SCHMIDT: Not just a “Silly Little Game”

Most Americans dream of owning their own professional sports team, fully equipped with grizzled veterans, prepubescent rookies and one exceptionally talented superstar who is constantly trying to manipulate the coaching staff and renegotiate his contract. But let’s be honest, that’s never going to happen.

Luckily, fans have the next best thing: fantasy sports. It’s quickly becoming every man’s obsession and the bane of every girlfriend’s existence.

Fantasy sports is currently a billion dollar industry, and with more than 25 million people participating annually, it rivals the pay-per-view sales of boxing and mixed martial arts. ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” program — that’s 30 movies for 30 years — even dedicated one of its features to the masterminds behind fantasy baseball. “Silly Little Game” reveals how the dream of one man became a national fascination.

The origins of fantasy sports are probably more obscure than people realize.

In 1980, a media member named Dan Okrent created the concept for fantasy baseball on a plane. He claims the idea was birthed from desperation and psychosis. It was in the heart of winter and he missed baseball, so he did what any sane person would do: create an intricately complex sports league that took place not on a field, but on a pad of paper.

His concept was groundbreaking. Each person would draft a team of real life major leaguers based on a monetary auction system and keep a tally of their statistics as the season progressed, rewarding points along the way. The team with the most points won.

Okrent pitched the idea to a group of his baseball-loving buddies at their favorite lunch spot, La Rotisserie Francaise, and just like that, Rotisserie league baseball was born.

The first season in the history of fantasy baseball was extremely primitive. No one really had any idea what they were doing. Valerie Salembier, the league’s lone female, drafted players based on how their butts looked in their uniforms, the teams had names like the “Okrent Fenokees” and “Gethersburg Goners” and the owners were armed with nothing but pencils, calculators and lots of free time.

For the record, the Goners were crowned the champions and Okrent, the creator of the whole operation, finished a lowly seventh. The Goners were rewarded with what became something of legend in Okrent’s league: the Wiggy Cup and a YooHoo! chocolate milk shower. It was a black tie affair, clearly.

And from those humble origins of number crunching and silly names came the modern Internet version that has become a new national pastime. Fantasy sports has transformed the entire landscape of athletics. Fans no longer root for their favorite teams, just the players on their fantasy rosters. Box scores, once just page fillers, are now studied like the Torah. It’s not a hobby anymore. It’s an addiction.

Of course there are side effects, like insomnia, paranoia, depression and let’s not forget rage. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve broken over the years because of inadequate production from my teams. Finding out about Manny Ramirez’s 50-game suspension was a rough day for me and my neighbors in O’Donnell Hall last year.

But there’s also this wonderment that comes with crafting your own team from scratch, nurturing it, wheeling and dealing to make it stronger, then leading it to the promised land of fantasy glory. My basketball team, “#23 Forever,” took home the office league championship just last week. Not that anyone cares.

According to Okrent’s Law, “there is nothing more exciting than your own fantasy team, and nothing more boring than someone else’s.”

The point is, this fantasy sports thing is pretty darn sweet. It makes every fan a better fan. It makes real games even more real, by taking them out of the television and right into your living room. It’s something that everybody better get used to, because like P. Diddy, it ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Forget Christmas or your momma’s birthday, fantasy draft day is now the most important day of the year.