

This past Sunday, the league to which I belong—which includes a number of journalists, and was originally run out of the now-defunct National Press Club—got together in the private room of an Ottawa eatery. The draft lasted six hours. The onion rings were delicious. The beer tab was approximately $1,037. If you listened closely during the fourth round of the draft, as the evening began its descent into profanity and flatulence, you could actually hear human evolution being reversed.

I had only returned recently to the league after a sabbatical of almost a decade—lured back by the prospect of a new time-waster to replace such superficial, brain-melting pursuits as playing online poker and having children.

Much had changed since I last fielded a team. Back in the day, we had to make do with our league’s commissioner preparing weekly reports on a dot matrix printer. But last year, through the miracle of the Internet, I was for the first time in my life able to regret drafting Boston’s David Ortiz in real time. Thank you, Al Gore.

The Web has truly revolutionized the game. You can now monitor your players’ performances as they happen, which opens up whole new ways of despising millionaire athletes for their shortcomings and human failings. Indeed, in a mercenary era in which players routinely sign $100-million contracts, there is a mild satisfaction in “owning” a roster of major league players and casually deciding their fantasy fates. Pick it up, A-Rod, or you’re on the trading block. Dance, puppet, DANCE! (On the other hand, every time I draft a fantasy team I leave grateful that I don’t ever have to make a critical decision that affects anyone’s life. It’s my turn to pick? Again?? PANIC!! Believe me: you don’t not want to rely on me to drive the bus in Speed.)

For all the changes to the game, the core of fantasy baseball’s appeal remains the same after 30 years: the coming together of a dozen or so guys for the purpose of referring to one another as idiots. You just don’t get that anywhere else in the world other than pickup hockey and most workplaces.

A few faces had changed in our group, but not many. Pretty much everyone still occupied their narrow role: the perennial loser, the hard-luck chump, Mr. Profane Outburst, the guy who picks only players who have already been picked and the guy who thinks the hunchbacked 43-year-old shortstop in the knee brace and girdle is due for a comeback. (Full disclosure: I may be three of these people.) Draft night’s trash-talking, the lifeblood of fantasy baseball, now continues in email during the season. Curiously, the misery of losing is made more enjoyable by having my faced rubbed in it. And not just by my competitors.

Last year, I used my first pick to draft a shortstop, Jose Reyes. Heading into the season, Reyes was highly valued because he had proved himself capable of hitting for a high average, knocking in runs and stealing bases. During 2009, alas, he would prove himself capable only of missing most of the entire season with an ouchie on his leg.

One morning, I came down to breakfast to find the sports section opened to the headline, “Reyes out another four to six weeks.” It had been placed there by my seven-year-old son, who sat staring into his Mini-Wheats, convulsing with laughter. Fantasy baseball: bringing males closer together through mockery and derision since 1980.

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