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The Patron Saint of Nerdy Jewish Baseball Fans

By Jonathan Mahler
November 01, 2012 6:30 PM EDT
Jonathan Mahler
Jonathan Mahler

Baseball, which you may remember wrapped up its season this week, is the Chosen People’s Chosen Sport.

The mythology is familiar: Like two other great American institutions -- unions and public schools -- baseball helped countless turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants assimilate into the New World. “Don’t let your child grow up to be a stranger in his own country,” the advice columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward famously wrote in answer to the skeptical immigrant father of one Jewish boy who wanted to play baseball.

But there has always been another dimension to this relationship, an equally important explanation for the timeless Jewish romance with baseball. It is to be found in the perfect marriage of a sport that lends itself to fetishistic analysis and a people with a predilection for subjecting everything to fetishistic analysis.

Which brings me to Daniel Okrent, admired author, esteemed editor, the first public editor of the New York Times -- and inventor of fantasy baseball.

In 1979, Okrent was just another baseball fan looking for new ways to indulge his obsession. Why not, he thought, create an imaginary league in which he and a group of similarly inclined acquaintances would each serve as owner, general manager and manager of their own teams, drafting a roster of players to compete in eight statistical categories over the course of the upcoming season? He called it “Rotisserie baseball,” after the restaurant La Rotisserie Française, where he first proposed the idea to several friends.

Perfectly Conceived

The game of baseball required generations of fine-tuning: Before 1857, for example, the winning team was not the one that had scored more runs after nine innings, but the first to score 21 “aces.” Rotisserie baseball, by contrast, was almost perfectly conceived. The game Okrent conjured is identical to the one that millions of us play today, in the process transferring our loyalty from the Seattle Mariners or the Minnesota Twins to teams with names like “A Streetcar Named Cuddyer.” His formula became the blueprint for fantasy everything -- football, basketball, golf, hockey, soccer, surfing, even Fantasy Congress (categories include “legislative success” and “noteworthy news mentions”) and Fantasy Reality TV.

Baseball dorks have never been satisfied with the 162-game season. But fantasy is no mere dietary supplement in the spirit of Dice Baseball or Strat-O-Matic (which, as it happens, was also invented by a nerdy Jew, Hal Richman, the son of a Long Island insurance salesman). It’s a parallel universe of fandom.

You are no doubt familiar with the Baseball Writers Association of America, whose members loiter inside locker rooms, trolling for vapid quotes. Well, there’s also a Fantasy Sports Writers Association, whose members work from their basements, generating prodigious amounts of “expert analysis.”

Think of Okrent as a Jewish Hugh Hefner: Just swap out the crimson silk pajamas for a red Shetland sweater. He, too, unlocked the door to a secret world of pleasure for untold numbers of grown men and pubescent boys -- a place where it’s possible to feel like you have a personal stake in every game, every night, and your adolescent passion for baseball never fades. To extend the metaphor, fantasy sports have more or less followed the same trajectory as pornography: a guilty pleasure for a small group of devotees has blossomed into a multibillion- dollar Internet-based industry.

As Okrent’s lark grew into a cultural phenomenon, something strange happened. We became a nation of stat-crunching baseball fans -- a nation of Jewish baseball nerds. Turns out baseball didn’t have to be a means through which Jews got absorbed into the American mainstream, a way to avoid becoming strangers in their own country. They could experience the game on their own, bookish terms, and even establish its new cultural norms. Okrent didn’t just fulfill the fantasies of Jewish baseball geeks, he universalized the Jewish archetype of nerdy fandom.

Ecumenical Forces

In this, he was also helped by more ecumenical forces. While millions of fans were discovering fantasy, stat guru Bill James, not just a gentile but a night watchman at a pork and beans factory, was becoming a cult hero. Hit movies about endearingly stunted young men by directors such as Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips were making losers kind of cool. It’s no coincidence that one of the characters in Apatow’s 2007 film “Knocked Up” plays fantasy, or that Jonah Hill, a Jewish mainstay of Apatow’s films, played the geeky stat guy in the film version of “Moneyball.”

How has Okrent, baseball’s founding Jewish nerd, responded to the revolution he launched? Exactly as you might expect: with a lot of hand-wringing, a little angst and some genuine self- loathing.

In the grand tradition of the schlimazel, Okrent has made not a dime from his invention. During the game’s early days, he and a few other fantasy pioneers tried to leverage its creeping popularity by convening an annual convention in New York. They quickly abandoned the idea. It was just too much to take, being in a hall full of people so dorky that they not only played fantasy baseball, but were willing to pay, and in some cases even fly across the country, to meet the game’s architects.

Okrent has compared himself to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who invented the atomic bomb: “I mean, look what I’ve unleashed on the world.” Indeed. Fantasy sports, as anyone who has ever played them knows, are an epic time-suck. There is pleasure, but more often a lonely, pathetic pain in having your well-being tethered to a handful of guys on an imaginary team.

It’s a distinct form of suffering that Okrent has shared. More than three decades after presiding over fantasy baseball’s inaugural draft, he has never won his league.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. The opinions expressed are his own. This column is adapted from his essay in “Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame,” edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Mahler at jmahler11@bloomberg.net or @jonathanmahler on Twitter.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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