Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Utility of Fantasy

I’ve just started reading Fantasyland, a new book by Sam Walker about fantasy baseball -- the geeks who play it (hi), the real-life baseball executives who pay attention to it, and the impact on the real baseball players themselves (who are increasingly heckled or celebrated by angry or appreciative fantasy players who "own them"). Thirty pages in, it looks like a winner.

I mention it because I’m not sure whether or not Walker will make an argument that I’ve made for some time, and which I’m not sure I've heard outside the echo chamber of my brain. If he does, I’ll let you know.

First, though, a counterpoint for illustration. This week, Bill Simmons interviewed Malcolm Gladwell on ESPN’s web site, and here’s a portion of Gladwell’s response to a question about fantasy leagues:
...the great appeal of watching sports is that you have a commitment to a team, and the players become secondary players in that love affair. I fell for the Buffalo Bills when they had Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas and went to four Super Bowls, and I'm still in love with the Buffalo Bills even though not a single vestige of that original team remains; even though, in fact, the very thing that attracted me to the Bills in the first place -- that thrilling offense -- has completely disappeared. Sports team loyalty is really an extraordinary act of unconditional love. Suppose, for instance, that I love BMWs and have loved them all my life. There is a meaningful connection between the three series car I might be driving now and the 2002 I first drove 25 years ago -- not just in the feel of the cars and the engineering and the look, but also, I'm quite sure some of the same people helped to build both cars.

Sports teams demand the same loyalty from us. But where's the continuity? The uniforms change. The stadiums change. The owners and players and coaches and styles of play change. All that's constant is some ineffable and fragile sense of the team as a meaningful psychological entity. Now fantasy leagues come along and allow us to junk that concept as well. So I worry. Of course, it's conceivable I've over-thought this. I've been known to do that in the past.
I believe Gladwell has it wrong here, though he gets a lot of other things right. (I think he’s a brilliant synthesizer and a helluva writer -- “Clarity” being a favorite prose style of mine -- though my hipper New York publishing friends began the backlash against him about three years ago, if memory serves. It's hard to keep track of the backlashes around here.)

Anyway, I don’t think fantasy leagues do any damage to the concept of a real-life team as a "meaningful psychological entity" that hadn't already been done by the sport itself. Rather, they allow us to counter the dissolution of that entity by building our own. It certainly wasn’t created for solely this reason, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that fantasy baseball grew -- and then exploded -- in popularity as free agency ran rampant over the sport.

In short, I think a certain type of person, faced with the very real breakdowns of continuity in “real life" that Gladwell describes, creates “His Team” to compensate. The average devoted baseball fan is concerned with tradition and loyalty, qualities still available in the game itself, but certainly eroding. This way, the fantasy way, he drafts the players, he has a vested interest in how they perform, he’s competing against other people he probably knows in some semi-intimate way, and in many leagues -- speaking of continuity -- he can even keep a few players on his squad from year to year. He can watch the games with a strong sense of loyalty, just a new brand of it. He can decide who to trade, and when. He can, in essence, create a small world to control against the backdrop of a larger world that can't, or won't, control itself. Take that, fickle reality.



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