Daniel Okrent could be referred to as the Eli Whitney of the
20th century. Whitney didn’t receive the compensation he
deserved for the cotton gin, one of the most important inventions
in American history. Okrent didn’t see a penny for a creation
used by millions, Rotisserie Baseball. With a group of friends that
would “shoot shit about baseball” with him, Okrent
started a game inside of a game that is on its way to becoming as
much a part of baseball as Cracker Jacks and “Take me out to
the ballgame.” The Michigan Daily alum was recently appointed
as the Public Editor of the New York Times in the wake of the
Jayson Blair scandal. The Daily caught up with him to talk about
the start of Rotisserie and Okrent’s love for the national
pasttime.

Laura Wong

 

The Michigan Daily: How did the whole thing get started
back at the La Rotisserie Francaise restaurant in 1980?

Daniel Okrent: It was first a group of pals with which I
had a monthly baseball lunch at that restaurant, La Rotisserie
Francaise (in Manhattan). And we would just shoot shit about
baseball. And when I came up with the idea, I proposed it to a
different group of people — I was kind of living in three
different places at the time. And these were some colleagues in a
company I was involved in in Texas and they thought I was nuts. So
I got back to New York and proposed it to my Rotisserie Francaise
pals and out of that group, only two said “yes.” But
then we each thought of some other people and thought of some other
people and a month or two later, we had a lunch at a bar called
P.J. Moriarty’s, which was really the first time we all got
together. So I guess it should have been called “Moriarty
League Baseball.”

TMD: I heard La Rotisserie Francaise has since shut down.
How come it wasn’t able to take advantage of being the home
of fantasy baseball to stay open?

DO: Well it did for a few years, but it wasn’t a
very good restaurant.

TMD: When did you guys realize what you guys had, and
when did it take off?

DO: Well we began to get a sense of it right in that
first year because a couple of us were involved in the media, and
other people in the media knew about us and there was an article
about us in The New York Times and there was a segment about us on
the CBS Morning News. And the following year, ’81, during the
baseball strike, a lot of baseball writers had nothing to write
about. They had heard about our league. In fact, many press boxes
had similar leagues by the beginning of the ’81 season. So in
’81, they wrote about it a lot during the strike, just kind
of filling space. So by ’82 it had really begun to
spread.

TMD: I heard you had to pull all the stats out of things
like the Sporting News. Did you enjoy having to do that kind of
stuff? How much time did that take?

DO: It took a lot, but we must have enjoyed it or we
wouldn’t have done it, those of us who are obsessive counters
of things found it more than tolerable.

TMD: Did you ever think to trademark it as intellectual
property?

DO: It is trademarked, it has been for more than 20
years. But you don’t need the trademark to do it, you
don’t need anything. You don’t need to buy any pieces
or subscribe to any service. All you need is the box scores. So
once the rules were out, and that got out pretty quickly, then
anyone could do it. I still think it would make a very good case
study at a Business School class: How would you make money off this
if you had thought of this in 1980?

TMD: Another thing we were wondering is your thoughts on
the other form of fantasy baseball: head-to-head?

DO: I’ve never played that, so I’m sure
it’s swell. I just don’t have any direct experience
with it.

TMD: I also read you stopped playing Rotisserie Baseball
at one point, and I was wondering what brought that about.

DO: I stopped in ’95 and then started again playing
a much more, kind of, simplified version. So I was off for six or
seven years, just because it became too much a part of my life
— not the playing of it — but just being annoyed by
people who wanted to talk to me about it all the time …

TMD: Like this?

DO: Well, this is nothing compared to (when) people used
to follow me into bathrooms. People are so obsessive about it. And
I just got fed up because I was doing other things. So I dropped it and it was funny — and the
’96 season started, and I would open up the paper in the
morning — and I used to remember that before 1980 (the
beginning of Rotisserie baseball), I had always spent a half hour
with the box scores in the morning. But I had no memory of what it
was I was looking for because, in the intervening years, I was just
looking to see how my players had done. So I was like looking at
something in a foreign language. It took me a while to get back
into the swing of reading box scores as a fan.

TMD: Are you turned off by baseball these days, with
big-market teams dominating and the steroid rumors and things like
that?

DO: I’m not crazy about those things, but the game
is still the game. The Red Sox took three out of four from the
Yankees (recently); the Tigers have a winning record. It still has
the capacity to surprise me. So, though I wish that there were more
balance between the teams and I wish the players were not all
pumped on whatever substance they are pumped up on, I can still
love the game.

TMD: I hear you are a huge Cubs fan. How did that happen
when you grew up in Detroit?

DO: When our kids were little, we were living near a
Double-A Cubs franchise in western Massachusetts. And we would take
our kids to the games, and my son became absolutely printed on the
Cubs. They had Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace — it
was an incredible minor league team. And he became so crazy about
them that, in time, I became crazy about them, too. I inherited it
from my son.

TMD: Do you root for the Tigers or are you solely a Cubs
fan?

DO: Ehh, I’m a Cubs fan more. When I check the
American League standings, I look for the Tigers. Could I tell you
10 members of the team today? No.

TMD: Obviously you were a huge baseball fan before you
started Rotisserie. What is it about baseball that makes it such a
great sport?

DO: I think that when you are watching baseball, you are
a participant. In other words, you are not overwhelmed by the
physical size of the athletes. You aren’t removed from them
because they are wearing enormous layers of armor or protection.
They look like normal people out there. And the physical way it is
spread over a large area, if you are sitting 20 rows back from the
third baseline, you are as close to the third baseman as the first
baseman, and a lot closer to him than the right fielder is. So I
think there is kind of this almost implicit feel of participation.
I also like the pace of it. People either like the pace of baseball
or they hate the pace of baseball. I think the gaps in time enable
you to get in the game if you want to get into it — to
anticipate what is coming next.

TMD: What about your Rotisserie team right now —
how are they doing?

DO: It is a much more simplified league, we call it AARP
Rotisserie or Rotisserie Light or Slow Pitch. It takes much less
time. My team sucks, I had a lousy draft.

TMD: What is the key to doing well in fantasy baseball
from the creator of the game?

DO: Well the creator himself has never won, so I will
leave it at that. You are asking the wrong guy.

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