The League of Alternative Baseball Reality, more commonly known as LABR, came into being in 1994. It is universally considered the first “expert” league (some bristle at the idea of “expert” leagues, so I’ll use the term “analyst” going forward). Other analyst leagues have been created since that time, most notably Tout Wars, but also include CBS and Yahoo’s Friends & Family.
“Home” leagues predate expert leagues by at least 14 years, with the founding of the original Rotisserie Baseball League in 1980. I am in one of these home leagues that predates LABR. The Billy Almon Brown Graduate league was founded in 1987 by a group of Brown University students who named the league after Bill Almon because he is the only player from Brown since 1941 to play in the majors. If WAR had existed in 1987, it might be the Bump Hadley Brown Graduate or Fred Tenney Brown Graduate league instead, which both sound cooler.
I am not one of the founding members. I joined the league in 1996.
As often happens in home leagues, the membership has changed dramatically since its inception. Only two of the original members remain. The league had a Boston/Washington DC flavor for a few years, then gradually became a Philadelphia-based league after most of the founding members left.
I have also been in a few home leagues that weren’t very good and/or did not survive. In some cases, the main reason leagues don’t make it is because the adolescents and young adults who played fantasy baseball do not have the spare time or choose to use what spare time they have more wisely. But the most common reason I have seen leagues fail is because the league’s rules don’t work.
It is easy enough in 2017 to sign up with a website like CBS or ESPN and use their rules template with little or no tinkering. However, if you view fantasy baseball as more than merely a casual hobby (and if you are reading this, you most likely do), it is vital not only to have a basic template for rules but to also have a constitution that will ensure the long-term survival of your league.
The two most common sources of friction I have seen over the years come in the form of keepers and trades.
If you play in a redraft league, this is irrelevant. But if you play in a league where you can keep even one player, there will be different opinions about how your league should be structured. This includes but is not limited to:
· Quantity of keepers. Do you want to be able to keep most of your players, some, or only a few?
· Amount of time you can keep players. You can keep players forever in dynasty leagues, while some leagues only allow for you to keep players for a year or two.
· Contracts. If you use an auction format, the salary of your keepers could vary. Some leagues increase the salary of a player every year while others permit teams to give out “contracts” after a player is on your team for two or three years.
· Minor leaguers. In non-dynasty leagues, there are different opinions about how long you should be able to keep a minor leaguer. Some leagues don’t even have farm systems, while others do not start the “clock” on a player until he is in the majors.
A fair deal is in the eye of the beholder. There almost always will be some form of grousing, often in the form of “I would have made a better offer,” or “that trade is too imbalanced.” The underlying, often unspoken nature of these complaints has less to do how fair the trade was and more to do with the types of trades completed.
In a keeper league, the biggest source of contention is how liberal do you want present-for-future trading to be. There is a delicate balance between having a league where anything goes versus having a set of rules that is so restrictive that no one can even make a fair trade. Rules I have seen implemented in keeper leagues include:
· In-season salary caps—Prohibiting teams from exceeding a salary ceiling can limit bail trades without eliminating them
· Penalties for bottom feeders—Draft picks, auction money, or freezes can all be used as disincentives to limit teams from giving too much to a contender.
· Trade deadline—Most leagues have an in-season trade deadline. The earlier the deadline, the less likely it is a late trade will decide a league.
· Vetoes—a mechanism to allow a majority or super-majority of league managers to overturn a trade.
Trading is healthy, and the more trades there are the better it is for a league. However, having a late July or mid-August trade deadline makes sense. Like many fantasy analysts, I strongly oppose vetoes. Unlike those analysts, I do believe you should have a mechanism in place just in case someone does try to collude. My suggestion is a minimum of three league members to challenge a trade, a very low limit on the number of challenges someone can make in a year, and a super-majority to overturn a trade. If there are 12 managers in a league, eight votes out of 10 will suffice.
You can have the most ironclad rules in the world but still be unable to anticipate every contingency. This happened in one of the LABR leagues this past weekend.
Steve Gardner of USA Today wrote about it here. He and Eric Karabell of ESPN are locked in a nail-biter for first in LABR NL. Everyone else is essentially out of the race. However, the trade deadline wasn’t until Sept. 4. Gardner and Karabell had the opportunity to make trades with a non-contender. Both declined.
There is no rule against a 10th-place team trading with a second-place team in LABR. Nor is there a penalty for finishing below a certain point total, like there is in Tout Wars, where you can lose some FAAB the following season. But Gardner and Karabell both decided that it would be better to simply play the season out with their rosters as is, not including any FAAB acquisitions.
Should there be a rule in LABR so that there is an earlier trade deadline? I believe so. But in the absence of such a rule, Gardner and Karabell both decided not to make a trade that would lead to bitterness at the end of the season. You can have all the rules you want, but a league will survive and thrive primarily if most of the league members have mutual respect.
I had a similar experience in my home league years ago. I caught a team making an improper transaction and called around the league (yes, this was before email) to overturn the move. The response was universally against me.
“Tom made a mistake… He didn’t try to cheat… I’ve been friends with him for eight years… I am not going to punish him for what I believe was an error in judgment.”
I was taken aback but realized that while winning was important, winning by any means necessary isn’t. It’s a highly competitive game. It is also fantasy baseball. Winning is fun. It isn’t fun if you do it by finding a loophole that detracts from the fun you and everyone else are having.
Your league is important. But maybe the league championship is the friends that you make along the way.
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