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When fantasy baseball and real fandom collide

For an entirely fake construct, fantasy baseball can get pretty real.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

There’s nothing worse than someone talking about their fantasy team, of course. But, just for a second. I just need… PLEASE! I NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS FOR THREE MINUTES SO JUST FINISH READING TO THE END OF THE NEXT GRAF. PLEASE. Okay. Thank you.

So, my fantasy team won last week, and I have to tell you, it feels pretty great. For season after season, I made fun of Wilbo and Mark, the Brothers Macyk (and my best friends), for their sixteen (give or take three) yearly fantasy leagues in which they partake. But after just one week, I get it. Not so much the "spending hundreds of dollars a year to take hundreds more dollars from your friends" bit, but the spirit of arms-length competition, definitely. And if you get to pick a few Red Sox, like, let’s say Mookie (or as he’s now known in my house, "MOO-KAY!") Betts, even better.

That’s why fantasy works. And not just in the sense of it being a functioning system for separating people from their money legally in a situation that should probably be considered gambling on sports. But as a thing with real tangible emotional value that you can construct entire industries (and semi-beloved sitcoms) around.

In addition to the opportunity to prove to your friends you’re probably a better investor than them – though, all things being equal, "I bought in on the ground floor with Trevor Story" doesn’t exactly sound as good as "I’ve owned stock in Google since the IPO" – if done correctly, it can also give you real incentive to root for a player or team that is not your own. It provides a new and different way to not just appreciate baseball but how dumb your friends are. And it’s one that shouldn’t make you feel dirty or bad about it.

Now, there are, of course, exceptions when it comes to this expanded worldview of who it is or isn’t okay to root for. Picking Brett Gardner felt more reasonable than the prospect of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Texieria or Jacoby Iscarot. And if anyone in my league (okay, I’m sorry, I’ll stop talking about my roster at the end of this graf, I promise) is willing to take Pineda off my hands, I’m listening. But these kinds of things – where you draft for need less so than cosmic distaste of a specific group of people wearing a particular set of matching outfits – can be counter balanced emotionally with picks from your team (like Betts and Mr. Ortiz, who we’ll get to later).

Once you have your team, you get to live that double life we all long to. One tinged on the edges with a sense of danger – what happens if Pineda is pitching against the Sox in late September or Gardner is up at a crucial point in both my fantasy week and the Red Sox season? – that makes watching baseball feel less like watching sports and more like watching an early-2000s Diane Lane movie (in the best way possible). There’s something that feels so good about hating a team so bad, but needing their players to perform to the best of their ability despite them being the very worst.

And for the weak-willed, you can always pick up a player on the opposite ends of that spectrum. They can be someone you’ve loved long from a far, like a Madison Bumgarner. Or, you can choose a player for whom you have genuine and deep affection for, the kind of player who enters your life like a ship passing in the night, only to be taken away from you in favor of Kevin Youkilis moving to third and Carl Crawford showing up on your doorstep in a basket, like say, I don’t know, Adrian Beltre (I swear, I’m not talking about my team, per se.)But it’s really best when it’s a member (or members) of your real team helping you win games for your fake team. When Mookie and Papi did their business last week, it was a double dip of joy. For Mookie, it was a marker that last year was just the start of what could be a special career in Boston. For Papi, well, that should be obvious: if this is the end, going out with a bang and not a whimper is the best case scenario for everyone involved.

Though, because of the way our brains work, for at least this time of the year, it makes that end feel very near. With the entire world ahead of us, we can extrapolate out and create our own perceptions for what the season should be, as opposed to what it can or will be. This pulls us closer to the end of the year in our minds than we are during the dog days of summer. The danger you feel when having to root for the bad guys isn’t nearly as damaging as the danger you encounter when trying to juggle expectations for both sides of your baseball fandom: that which is real out of love, and that which is real out of commitment (financial or otherwise).

This can be exacerbated by the ubiquity of fantasy knowledge available not just at your finger tips, but pushed directly into your consciousness. Do I start Mookie today against Chris Sale or roll the dice and put Chrisitian Yelich in against Tommy McCantpitch is a question that is hard enough to answer with money on the line, before even contemplating notifications popping up on your phone to tell you how bad the mistake you made just was.

But, because -- outside of the money involved -- fantasy baseball is, well, a fantasy, it’s best to appreciate this time of year for the real baseball you are seeing. Getting too bogged down in the day-to-day machinations of what’s essentially a stock market simulation in stirrup socks can be a real existential bummer on a bunch of level, and can even hurt your fandom in the long run. Because, while appreciating Papi and Mookie for the great players they are, and not the great investments they could be is easy, that can’t be said for everyone.

Which is why I have few words for you, Sean Doolittle: Get your sh^t together, pal.