PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Television

30 for 30: Silly Little Game

It's a documentary with a bit of attitude, and for that, as much as for the story it tells, Silly Little Game does justice to Rotisserie League Baseball.


30 for 30: Silly Little Game

Airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm ET
Cast: Dan Okrent, Lee Eisenberg, Valerie Salembier, Bruce McCall, Peter Gethers, Glen Waggoner
Network: ESPN
Director: Adam Kurland, Lucas Jansen
Air date: 2010-04-20
Website
Trailer
Amazon
It's like having sex for the first time. It wasn't exactly what I expected, but I'm coming back for more.

-- Gary Fleder

"I thought it was a diversion. I didn't know it was going to take over my life." So says Glen Waggoner, one of the first human beings on earth to play Rotisserie League Baseball. As he recalls, however, his first impression was more than a little wrong. Not only did the game take over his life, but it became an obsession for his fellow players as well. But, as they all appear to agree, it was a most excellent obsession to have.

As told by Silly Little Game, Rotisserie Baseball League was a fantasy made real enough, a means for grown men -- and, in its first seasons, one grown woman too -- to act out their most improbable and trivial desires, to restructure their lives, to communicate with one another. Premiering on 20 April as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen's documentary is by turns factual and nerdy, sensational and silly. It's an entertaining mishmash of not-quite-nostalgic talking heads, corny reenactments, and flights of delirious fancy, aware of the import of its subject but at the same time, as an opening epigraph confesses, "60% to 70%" fantasy in and of itself.

As such, it's a documentary with a bit of attitude, and for that, as much as for the story it tells, Silly Little Game does justice to the game. It's not nearly so convoluted or obsessive as the game, but it appreciates how convolutions and obsessions do their work, excite those who have them and drive their relationships.

The saga commences with testimony by self-described "serial obsessive" Dan Okrent, the man who invented Rotisserie way back in 1979. "It started out of desperation and psychosis, I think," he says, recalling the winter when he was just missing baseball so much he just had to come up with a way to bring it back. "It sort of came to me in a dream," he smiles, "like an opium dream." A reenactment shows a younger, smoother-faced sorta-Dan, his eyes lifted up. "The game as we knew it could be recreated from numbers!" As animated figures dance and gallivant, the dream is projected for the rest of us.

Err. Except that's not quite how the other founder Lee Eisenberg remembers it. "Dan has this sort of immaculate conception of a game called the Rotisserie League, just sprouting from his rib and boom! Thus the creation occurred." Lee has in mind a more collaborative process, one he doesn’t describe here. Suffice it to say the men possess and share varying memories. And thus that creation occurred.

Indeed, that creation is further elaborated by other cinematic tricks -- the reenacted men meet with their friends in New York's La Rotisserie Francais. Even as the Washington Post's Marc Potts rhapsodizes, "Those guys just sat down at that restaurant and came up with something fairly perfect, instantly fun and instantly recognizable, and instantly challenging," the film hints at troubles to come for this "instant" brilliance. As the men lick their lips and nod their heads, the camera focuses on a cook turning chickens in an oven behind them, bathed in hellish red light with flames a-leaping.

The film's antic mix of reverie and recollection is both fun and makes a point: documentaries can only deliver subjective truths, via witnesses' accounts and makers' filters. Here the first draft day is rendered aptly -- and wildly -- monumental, "a seismic moment in the history of baseball," pronounces the Wall Street Journal's Sam Walker. The men -- plus Valerie Salembier, at the time associate publisher of Ms. Magazine and an American League expert who learned National League stats in order to play -- appear seated round a table like the Constitutional Founders, complete with powdered wigs and waistcoats, bidding for players, making up dollar amounts out of thin air.

Now that they felt they could "possess" the game they so loved, the Rotisserie League players were also possessed. Initially working with low tech -- paper and daily newspaper stats -- they were thrilled with the coming of the fax machine, and eventually, Okrent says, he started working up daily numbers to deliver to the group. "It got much, much worse when I began to do daily stats and I did that simply out of personal obsession," he remembers. "It was awful." He comes to a full stop, then adjusts his own memory: "It wasn't awful. I loved it."

Everyone loved it, for the first years anyway. Silly Little Game traces the game's expansion, the many versions that popped up in offices and communities, expansions made possible by advancing technologies. "There wasn't a lot to do in 1980," points out sports journalist Bill Simmons. "There was like 11 channels, there was no internet porn, no online gambling. Basically, like, you read and played Atari." At the same time, Marilyn Johnson -- captioned "Rotisserie Wife" -- notes the game's essential nerdiness. "I mean, psychologically, it's a little pathetic, don’t you think?" she asks. "They think they own these people. It's a pretend game."

Maybe so, but, as the documentary simultaneously asserts and wonders, pretending can feel like being. Caught up in the game, not imagining the $4 billion dollar industry that was about to erupt from it, the Rotisserie Leaguers published a book and started talking up the game at parties (Peter Gethers recalls, "At a dinner party, it was fascinating to people and weirdly cool") and even on TV talk shows. It was fun and fantastic and, ultimately, small.

Today, Okrent says, he's fine with that. "We didn't set out to make money. We set out to have fun and we had fun." With the coming of the internet and corporate-minded organizers, the game changed. It became Fantasy Baseball (and Football and Basketball and Soccer, on ESPN and Yahoo and Fox and wherever else), and someone else is making tons of money. Someone else, though, doesn't have the memories that these guys have. Or seem to have.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.