Playing by the rules: Creating a league constitution

Every year around this time, another set of brave souls decides to take the plunge. Whether it's because they've just discovered fantasy baseball and they're itching to jump in with both feet, or they're simply sick and tired of playing by somebody else's rules, they're starting a new league. And then the inevitable daunting prospect of writing down all those rules overwhelms them and they either bail on the whole idea, or they simply shirk their responsibilities and start playing without a constitution. Big mistake.

Having a written set of rules to refer to is essential to the success of even the most casual of fantasy leagues. It heads off the vast majority of disputes and cuts down on most of the grief, making the whole experience far more fun for the commish and owners alike.

What stops most people from creating a constitution? Many think they have to produce a document that would make Thomas Jefferson proud, or that they must produce page upon page of cleverly worded rules to cover every single possible situation that may arise during a fantasy season. Not so. All you need to do for your first season of play is answer a few simple questions.

Question 1: Why are you playing fantasy baseball?

Is the primary purpose of this league to have fun? Is it to keep in touch with some college buddies? Is it to give you and your co-workers something to talk about away from the office? Is it to try to win a lot of money? Why did you start this league? Give your league a name and a brief mission statement.

For example: "This is the Constitution of the Insert Name Here Fantasy Baseball League. This league exists in order to add an extra element of fun to the daily drudgery of working for Really Lousy Company, Inc." Congratulations. You've just written the first section of your league constitution.

Question 2: Who will be playing with you?

If you're thinking about starting a league, you probably have a few folks in mind to play with you. How many? Who are they? That will give you an idea of how many teams you will have in your league.

"The Insert Name Here FBL consists of 10 owners. For the 2008 season, these owners are Joe, Jim, Julie, Joanne et al."

Question 3: What makes up a roster?

Will your league be AL-only? NL-only? Will it be made up of players from both leagues? How many players will each team draft?

"Each team of The Insert Name Here FBL will have 25 players on its roster, coming from any team in Major League Baseball."

Question 4: How will you get that roster?

Do you pick names from a hat? Do you have a draft? Do you hold an auction? Do you keep the same players for life or do you plan on drafting from scratch each season?

"Every year, The Insert Name Here FBL will hold its annual draft. A draft order will be selected at random and each team in turn will select players until its roster is complete. At the start of the next season, all teams will draft again from scratch."

Question 5: How do we determine who wins?

This is the meat and potatoes of the document. Are you playing rotisserie style, head-to-head or points? What statistical categories are you going to use? Does the team have to start its entire roster, or is there a starting lineup (with or without a positional requirement) and a bench? This section could get complicated, but it can also be as simple as the following:

"Each team in The Insert Name Here FBL shall announce its starting lineup every Monday. A starting lineup consists of one catcher, one first baseman, one second baseman, one shortstop, one third baseman, three outfielders and five pitchers. This lineup shall be compared in the following eight categories: Batting Average, Home Runs, Runs Batted In and Stolen Bases for hitters; and Saves, ERA, Strikeouts and Wins for pitchers. If a team finishes first in a category, it gets 10 points. If it finishes last in a category it gets one point. The team with the most points at the end of the season wins."

Question 6: What kind of changes to the roster can be made once the draft is over?

Can teams make trades? If a player gets hurt, can he be replaced? Is there some sort of free-agent pool owners can choose from? If so, how? Is it first come, first served, or is there a weekly bid? This is the section where most of the controversies will arise, so it is important to be as specific as possible. If this is your first time as a league commissioner, you're bound to leave something out here, but that's OK. Part of building a league is building trust among your owners. A little conflict resolution can be a good thing, provided that your decisions never contradict what you've already written down here. Again, this section could grow to be pages long, but feel free to simply start with something simple:

"Teams in The Insert Name Here FBL can make any trade they want up until Aug. 1. After that time, no trades will be allowed. Teams may drop a player from their roster at any time, and replace him with any player who is not on another owner's team. This process is first come, first served. Any team wishing to do so must send an e-mail to the entire league, at which time, the move becomes official. Teams may send only 20 such e-mails during a season."

Question 7: What does the winner get?

The main reason to play fantasy baseball should be to win bragging rights over your fellow owners. Winning money should never be the main goal. Having said that, if your owners do embrace that basic philosophy, then there is nothing wrong with sweetening the pot a little bit. But be reasonable. If you're a bunch of college students, you shouldn't be playing for the same stakes as a bunch of big-shot attorneys. Keep it within your means. This will keep things fun and prevent people from taking the whole thing WAY TOO seriously.

"At the end of the season, The Insert Name Here FBL champion will be taken out to dinner by the rest of the owners in the league, at a restaurant of their choosing."

All done? Nice work. You now have laid the groundwork for your league's very first constitution. Show it to the people you were planning on inviting to join your league. Have them read it. Ask them if they have any questions. They most likely will. In our example, somebody may read it and wonder, "What happens if two teams tie in a category?" Whoops! It may be implied, but it's not really covered, is it? There's your first addition to the constitution.

Once everyone has had a look at the rules, and you've all signed off on them, you're ready for your league's first fantasy season. But your task is not yet over. In fact, a good commissioner knows that this task is never over. A league constitution will change over time as the league changes and new situations arise. The important thing is that these changes always come after discussion with and input from your fellow owners, and never in the middle of the season, unless the change is merely to provide clarification for an already existing rule.

If you follow this kind of approach, your league has a great chance of succeeding, even if the team you drafted ends up not being so lucky.

A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.