April 5, 1996 in Sports

Rotisserie King To Make Last Trade: Hobby For Real Life

Robert Lipsyte New York Times
 

“For years, I’ve been known as the guy who invented Rotisserie League Baseball,” said the guy who invented Rotisserie League Baseball, Daniel Okrent. “I’ve loved the fame of it, but more and more, in pleasant social situations, people would come up to me and describe in numbing detail their team, and their last 50 trades.

“In the last few years, I’ve wanted to say, ‘I don’t care. Do you buttonhole Gutenberg and tell him about every book you’ve ever read?’ Wait a minute. Does that sound pretentious?”

This season, Okrent finally begins telling people he doesn’t care. While he will pay the $700 entrance fee for the 17th season of the Okrent Fenokees and mastermind Saturday’s draft, his 15-year-old son, John, will general manage the team through the season. They will split the $4,000 prize if the Fenokees win the pennant, which they never have (“Alexander Hamilton was never president,” snapped Okrent). And then, Okrent will retire from Rotisserie. He says.

In the world of fantasy sports - what is reality sports these days? - this is big news; think of Orville and Wilbur Wright grounding themselves or Alexander Graham Bell hanging up for good (the comparisons, delivered with sly, smart, charming, self-deprecating pretension, are Okrent’s).

Perhaps more than any person in our time, Okrent changed the perception of baseball. Actual play itself and then the traditional board games of field strategy were supplanted by a number-crunching alternate universe in which a paper league of paper teams was stocked with the names of real players plucked from real teams. The names were bought, sold and traded over the course of a season. Fantasy games and pennants were won based on the real performances of real players in the real world.

What is absorbing entertainment for thousands has a more complex impact on millions. The ascendant real-world notion of the athletic performer as purely a commodity was reinforced, even exalted. And it spread to other sports. There is fantasy cricket in the West Indies.

Okrent says he despises the ownership styles of George Steinbrenner and Jerry Reinsdorf and admires, for example, Harry Dalton, the former general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. Nevertheless, Rotisserie and its spawn, particularly the multimillion-dollar commercial computerized games (from which the founder and his partners have made no money) have helped make owners the true role models of sports, especially to players, who try to emulate them as hard-driving business heads.

Okrent is indulgent enough not to dismiss this theory out of hand, but his thoughts are elsewhere.

“There are two kinds of sports fans,” he said recently. “There’s the proprietary fan, the kind who just roots for the Mets, and those who see the larger picture, who really love the game itself. I love to watch games, any games, a Little League game, I don’t care who wins. And I think Rotisserie enhances this kind of love. We follow individual players. We look at other teams.

“It does say something about the marketing of major league baseball that the fantasy is more attractive than the reality, that it can bring you to a closer appreciation of players.”

As Okrent tells it, Rotisserie came to him out of the blue. He was on a lane. The idea was eagerly embraced by such fellow Manhattan publishing biz stars as Lee Eisenberg, Thomas Guinzberg, Valerie Salembier, Peter Gethers, Harry Stein and Glen Waggoner, some of whom were at a legendary lunch at the now defunct La Rotisserie Francaise. Like Okrent, they were fans who understood the magic of statistics, who could read a box score as a musician reads a score. The Manhattan-based national media picked up the game and made it a trend.

The defining moment came in the late ‘80s when Okrent, also founder of the now-defunct New England Monthly magazine, was taking questions after a speech on the region’s economic outlook (“My forecast was wrong, of course,” he says). A pinstriped banker rose to ask, “How much should I pay for Ryne Sandberg?” Everyone in the room understood and became attentive.

Okrent, who will be 48 on Tuesday, was raised in Detroit, a proprietary Tigers fan. At the University of Michigan, he was active in the antiwar demonstrations of the Students for a Democratic Society, which he now dismisses as “post-Spock acting out. … What did I know?” He calls himself an arch-moderate, which is confirmed by his recent resume - he is managing editor of Life magazine and often is recognized as the romantic in the red sweater in Ken Burns’ “Baseball.”

Over 16 seasons, Rotisserie had become, for Okrent, “an obligation … a bad marriage.” Did he outgrow it, did he become bored with the game or with his fellow owners?

Was he liberated by missing much of last season without missing Rotisserie?

Okrent was involved in the much-publicized and bruising “bake-off” for the editorship of Sports Illustrated. When he lost and returned to Life, some would say he got a life.

Will the founder ever return? At first he says no, then qualifies it in these times of comeback; perhaps only for a less demanding version of his vision.

“Anthony Lake, the national security adviser, plays in a league with no trades,” Okrent said. “Just a draft and then you sit back and watch the season play out. I like that. Call it Rotisserie Lite.”

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