It is 82� and sunny outside the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the type of brilliant March afternoon that feels like a misplaced slice of summer. Inside, however, it is 73�, and the night is, as always, just beginning. On the casino floor lights flash, slot machines emit their electronic gurgle and women in too-short skirts serve beers to men who beg for an ace or a face card, goddammit. Off to one side, a long hallway leads away to a maze of enormous, high-ceilinged conference rooms, all sparsely furnished, windowless and disorienting in their sameness. In one of these rooms, under a hazy fluorescent sun, 19 men sit at a U-shaped table and mull the value of New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi.
These men are not scouts, nor are they general managers or even, for that matter, Yankees fans. Rather, each has traveled to Vegas and paid $1,250 for the opportunity to draft a team in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. As a result, they care deeply about Giambi—or at least the statistics he produces—because he could carry a fantasy team. He could also be an injury-riddled bust. So the men consult their laptops and frown deep frowns and grunt little grunts and generally look as if they all ate the same bad fish for lunch. So intense is their manner that one might mistake them for a secretive high-level government committee, if, that is, members of such a committee drank Bud Light and wore T-shirts that read MY KIDS THINK I'M AN ATM.
Some of the men arrived a few days early in order to attend the National Fantasy Trade Association's annual meeting, a two-day affair that featured everything from seminars on legal and technological issues to "expert" panels stocked with the Warren Buffetts of the business, men like Brandon (the Gamer) Funston of Yahoo and Eric Karabell of ESPN.com. Others came in expressly for the draft or the accompanying auction, among them the rock singer Meat Loaf, whose name is Michael Aday but who prefers to be called Meat (a moniker that is printed in red letters on the back of his baseball cap). So far, his National League-only team in the auction game, the Bats Out of Hell—named for his breakthrough 1977 album—includes Bobby Abreu, Luis Castillo and, much to Meat's later chagrin, Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, who will start the season on the disabled list.
Meat Loaf is a fantasy addict. He has been playing since the '80s and once participated in 56 football leagues in a single season. For this draft he drove in the night before from Los Angeles, not long after arriving on a plane from New Zealand, where he had been on tour. "Em amazed I made it," he says during a break in the auction. "I'm pretty crispy right now. But I was determined not to miss this draft."
Meat Loaf is not alone in his devotion. In the ranks of the famous, team owners also include star USA Softball pitcher Jennie Finch, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, former Miami Dolphins and current CBS analyst Dan Marino, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, and actors Vince Vaughn and Michael J. Fox (page 86). Once considered the province of Bill James-worshipping stat geeks, fantasy sports have become big, big business. More than 15 million people play, and fantasy has grown into a billion-dollar industry (opposite). Perhaps the only business more ready-made for the Internet is pornography. Though they all had their genesis in a game started by a group of New York literary types 25 years ago, fantasy sports have evolved—some might say metastasized—into a nationwide obsession. There is fantasy NASCAR and fantasy bass fishing (page 87), fantasy golf and fantasy cricket and even, absurdly, fantasy professional wrestling. Fantasy football, the most popular game, threatens to co-opt coverage of the NFL, as evidenced by the fact that there are now three times as many fantasy football preview magazines as actual football preview magazines.
As a result many fans now have a stronger allegiance to individual players than to teams, unless, of course, it is allegiance to their fantasy teams. For those teams they will spend hours checking box scores and scanning the waiver wire, not to mention ignoring less-pressing concerns such as, say, their jobs. For those who don't play but have to endure the obsessive yammering of those who do—the Rotisserie widows and friends who have no vested interest in who starts at tight end for the Colts—it can seem like the tech boom of the late '90s all over again, when nothing was quite as boring as hearing about someone else's portfolio.
Eventually, though, the tech boom went away; fantasy sports, like video games, are here to stay.
To understand the phenomenon of fantasy sports, one must first understand their origin, and for that one must talk to Dan Okrent, the founding father of Rotisserie baseball. Okrent is built like a catcher, short-legged and low to the ground. He has thick gray hair, a thatch of which is constantly on the verge of falling into his eyes, and a habit of sitting cross-legged as he talks. He is 56 years old and exceedingly accomplished in his field, having written for and edited at several of the world's most prominent magazines (including SI) and written four books. In his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan there is a framed drawing of him and his wife by cartoonist Jules Feiffer titled "Dance to Okrents." He is currently the first public editor of The New York Times.
Despite his resume Okrent is still known to many as the Guy Who Invented Rotisserie Baseball. He estimates that he has been interviewed on the subject more than 200 times in the past 25 years and in 2000 was one of the first two inductees (along with fellow Rotisserie pioneer Glenn Waggoner) into the Fantasy Sports Hall of Fame. Though Okrent holds out hope that his new job at the Times may alter his legacy—"Some people say that's why I .took this job, so it would change my epitaph," he says, only half joking—he is of two minds about his creation. "I feel the way J. Robert Oppen-heimer felt after having invented the atomic bomb: If I'd only known this plague that I've visited upon the world...," he says with a laugh. "Though on one level I'm proud, certainly, to have created something that millions of people want to do. It's a contribution of sorts."
It was while flying from Hartford to Austin in the fall of 1979 that Okrent first came up with the idea. At the time he was working as a consultant for Texas Monthly magazine, a job for which he commuted every four weeks from his home in Wor-thington, Mass. His passion, however, was baseball. Before saber-metrics, Theo Epstein and the box-score orgy that is the USA Today sports section, Okrent was crunching numbers, editing a tome called the Ultimate Baseball Book and espousing the merits of an obscure Kansas writer named Bill James (who at the time self-published a mimeographed pamphlet on baseball tendencies). Since taking a class at Michigan a decade earlier with a professor named Bob Sklar—who had played a crude prototype of Rotisserie ball—Okrent had also been puzzling over how to create a game that realistically mimicked a baseball season.