Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spring Fever

In the spring a young fan's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of. . .fantasy baseball? You bet it does. Here in central New York state, where the only thing worse than the weather is the climate and where snow fell yesterday, the only way we know it's almost baseball season is by looking at the calendar. My calendar tells me that today is the first big day of the new season: draft day in our big fantasy league. The draft is just a few hours away, and many of us have been preparing for weeks. This is a serious league in which the bragging rights mean more than the prize money. Of the 16 managers, all but two are current or former employees of the Hall of Fame, mostly researchers and curators who can tell you not only that C.C. Sabathia's first name is Carsten but also that Kid Elberfeld's first name was Norman. We wish we could have had John Montgomery Ward on a fantasy team, and hope we don't wind up with Daryle Ward. The cry of "when is the draft?" was heard here around the second week of November. It has been a long winter. Many of us are in other leagues with different combinations of the same people, but tonight's draft is for the only league that really matters to us. There's a waiting list to get into this league the Cooperstown League. I worked at the HOF for three years before a spot came open for me.

The first fantasy league I played in was almost 20 years ago and was modeled after the original Rotisserie League. We auctioned off the players with a $25 bankroll per team and bidding in 25-cent increments. I resisted the temptation to overpay early on, and after other managers ran out of money, I was able to pick up the likes of Kirby Puckett for a quarter. That was the good news. The bad news was that there were no roster changes during the season. The team you drafted was it, no matter what. One player I really wanted was Nick Esasky, who was coming off a 30-HR, 108-RBI season with the Red Sox. The day after I drafted him, he was diagnosed with vertigo, and his career vanished along with my pennant chances.

There was a long stretch during the 1990s when I avoided fantasy leagues because of its inherent evil: it perverts your rooting interests. What are you supposed to do when your fantasy-team pitcher faces your favorite team? Suppose the bases are loaded and your fantasy third baseman comes up to bat against your pitcher? Without the fantasy element, it's easy to root for your favorite team's player to hit a grand slam. With fantasy, it's a psychological trauma, not to mention a philosophical dilemma. Multiply this dilemma by the 180 days of a baseball season, and it can eat at you if you take it seriously. For a long time, I felt it was simpler just to root for my favorite teams without any complications. Let other people obsess over saves and WHIP and team stolen bases, I thought. I just want my damn team to win.

This will be my third season in this league, and though I do feel the pangs of conflicting rooting interests, I find that there is a benefit that outweighs that anxiety. Fantasy baseball forces me to pay very close attention to everything that is happening in professional baseball. Since I make my living from baseball, this can only be a good thing. Over the years, I had gotten into the habit of following my own team and a scattering of favorite players around the rest of the league. The majority of major leaguers flew beneath my radar. Today, on the other hand, I find myself contemplating the prospects of J.R. Towles, whose career in the majors consists of 40 at-bats last September for the Astros. Towles hit .375 with a dozen RBI in that brief audition, including a team-record eight RBI in one game. Will he be available in the 15th round of tonight's draft, I wonder? Will someone else pounce on him earlier? Will he be taken before Geovany Soto, another promising young catcher who excelled after a late-season call-up by the Cubs last year? I think I'd be happy going into the season with either one of these guys as my catcher, a position which was a nightmare for me last year. But the Astros and Cubs both have veteran catchers who might take a lot of playing time away from the youngsters, especially if they struggle early. Just don't let me get stuck with Ramon Hernandez again. . .unless of course he has the kind of season he had in 2006, before I drafted him.

Ten years ago I wouldn't have noticed Soto and Towles in September, and I certainly wouldn't have wiled away the winter thinking about them and other players who might be available in the last ten rounds of a 23-player draft. We'll be drafting 368 players tonight, and that's a lot of players to research and form opinions about, but we do it willingly if not joyfully. One of our managers, Freddy Berowski, has compiled a thick notebook full of color-coded evaluations of every player in every category, which he is using to project the round in which every player will be taken. Last year, he froze during the tenth round of the draft and picked a player at a position he had already filled, so he doesn't want to make any mistakes this year. I've printed out just a few statistical tables and have a couple of sheets from a legal pad on which I've listed players I'm willing to have on my team. For instance, I refuse to utilize any Yankees or Dodgers. If I had the first pick in this year's draft, I would not take Alex Rodriguez. Nope, no "Mr. Sportsmanship" on my teams.

That won't be a problem, since I'm drafting 11th this year, not one of the better spots. In my first year in the Cooperstown League, I got the first pick, took Albert Pujols, and finished second. Last year, with the second overall pick, I took Jose Reyes, and I won the league. Drafting 11th is going to be a big challenge. I'm hoping to get Johan Santana or Jake Peavy in that spot. I built last year's champions on a strong starting rotation: Sabathia, Aaron Harang, Carlos Zambrano, and John Maine were the starters I drafted. I traded Zambrano after his dugout fistfight, and got Fausto Carmona in return, so that worked out well. I plan to take three starting pitchers in my first six picks this year, and will be very happy to wind up with Peavy, Harang, and Maine.

Still, as everyone in the Cooperstown League has discovered the hard way, the key category is Holds. When I finally got the invitation to join the league, I lobbied, pleaded, and argued for the elimination of holds as one of the six pitching categories. It's the most worthless "stat" ever created. If a reliever enters with a lead (in a "save situation"), retires at least one batter, and leaves with his team still leading, he gets a hold, no matter what else happens. So I can enter with a 7-4 lead, retire one batter, walk the next five batters in a row, and get yanked by my angry manager, but I can trudge back to the dugout and that torrent of boos from the home fans who hate me for leaving with a 7-6 lead and the bases loaded, knowing that I at least recorded a hold which my agent can use as ammunition the next time I go to arbitration. The next reliever comes in, gives up a bloop hit that knocks in a couple of runs, and he gets the blown save even though I was mostly responsible for trashing the lead. And here's the best part: I'm the losing pitcher. I can get a hold (supposedly a positive stat) and the loss (the worst state) for the same outing! If that isn't ridiculous, tell me what is. One other travesty of the hold rules is that only pitchers on the team with the lead can get them. If I come in with my team trailing by a run, pitch three shutout innings to keep my team in the game, I get squat on my resume. Yeah, that makes sense.

Well, I harassed all the Cooperstown League poobahs about dumping the hold, and I may even have gotten them to vote on it, but the hold remained. Hold this, I was told. Doing well was the best revenge, however, and I've gotten mine by leading the league in holds in both seasons. As I told them last season when I earned the bragging rights, once I locked up holds everything else just fell into place. So I'm setting my sights on the likes of Hideki Okajima, Rafael Betancourt, and Heath Bell, guys I wouldn't have recognized a decade ago if their names had appeared in skywriting above Doubleday Field. They are all solid relievers, and even though I scoff at one of their stats, it's good that fantasy baseball helps point me toward players whose talent contributes a lot to their teams' success.

There's much more to say about fantasy baseball, and I'll get to all of that, but right now the draft is less than three hours away, and I must prepare some more. What, oh what, am I going to do if Josh Hamilton is taken before I can sneak him past the wolves? Decisions, decisions!

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