The Most Peppery Game Since the Hot Stove League? It's Rotisserie Baseball
"He hasn't shown much," whispers Lee Eisenberg, owner of the Eisenberg Furriers. "Terrible," agrees Dan Okrent, owner of the Okrent Fenokees. "Just terrible." Koos, who earns more than $300,000 a year as a starting pitcher with the Phils, will be lucky to get a $1 contract in the upcoming Rotisserie League draft.
That may not mean much to Koos, but for a growing legion of baseball fans—make that fanatics—it's significant. They are the obsessed "owners" of Rotisserie League (RL) baseball, the hottest craze to hit the national pastime since trading cards. RL baseball is a game that allows otherwise responsible adults to start their own "league," to "own" clubs, to trade "players" and in general to turn themselves into gibbering, baseball-obsessed 12-year-olds. There now are 55 authorized Rotisserie leagues and an untold number of ad hoc Rotissarians just warming up for midsummer madness.
"It's the dream we all have," says Okrent, 36, the RL's Beloved Founder, as his colleagues call him. "We all want to own a baseball club. You do not have to have $40 million and wear plaid pants for that."
Using an earlier, simpler version of the game as his prototype, Okrent invented Rotisserie baseball four years ago. (The name derives from La Rotisserie Française, a now-defunct French restaurant in Manhattan where the league's first meetings were held.) Okrent, editor of 1979's The Ultimate Baseball Book, invited his friends to join the league. The rest, as they say in the RL, is Rotissehistory.
The rules of the game: 10 owners put up $260 apiece to form a league. They hold a draft and bid competitively on real baseball players. (Mike Schmidt might go for $30; Kurt Bevacqua, $1. No owner can spend more than his $260.) As in real baseball, players can be traded, waived, disabled, reactivated, etc. Each imaginary team is ranked each week in four offensive and four pitching categories. (See box, p. 42.) The league standings depend on these statistics. At the end of the season the league throws itself an awards banquet, and the four highest-rated teams divide the prize money, which consists of all the owners' initial $260 investments. The RL's creators have put their knowledge in a recently published book, Rotisserie League Baseball (Bantam, $5.95).
Because of the near-constant wheeling and dealing in players as the season progresses, Rotisserie baseball has been likened to baseball cards for adults. But somehow the description doesn't do justice to the intensity of this game-within-a-game, as a visit with the RL's founders soon shows.
"We're laboratory cases," admits Okrent, who with his fellow owners in the original RL recently journeyed to Florida to scout the major leaguers during spring training. "To behave in such a juvenile fashion and yet to take it so seriously..." He shakes his head. "It's like being naked with people. You're showing them everything."
Okrent leans forward.
"What'll you give for Darryl Strawberry?" he asks Harry Stein, owner of the Stein Brenners, last year's RL champions.
"Dickie Thon, Lonnie Smith."
"Don't embarrass me," Okrent snaps.
"Thon, Tim Leary and Ron Darling," counters Stein. "I didn't come here to be insulted," says Okrent, his voice rising a couple of octaves into Beaver Cleaver territory.
Stein, 35, is a novelist and the former ethics columnist for Esquire magazine. When he joined the RL, he was ready for the midnight phone calls proposing trades; ready to pore over stats with the zealotry of a Talmudic scholar. However, he was wholly unprepared for the emotional roller coaster of team ownership.
In 1982 Stein traded Houston Astro shortstop Dickie Thon—who immediately caught fire. Stein became despondent. So despondent that Esquire's "Mr. Ethics"—who each month counseled his readers to bravely face up to their shortcomings—"made my wife, Priscilla, hide the papers from me." Knowing her husband would eventually learn how Thon was doing anyway, Priscilla started "to sneak out early each day to get a look at the box scores to find out what sort of day we were going to have."
If Stein is morbidly sensitive, Okrent is at the other extreme. "The things I've been through with Bob Horner," he sighs. In 1983 the Atlanta Braves' $1-million-per-year third baseman broke his wrist. In 1982 he hurt his elbow. "I paid $43 for Horner," fumes the Beloved Founder. "This bum keeps breaking bones. He can't even make it through the season in one piece. It's a personal act of aggression against me," confides Okrent. Are Horner's ills psychosomatic? "Extropsychosomatic. He does it to hurt me."
A paranoid fantasy perhaps, but fantasy Is a major component of Rotisserie baseball. Owners design logos, print T-shirts, bombard unsuspecting friends with newsletters about their illusory teams. Lee Eisenberg, 37, a magazine editor, completely crossed the illusion-reality demarcation line when he won the league championship in 1982. Eisenberg arrived at the awards banquet in a tuxedo with a beminked, rented chorus girl on either arm.
George Steinbrenner himself couldn't have done any better. In fact, one interesting aspect of Rotisserie baseball is that RL owners develop many of the same personality traits as their real-life counterparts. In terms of egomania, mudslinging and con artistry, "We're exactly the same," brags Okrent.
"Harry Stein is deeply sick," says the Beloved Founder.
"Okrent is beyond obsessed," says Stein. "Possibly crackpot."
One thing that they both agree on is Eisenberg. "A thief," says Okrent. "Utterly ruthless," says Stein.
"I've never dealt with such a dishonest group of men," deadpans Valerie Salembier, the 38-year-old advertising director for USA Today and the league's only female owner. "They're cheats, thieves, sexists...But I can't help myself, I love the game."
Take heart, Val. That love can be transmogrified into the noblest love of all—as Bob Sklar, 47, a film critic-historian and owner of the Sklar Gazers, found out. On the morning of the very first Rotisserie draft, Sklar was told by his girlfriend, "If you go to this meeting, don't call me again." As Sklar recalls, "I sat in stunned silence for the first two hours of bidding." The relationship was indeed kaput. But Sklar recovered, drafted wisely and, at the end of that largely celibate year, won second-place money. To the awards banquet he invited the woman who has since become his wife—and who owns a Rotisserie franchise in another league.
"Okay, Sklar fell in love and got married. But since then his teams have finished eighth, ninth and ninth," says Okrent, putting it all in perspective.
As for the Beloved Founder, he recently became editor and president of a new magazine, New England Monthly. Starting up a magazine is a high-risk, high-pressure, round-the-clock business, and Okrent is worried. "I'm not as prepared this season as I have been in seasons past," he mutters darkly. "I'm afraid that my job will do to me what marriage did to Bob Sklar."
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