April 3 was not a good day for local baseball fans. On that day Pedro Guerrero, the Dodgers' star left fielder, ruptured a tendon in his left knee, causing fans throughout Southern California to bemoan his misfortune. But J. R. Williams probably reacted more strongly than most fans to the injury, which will keep Guerrero idle at least until July.
"I was really upset," the 23-year-old computer operator recalled later. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it.
Contract for $7 a Year
"I hate to see any player get hurt," Williams added, but his concern was not entirely selfless. Williams owns the "J. R. Ewings" of the Golden State League of Rotisserie Baseball Clubs; Guerrero, who hit 33 home runs last year and batted .320 for the Dodgers, was also the Ewings' star. On April 1, Williams had signed Guerrero to one of the richest contracts in league history: $7 a year for three years.
Confused? You've never heard of Rotisserie Baseball or the Golden State League, let alone the J. R. Ewings? Don't worry. Except in the hearts and minds of J. R. Williams and 10 friends, the Ewings exist only on paper.
Thousands of Fans
But how this league, and hundreds like it, exist in the minds of owners! Indeed, Rotisserie League Baseball (named after a Manhattan restaurant at which the first known league was conceived in January, 1980) has attracted thousands of baseball fans, causing some to lose sleep worrying about their players, others to run up large phone bills, and many--heresy among baseball fans--to root against the home team.
The object of such devotion, also known as "ghost" or "fantasy" baseball, is on its surface a disarmingly simple game. It has no board, no dice, no cards. It requires only imagination--and an incredibly detailed knowledge of baseball.
While rules vary somewhat from league to league (often being altered at winter meetings by "club officials,") basically here is how it goes: Soon after baseball season begins, about 10 "owners" gather to select real players from major league teams. Each chooses 22 or 23 players, including eight pitchers, at auction or through a draft. As in major league baseball, the challenge is to evaluate players and assemble a balanced team.
Throughout the six-monthlong baseball season, owners trade, cut, and move players, measuring their success by the actual statistics of their players. In October, leagues use eight statistical categories, such as home runs (5 points in a typical league) and pitching victories (30 points for a starting pitcher, 20 for a reliever), to determine the best team. The top three split the money collected from the player auction or from entry fees. One local league, for example, charges $60 per team to enter and pays $350 to the top team, $150 to second place and $100 to third.
(The concept is not confined to baseball, and a handful of leagues play a similar game with pro football, using only offensive players. In one, the "Hollywood Football League," owners chip in $500 apiece.)
If J. R. Williams' reaction to Pedro Guerrero's injury seems extreme, in context it is not at all so.
- Last summer, mononucleosis and hepatitis forced Matthew Irmas, owner of Matt's Fat Bats in the Westwood Rotisserie League, to miss three months of work. But Irmas, 29, remained an active owner. "For three months I was completely consumed by baseball," the Marina del Rey resident remembers. "I would wake up at 3:30 in the morning waiting for the paper to come."
A fellow owner avoided that problem by subscribing to a computer data base that provides detailed baseball results. Now he can find out how his players did minutes after a game ends.
Penny Pincher League
- Donna Turner, 51, a banking consultant, owns the DT's in the Penny Pincher League. The Torrance resident says her long-distance phone bill doubled last summer because she was calling major league teams for information.
Turner isn't unique. According to Toby Zwikel, assistant publicity director for the Dodgers, the team received a number of calls from Rotisserie players asking about Guerrero. Zwikel says his office gets "too many" such calls: "They are a pain for us. We're here 14 hours a day and more during the season. To answer those questions is just one more thing we have to do."
"Being a baseball fan is one thing," Donna Turner explains, "but to really let your fantasies go in a league is another. You get the 'owners' syndrome--you really think these players are yours. Your mind runs away."
- Rotisserie leagues have made dedicated Dodger fans reconsider their loyalties. "You never watch a baseball game the same way again," says Donald Drooker, 40, of Canoga Park, whose team, Donald's Ducks, competes in the Bowling League of Rotisserie Baseball (a group of bowling industry managers and executives). "You could be a lifelong Dodger fan, but if you go to the stadium and one of your pitchers is pitching against the Dodgers, you root against the Dodgers."