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May 23, 2014
Fantasy Gets Impersonal
Tony Horwitz is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the author of six books. His most recent work is BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever. You can follow him on Twitter @TonyHorwitz and find the rest of his work at TonyHorwitz.com. Tony belongs to the Billy Almon League, whose commissioner is BP writer Mike Gianella.
Last week, two teams in my keeper league decided to dump, about a month earlier than usual. This set off a torrent of trades, and I was in the thick of it. Nerd orgy!
Feeding frenzies like this used to be my favorite part of fantasy. I’m blah at draft prep and auction strategy but tend to thrive in-season, through constant wheeling and dealing. Some owners fall in love with players or live in dread of making trades they’ll regret. Not me. I have no attachments (except the long-defunct Washington Senators) and turn over most of my roster every season. I used to be a Middle East correspondent, which may explain my love of haggling and the adrenaline rush I get from taking risks.
In recent years, however, my passion for the fantasy souk has waned considerably. Monday morning, after making last-second moves before our league’s transaction deadline at midnight Sunday, I woke feeling drained rather than pumped by the prospect of studying my remade roster. I realized I’d expended way too much time and blood pressure last week, compulsively checking email and feeling unwarranted annoyance at owners I’ve known for years and whose company I normally enjoy.
Chalk some of this down to the crankiness that comes with age. I’m 55 and have been in a fairly stable league for 17 of its 27 years. Like family, we’re all-too familiar with each other’s tendencies and ticks. Some owners have long memories, others short fuses. We’ve played through job losses, broken relationships, and grave illnesses. At some point, almost all of us have taken this game too seriously.
But I also wonder whether changes in technology have sapped the pleasure I once took from fantasy. For me, the game is a break from the daily grind, and from the loneliness of working at home on a laptop. I enjoy being one of the guys, dishing out trash talk and infield chatter. That’s fine on my summer softball team, where my woeful skills are part of the playful banter. But in the virtual realm that my fantasy league and most others now inhabit, words without personal contact can exacerbate minor disagreements and diminish the social grease that gets us through life.
That’s particularly true when it comes to swapping players. To me, trading isn’t just transactional; it’s a social act. I enjoy the give and take, the offers and counters, the coaxing and wheedling and groping for compromise. Call me old school, but when I make an offer I like to receive more than a smartphone message: “get back 2 u later.” In turn, my chitchat and thinking out loud about trades now seems to rankle some owners, who prefer 140 characters or less.
In person or on the phone, we can read faces or voices. That hmm or pause on the line means he’s softening! My laughing guffaw signals, in a jocular way, that another owner’s offer is risible. Those social cues are easily lost online. Words can seem barbed or brusque when they’re not meant that way. And typically, we’re not communicating at the same time, but rather answering messages that have been lingering in our inbox for hours. This isn’t true conversation; it’s communication by smoke signals.
The 24-hour cycle of online fantasy is also stressful. One of my league’s owners lives six time zones away from the rest of us. Others have jobs or lifestyles that lend to late-night communiqués. Last week, I feared that going to bed might mean missing an offer that would quickly evaporate or go elsewhere. No problem: to keep myself awake, I kept checking the “live scoring” function on our league’s site to keep me posted on how every West Coast hit or walk was changing the standings. Or I toggled over to the “projected standings” or “trade evaluator” functions, or checked updates from Rotowire. Once upon a time, this hobby was contained to certain predictable times, like the arrival of the morning box scores. Now we’re like lab rats, impatiently jabbing keys for fresh pellets of new information at all hours.
“Reply all” messages add to this round-the-clock anxiety. There have been times in our league when an owner has announced his intention to dump at 10 p.m., and his roster has then been looted within 12 hours. An owner who happened to be off-line missed out on the fire sale altogether. Most of us spend enough time on fantasy without worrying whether a child’s birthday party or a day at the beach will cost us the season.
It’s obviously too late to turn back the page, and few of us would want to. We all know and enjoy the convenience and efficiency that comes with new technology (including Skype, which another owner and I used to participate in this year’s auction). But last week, as I exchanged terse emails with a long-time owner, I recalled a negotiation we’d had in the mid-1990s. Matt is as deliberative as I am rash, so our bartering has always been difficult. It was a beautiful late-spring day, and I took the phone into a closet so my wife wouldn’t hear me haggling over imaginary rosters. Matt and I bickered and countered for 90 minutes and finally wore each other down, then made a deal we could both live with and parted on amicable terms.
Last week our Friday night message traffic went roughly as follows:
Tony: “Cain + Masterson for 1st pick and Nyjer”
I traded Cain elsewhere before Matt got back to me the next morning (as I checked my smartphone during a Little League game). It was all business, no hard feelings, but little that resembled human contact, either. Rather like playing online poker.
On the bright side, this abridged and impersonal communication may have useful application in other spheres. My fellow owners and I are occasionally fractious friends, sharing a hobby we love. But what if we were genuine foes who loathed being in the same room or on the same phone line? Imagine if the Israelis and Palestinians abandoned their fruitless summits and negotiated by text and tweet and email instead.
“We get E. Jerusalem U get rest of W. Bank.”
Come to think of it, there’s a whole new game to be played. Fantasy diplomacy. Can’t be worse than what we currently have.