WASHINGTON — When Bo Jackson was released by the Kansas City Royals last month after suffering a career-threatening hip injury, a large group of peculiarly crazed sports fans was plunged into mourning.
They weren't members of the Royals fan club. Rather, the tens of thousands whose day was ruined by the "Bo Goes" headlines were his other "owners": the budding George Steinbrenners who are participants in Rotisserie, or fantasy, baseball leagues.
They were counting on Bo for 20-plus home runs, 30-plus stolen bases, and 80-plus runs batted in during the 1991 baseball season -- all numbers that would have been a glittering addition to their teams' performances in the statistics-based baseball leagues.
Over the past few years, Rotisserie baseball -- named, as legend has it, after a now-defunct restaurant in New York where it was invented over a long lunch by a dozen advertising and publishing executives -- has become something of a phenomenon.
Dubbed "The Greatest Game for Baseball Fans Since Baseball" by its originators, Rotisserie League Baseball and its assorted fantasy derivatives are played by somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million addicts.
Each one, fancying himself or herself a better judge of baseball talent than any major-league owner or general manager, drafts a simulated team of real-life pitchers and hitters at the beginning of the baseball season. The owners then wheel and deal for the rest of the summer -- trading and signing players as free agents, coping with injuries and juggling minor leaguers -- in the hope of compiling the best record in their league in several statistical categories based on the players' on-field performance. The winner usually gets a small amount of money from the other owners.
Publishers have found a bonanza printing books and magazines filled with statistics and analysis to help Rotisserie fanatics pick and draft their teams. And a sizable industry has sprung up to provide computerized statistical services and advice to Rotisserie players and to sell them computer software so they can run their leagues and project player performance -- unless they decide to tap one of several "900" toll phone numbers or newsletters for help.
Rotisserie baseball has even expanded into the computer world. One of the most interesting and increasingly popular forms of fantasy baseball is a computerized version run by Compuserve, the computer bulletin-board service. The Compuserve Information Service's Fantasy Baseball section allows groups of owners to draft and manage teams without ever meeting -- communicating entirely by computers and telephone lines.
However it's played, Rotisserie or fantasy baseball probably can take partial credit for the surge in baseball's popularity over the past few years. It causes casual fans to become rabid readers of morning box scores, obsessed with the performances of backup infielders on the Seattle Mariners or obscure relief pitchers for the San Diego Padres -- not to mention promising young minor-leaguers in Medicine Hat, Canada; Modesto, Calif.; and Macon, Ga.
"Baseball is fun again," says Mark London, a Washington attorney and Rotisserie player, "especially last year, when I was with all these knuckleheads who thought they knew what they were doing and I came in second."
"It's made a hobby an addiction," says Geoffrey Precourt, a New York advertising executive and longtime baseball fan who has owned as many as four Rotisserie teams at one time. "The financial risks are minimal, and the rewards of being a child again are incalculable."
There are countless variants of fantasy baseball, and the game has spread into other sports as well -- football, basketball and even golf. But the basic game, as outlined -- and even trademarked -- by the founding Rotisserie League Baseball Association in New York, goes something like this:
At the beginning of the season (and it's not yet too late to start), a group of "owners" -- 10 in the National League version of the game, 12 in the American League -- gather to choose players to follow for the next six months. They hold a usually raucous auction with a team salary cap equal to $260 -- many leagues divide this number by 10, while others simply use it as an imaginary gauge -- and put together teams of 23 players each, nine pitchers and 14 hitters. Prices vary by player talent: Figure $50 and up for Oakland Athletics superstar Rickey Henderson, a buck for Orioles backup catcher Bob Melvin.
Trading generally begins within minutes of the end of the auction, and "owners" spend the season combing the free-agent list and major-league farm systems for quality players to replace those who have been injured or sent down to the minor leagues in real life.
In the basic version, standings are based on players' cumulative real-life performance in eight statistical categories: batting average, homers, RBI and stolen bases for hitters; for pitchers, wins, saves, earned-run average and a ratio of hits plus walks divided by innings pitched.