It’s that time of year: time for the fantasy scribes to put together their annual trading columns. More so than with auctioning, drafting or player analysis, trading is a difficult topic because there is so much variability from league to league and even from fantasy manager to fantasy manager. What works in my 12-team AL-only keeper league probably will not work in your 15-team mixed redraft league.
One constant that does exist across leagues is that you will have to interact with other people. “To write prescriptions is easy, but to come to an understanding with people is hard.” Franz Kafka wrote in A Country Doctor. Kafka died 56 years before Daniel Okrent’s fantasy baseball league had its initial auction at La Rotisserie Francaise in Manhattan in 1980, so we may never know what Kafka would have thought of fantasy baseball, but I suspect that he would have found the frustration with the difficulty of trading extremely relatable.
While Kafka did not write any books about baseball—fantasy or otherwise—a look at his writings reveals there are many valuable takeaways his work offers that can help you win your fantasy baseball league. Below is an admittedly cursory review of Kafka’s work and how you can apply it to the winning your fantasy league.
An Imperial Message
The Plot: A man waits for a message but never gets it.
How It Applies to Fantasy Baseball: We’ve all been there, am I right? The email you send with an exciting four-for-four trade offer that will fix your pitching and his offense that never gets a response. The trade offer that you send through the league’s website that is rejected without comment. The direct message on Twitter that is met with prolonged silence. No matter how often or how hard we try, our message seldom gets through. Your offer might be as “powerful” and “tireless” as the messenger himself, but your potential trading partner is “the royal capital city…. piled high and full of sediment.”
The Solution: There are other fish in the sea, or in this case kingdoms in the world. Try another trading partner instead and don’t waste your time with this person, who is too hung up on a prolonged metaphor to ever make a deal.
The Plot: A man turns into a bug.
How It Applies to Fantasy Baseball: Clearly, the story of a man turning into an insect is not meant to be taken literally. Here, Kafka was talking about the insecurities we all feel when proposing a trade to our league mates. What if my offer isn’t good enough? What if I’m not good enough? We all die a little inside when our trade offer is rejected or – worse – the players we covet are traded to another team while we struggle to stand upright because we have turned into an invertebrate. It is hardly a coincidence that Gregor Samsa is a salesperson. We try to think of fantasy baseball as a fun little game, but like Alec Baldwin’s Blake in Glengary Glen Ross we understand we must Always Be Closing…or at the very least always looking for closers in waiting.
The Solution: You got me stumped on this one. I’ve felt bad about my fantasy teams in the past but never so bad that I felt like an insect. Perhaps there are larger issues at work for you to iron out that go beyond fantasy baseball.
The Plot: A man has difficulties navigating the legal system.
How It Applies to Fantasy Baseball: All too frequently, we fantasy experts focus on our trading partners and our team’s needs as the most important components to successful trading. But knowing your league’s rules is important as well. Whether it is Joseph K attempting to defend himself against a crime the judicial system won’t even explain to him or the fantasy manager trying to figure out two hours before his league’s trade deadline if it is permitted to trade future draft picks, who hasn’t been in this situation? If I have said it once I have said it a thousand times: know your rules! On the other hand, Joseph K tried and tried to get simple explanations of what crime he was charged with and the best method of defense and could not. If your commissioner is as obdurate as the legions of jerks Joseph K encounters in the trial, perhaps you are not the problem. There must be a balance between being a smart and knowledgeable fantasy owner and finding a system of rules and regulations that works for everyone in your league.
The Solution: Knowing your rules isn’t enough. Make sure that you and your league’s commissioner agree on how they will be applied. K’s work at the bank suffered because of his obsession over the trial. Don’t let your NL-only team suffer a similar fate. You don’t want to wind up like K and (looks up the ending of The Trial on Wikipedia because I haven’t read this story since college) … wait, THAT’S how The Trial ends?!?!? You definitely should find a better league if your commissioner is THAT strict.
A Hunger Artist
The Plot: Audiences used to like hunger artists. Now they no longer like hunger artists.
How It Applies to Fantasy Baseball: “Why doesn’t anyone like my trade offers?” is a common refrain in fantasy. But this complaint frequently doesn’t lead to introspection but rather to complaints about everyone else in your league. If the hunger artist had turned to another profession like, say, engineering then perhaps he would have managed to have a fulfilling life and could have practiced hunger artistry on the occasional weekend or at an annual retreat for amateur hunger artists. Likewise, if your repeated offers of Craig Kimbrel for Aaron Judge are not working out for you even though people in your league used to pay top dollars for closers, maybe it is time for a different approach.
The Solution: Pay attention to what everyone else is doing. In the marketplace of ideas, being an innovator does not always pay off. The Hunger Artist ends with the circus replacing the hunger artist with a panther, who audiences enjoy a great deal. Unless you want your fantasy league to replace you with a panther, you might want to consider readjusting your strategies so that you don’t fail to win your league or starve to death, which in a fantasy league means missing out on a delicious spread if your league holds its draft in a bar or restaurant.
The Plot: An immigrant has a series of wacky misadventures in America. Think The Hangover meets Vacation.
How It Applies to Fantasy Baseball: A lot of advice tells you to deal with others in good faith but let’s face it, so many trade offers are not only bad but deliberate and clumsy attempts to fleece you. Just like Robinson and Delamarche sell Karl’s suit and eat his food, so do jerks in your league try to trade you an injured hitter or a player who has been relegated to a platoon role without your knowledge. Not everyone will deal with you honestly or fairly, and while it is acceptable to begin your negotiations expecting your trading partner to behave with a modicum of human decency, it is quite possible that he will ultimately impress you into indentured servitude the way that Delamarche and Brumelda did to Karl or at a minimum force you into making a bad trade. Both are suboptimal outcomes.
The Solution: The easy way out would be to quit your league, but are you going to quit your league every time you face a dishonest negotiator or a thief who steals everything you own? You must learn to deal with these types of people eventually. Even if it is a matter of simply saying “no” you will find the self-esteem and confidence that standing up to a tough negotiator brings will help you and – just like Karl did – you’ll ultimately find your way to Oklahoma, which in fantasy baseball is a metaphor for winning your league, or at the very least finishing in the money.
Serious Kafka fans might be insulted or upset that I have reduced Kafka’s work to 1,250 words pertaining to fantasy baseball advice. To them, I would argue that it is you who are reducing Kafka to a narrow stereotype, and pigeonholing his work to themes of alienation, identity, and absurdism as they apply solely to his time. Get out of your ivory tower, come down to our level, and enjoy a beer and a hot dog to go along with your existentialist dread!
What is more Kafkaesque than getting in a room with 11 other people and spending hours bidding on the rights to players’ statistics that are as ephemeral as we are? The sun rises and sets on the deeds and actions of others as we watch from the sidelines, not participating in the game but pretending that we are, not changing anything in the world around us but joining in a Great Masquerade (not a Kafka title but it should be) that offers the illusion of accomplishment. And yet, how is this different than the illusion of life itself, and the widely held idea that we are making a difference in the world when truth be told most of life is despair but also with eating and sleeping? If we are lucky, our names are etched on a trophy our families scoff at that sits in a room in the corner of our houses that many call a “man cave”. The reality is that the cave is within us all, lurking in our hearts, capturing our minds, and possessing our souls. Kafka never played fantasy baseball, but he knew the struggle well. It is not merely a quest to get more points in 10 categories than every other team, but a battle within our very souls against a lifetime of despair and desolation as you watch your season slip away, another key injury rendering your offense as impotent as your typical Kafka character fighting impotently against the absurdities of modern life. Congratulations? I don’t think so.
Good luck this year.
1Not to be confused with “Amerika”, the 1987 ABC television miniseries starring Kris Kristofferson, Mariel Hemingway, Sam Neill, Robert Urich, and Lara Flynn Boyle. In this miniseries, the Soviet Union has taken over the United States without firing a shot, for reasons that escape me 30 years after this program aired. Kristofferson played a failed Presidential candidate who was imprisoned by the Russians but then released a decade into the Soviet takeover while Urich played a politician who goes along with the Soviets’ plans to dismantle the United States. This miniseries aired for 14 ½ hours over seven nights. I don’t have any fantasy baseball takeaways from this, I just thought I would point out this wackiness to my younger readers, who probably don’t know who Kris Kristofferson was, let alone a network television miniseries.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now