Last night, I caught “Silly Little Game,” the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary about the origin of Rotisserie League baseball / the fantasy sports industry. I’ve also been reading Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract on the Kindle and watching Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary on Netflix — which happens to feature (among many other notables) Daniel Okrent, who invented Rotisserie Baseball along with his other media-writer baseball junkie friends in New York.
So, okay, big deal: it’s April, and I’m geeking out about baseball. What else is new? Really, though, what all this baseball bingeing is making me do is think about GAMES — how we play them, all the levels at which we interact with them, and especially how they’re invented and go on to take a life of their own.
Some of the best parts of James’s book and Burns’s documentary are about the very early years of baseball. You might think we don’t know very much about baseball at all in the nineteenth century, but we actually know a ton. We’re even able to reconstruct individual players’ statistics going back practically to the Civil War.
And every difference between early baseball and the game today which you might point to that seems huge — fielders didn’t use gloves? Batters got to tell pitchers where they wanted a pitch? Baserunners would run into the outfield and across the middle of the infield to avoid tags? — doesn’t change that baseball 150 years ago looked almost exactly like the game you probably played in a yard or park or the middle of a street with your friends and brothers and sisters. The differences seem weird only because baseball is so unchanged.
Once the game is there — in its basic shape, its speciation — it’s there.
Another paradox: once the game is good enough that it can’t be killed, that means it’s too good to be controlled either.
This is what happened with rotisserie baseball — Okrent et al came up with the basic idea of the thing at their meetings at the Rotisserie Française restaurant pretty much as it exists now, but then it metastasized into dozens and hundreds of leagues, each offering slightly different rules, and then into football. Any control the original inventors tried to exert over the thing just led to people ditching the name “rotisserie” and calling it “fantasy.” And now these totally virtual, second-order games do billions of dollars of business every year.
Fantasy sports shows that all games, too — and maybe especially baseball — can be read closely or distantly. Close-reading a game like baseball — watching players play, or playing yourself — gives you the experiential feel of the game, its textures, its nuances, the color of the grass, the smell of the chalk. Everything that doesn’t translate into a rule book or a box score.
Even with a game as structured as chess, there’s still that reality of sitting at a table, competing against another player who’s sitting across from you — your mind and will against theirs, where the state of the pieces on the board is just a momentary expression of that fact.
On the other hand, distant reading offers you a completely different perspective on a game. You can deconstruct it, formalize it, break it into pieces and recombine it. That’s Moneyball. That’s text-mining. It’s the telescope, not the magnifying glass.
Can any game be looked at this way? I kind of think it can.
Last idea. I would love to be able to invent a game. Something as conceptually simple and detailed and fun as baseball, or rotisserie baseball, or Diplomacy, or even the weird balloon volleyball game my sister made up when we were kids.
I don’t know how I would do it. But if I could, I know I’d want to do it with the people in this room.