30 for 30: Silly Little Game

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.

RATING 7 / 10