A couple of years ago, scientists decided to change the definition of what a planet is, and poor little Pluto was suddenly left out in the cold, no longer welcome to play in any solar system reindeer games. Kids across the country had to forget that their "Very Excellent Mothers" just served us nine pizzas, and instead were left hungry and upset over the need to learn a new mnemonic device. Pluto hadn't done anything wrong. It hadn't changed. It didn't suddenly decide to paint its moon a hideous shade of purple, thus ruining property values throughout the Milky Way. Scientists simply deemed, albeit somewhat arbitrarily, that Pluto no longer met the qualifications for being an official member of the planetary club.
Now let's take a look at fantasy baseball, where first CC Sabathia, then Rich Harden, and now Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte and Casey Blake have all joined the group of players who have not only changed teams as the result of a trade, but also changed leagues. For the vast majority of leagues out there who play with the entire baseball player talent pool as their universe, the deals involving these athletes had little to no effect on their individual team rosters, unless owners chose this opportunity to try to sell high or buy low given these players' new circumstances. However, for those playing in either an AL- or NL-only league, the impact of these interleague deals may have proved to be cataclysmic. Imagine the sheer joy of a last-place owner who has CC Sabathia fall into his lap! (Metaphorically of course, if we were talking literally, we'd likely be talking the agony of several broken bones.)
In most fantasy baseball leagues where the player pool comes exclusively from one of the two major leagues, the arrival of a new superstar brings with it enormous opportunity and most leagues of this variety have rules in place to determine which owners gets first dibs. Then there are letters like this one from our old friend Harry Himalayas. "I play in an AL-only league and had the first waiver claim. I wanted to sign Xavier Nady and submitted my claim, only to discover that Nady had gone to somebody else. When I asked the league manager what was going on, he said that since the other owner who put in a bid had lost the services to Casey Blake and that gave him a higher priority than me. What do you think about a ruling like that?"
Well, Harry, all leagues have -- whether it be through a free-agent acquisition budget, straight waiver claims or a best-of-three rock-paper-scissors competition -- some set of rules in place for the distribution of free agents throughout the year. If there's no exception in the rules made for this annual influx of new blood, then the rules should be applied the same way to both a defending Cy Young winner and a rookie getting the call to play for a week with the intention of his being sent right back down once his services as an injury fill-in are no longer needed. And really, there shouldn't be any reason for exceptions to be made to your free-agent acquisition method in the first place. The whole point of having a FAAB, or a waiver priority system, is to prevent all free-agent pickups from simply being a first-come, first-serve free-for-all. As the trade deadline approaches and interleague deals run rampant, the feeding frenzy is going to be especially corybantic. (Hey! Look who just got himself a new Thesaurus!) You shouldn't have special lotteries to circumvent a system that is supposed to level the playing field when it comes to roster movement.
But Harry's complaint brings up a different situation that is unique to AL- and NL-only leagues. What do you do once a player like Xavier Nady leaves the National League to join the Yankees? For an AL-only league, we've already stated our position that it should be business as usual and Nady becomes just one more name on the free agent list. But in a NL-only league, what is the proper course of action for an owner who currently has Nady in his lineup? Can he continue to play Nady in an NL-only league when he no longer fits into the designated player pool or does this owner have to cut Nady loose? Obviously, this is a decision that should have been made well in advance of a deal like this, but some newer leagues might not have thought about this particular scenario.
In the days before interleague play, I was staunchly against a player continuing to earn stats for his team when he was playing against a completely different set of players from anyone else. There was a certain mathematical symmetry to an NL-only league, where every home run that was hit also went against some pitcher's ERA. But teams now face completely different opponents anyway. Some pitchers get an advantage by taking the mound against several AL teams in NL parks, while other pitchers might be unlucky enough to draw nothing but DH-laden lineups in their slate of interleague play. The statistical universe is already out of balance, so there's no reason to argue that allowing a player to rack up stats in "the other league" is truly imbalanced and unfair.
I still, however, would endorse the concept of "losing a player" when he no longer meets the lone criterion for inclusion in your league's player pool: that he actually plays in the one league that makes up your player universe. Why? Well, because it encourages player movement and adds an element of excitement to this time of the year. If you're an owner in an NL-only league sitting there with Mark Teixeira or Brian Fuentes on your roster, or you're an AL owner with Manny Ramirez or George Sherrill and you hear all the trade rumors swirling, do you care? While you may have a preference as to what team they ultimately end up with, be it via a trade, or by staying where they are currently playing, the fact is that if there's no risk attached to a trade to the opposite league, then you're certainly not going to consider trading them away until you see where they end up. But if your league's rule is that a trade to the other league means you lose a player's services, then things have suddenly gotten interesting. Now you may want to take a chance on a deal. After all, getting something for Manny is better than getting nothing at all if he suddenly ends up accepting a deal to an NL team, and you're very likely to get a team at the bottom of the standings with nothing to lose to take a chance on Manny continuing to be Manny in Boston, at least until the end of 2008.
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.