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Rotisserie Hits Big Leagues as a Favorite Pastime

March 22, 1987|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — I can remember a spring, not too many years ago, when a prolonged New York newspaper strike threatened to extend itself into the baseball season, and my obsessively fannish mind tried to contemplate the desert prospect of a summer without daily box scores. The thought was impossible; it was like trying to think about infinity.

--Roger Angell in "The Summer Game"

These are critical weeks for Brad Bunshaft. Opening Day is just around the corner and there's so much to do, yet so little time.

Bunshaft's pitching is solid, but he needs power, home-run hitters to be precise. He has his eye on Sid Bream of the Pirates and perhaps--if the draft is kind to him--Eric Davis, the Reds' new superstar.

He is spending two hours a night poring over his stat sheets, compiling list after list of his options. How much to spend on Bream? Can he really hope to get Davis?

"This is the most important time," Bunshaft said. "Every night you check to see what ballplayers are going to possibly make the team out of the minor leagues. You check to see which ballplayers have seen their better days."

Bunshaft, of San Diego, does not own a major league baseball team. But he is part of a grand national exercise in self-delusion that heats up each year when the Boys of Summer return to spring training and the boys of America follow their every move.

It is called Rotisserie League Baseball, a rapidly growing fad that allows otherwise normal dentists, grocery clerks and computer programmers to convince themselves that they actually own and operate major league baseball clubs. For the next six months, they will pay, cut, trade and agonize over "their" players in an obsessive desire to bring home a pennant.

"We all grow up and we all determine that we're not going to be big-league ballplayers," says New Yorker Glen Waggoner, a writer for Esquire magazine and one of the founders of "Rotiss," as it is known to its enthusiasts. "Few of us have $20 million, $30 million or $40 million to spend, so we do the next best thing--we start our own league. This way, we don't have to spend $25 million and we don't have to wear checked pants."

Named for the Manhattan restaurant at which its dozen founders cooked up the game during the winter of 1980, Rotisserie has caught on with baseball addicts and box score junkies across the nation, including an untold number in San Diego County.

Members of about 500 leagues, which average 10 teams apiece, have paid $50 to register with the Rotisserie League Baseball Assn. run by Waggoner. But they represent just a small fraction of the number of people actually playing the game, he said.

A 1984 guide to the game sold 51,000 copies, and a second book published a few weeks ago has 25,000 copies in print. Companies now offer number-crunching services and tout sheets for Rotisserie players (though personal computers have enhanced players' ability to compile stats themselves).

"There's no question that it's taking off," Waggoner said. "We have been startled by the success, amazed that there are so many crazy people out there. We thought we had a comfortable, quiet group of insane baseball fans. It turns out there are many more."

League rules vary slightly, but most games work like this: Owners pay money or scrip for the right to a franchise, and in a marathon auction, bid portions of that sum for 23 real major-league players from teams in either the American or National leagues.

The founders in New York spend $260 each on their teams, and their book offers suggested prices for every major-league player based on that sum. Yankee outfielder Rickey Henderson, the most valuable offensive player in Rotisserie, is worth $50. Steve Jeltz, the Phillies' pitiful shortstop, is worth $1. Owners must draft a certain number of players at each of the nine baseball positions, so they choose one less than the standard major-league roster.

Throughout the regular baseball season, they track players in four offensive categories--home runs, runs batted in, batting average and stolen bases--and four pitching categories--earned run average, wins, saves and a ratio of hits plus walks to innings pitched.

After the regular season ends, the top team in each category receives 10 points, with nine going to the second-place team and on down to one point for the last-place team. The owner with the best point total wins the pennant and half the money contributed. Second-, third- and fourth-place teams divide smaller shares of the pot, which grows during the season because of fees paid to make trades and replace injured players.

Obviously, a detailed knowledge of players' strengths and weaknesses--as measured by baseball's litany of arcane statistics--is mandatory for success in the league. As a result, it attracts a collection of people--almost all of them men--obsessed with baseball and its minutiae.

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