Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Last Hurrah

About a year and a half ago, I wrote my first blog on this site. It was about the start of the new baseball--make that the new fantasy baseball season. Since then, I've managed to refrain from pretending that anybody else would care about my fantasy teams. But as my fling with fantasy baseball approaches its final weekend, I want to pause here to discuss some of the things that have made it so much fun and a few of the reasons why I'm giving it up.

The last few years I've been in several fantasy leagues, but the only one which really matters is the "big league," a 16-team Yahoo.com league whose managers are mostly current and former Hall of Fame comrades. It's highly competitive and would be even if money weren't involved. The fact that the winner can make a couple of hundred bucks just makes us try even harder. In three seasons, my Gabe Sox have finished second, first, and fourth (just out of the money--3rd place gets your money back), all of them by a point or half-point. The league is that close. As of yesterday, I'm in 3rd place, a half-point ahead of the 4th-place team. It would be satisfying to finish in the money one more time.

There are two great things about managing a fantasy team in a competitive league. One is that it keeps you in close touch with what is happening in the majors. You follow not only your players but all those prospective free agents and guys you might trade for. Is Adam LaRoche having his usual awful first two months? Maybe he can be acquired cheaply before he begins his usual second-half surge. Keep an eye on who's being used in which relief role. Holds, a worthless stat in reality, counts as much as home runs in our league. Find out who's being used when the team is ahead, and stay away from the relievers who aren't. Rookies coming up always draw a lot of attention, because fantasy managers know that it usually isn't the guys you draft who make the difference, but rather those mid-season call-ups who catch fire. Look at this year's fine crop of rookies in the National League; every one of them has made a difference, and none were drafted before the season started. So you're forced to pay close attention to all teams and players, more than you would if you weren't being paid to.

The other great thing is the education you get from running a team during the roller-coaster ride of a major league season. Choosing starting lineups, figuring out who might do the best against today's opponents, riding hot players, benching cold one, wheeling and dealing, contending with injuries and the disabled list, abandoning favorites who aren't producing, juggling the roster, and getting involved in the daily nitty-gritty of keeping your team at the top of the standings--it's all as close as we'll get to understanding how tough it is for the professionals.

This season, the Gabe Sox have had huge problems with injuries. Two of the first three hitters I drafted--Josh Hamilton and Carlos Delgado--spent the majority of the season sidelined. Delgado may never be heard from again, and I missed his run production. I picked up Todd Helton as a free-agent first baseman and he's had a pretty good season, though without the big run production Delgado would have provided. As it turned out, the infield has provided the bulk of my team's offense, led by Mark Reynolds, a big bargain as a 12th-round pick. In a league where strikeouts don't count against your team, Reynolds is a superstar, providing power and stolen bases. Up the middle, I've had two very solid performers, Dustin Pedroia (my 3rd-round draft choice) and Michael Young. Along with catcher Brandon Inge, they formed the nucleus of my offense, which has been one of the best in the league all year. Two outfielders also contributed a lot: Jayson Werth and Ichiro (though his runs scored and stolen bases haven't been what I expected).

My offense hasn't been a problem, but my pitching was horrible the first half of the season, especially my starters. Adam Wainwright has been a worthy ace all along, but Jon Lester and Ryan Dempster got lit up regularly until July. That trio was supposed to dominate the league, but midway through the season my team ERA was the fourth-worst in the league and I wasn't winning much either. So when Hamilton came off the DL, I traded him for Matt Cain. Though Cain stopped winning games and took a few poundings, overall he has pitched well for me, especially early on, and with Lester and Dempster pitching much better, my ERA and WHIP have climbed into the league's top half.

I never did find a satisfactory fifth starter this season. Drafted Randy Johnson but he was done after a few weeks. I tried a "starter du jour" rotation for awhile, isolating one free agent starter each day I thought most likely to pitch well and/or win, but they invariably got bombed. Later in the season I picked up Tommy Hunter of Texas, who gave me a few good starts before faltering and getting torched. Then he pitched a complete game as a free agent and I grabbed him again, just in time for him to get pounded for six runs by the Angels in his last start. Ouch!

The last two months have been the reverse of the season's first two months for the Gabe Sox. As my starting pitching came around and my team ERA dropped from 4.6 to 3.9, my offense disappeared. Inge banged up his knees and has been helpless at the plate. Reynolds hasn't recovered from a bout with the flu, and his production has tailed off. In July, I traded Werth for Joe Nathan, who arrived just in time (as part of a plan to get to the top of the league in saves) for my previous #2 closer, Chad Qualls, to bite the dust. So Nathan, who's been fine, has only kept my bullpen where it was with Qualls, in the middle of the pack. Michael Young's injury really hurt, as his production was steady in many categories. Even Ichiro missed a week down the stretch. I've had a few hitters--Jose Lopez, Felipe Lopez, and Cody Ross--fill in adequately but without doing anything special. So the offense has been a real struggle the last two months, fighting close battles in home runs, runs, and RBI, and eventually giving up on stolen bases.

Despite the injuries and the pitching woes, the Gabe Sox actually held first place for a few weeks midway through the season. In August things went sour, and with teams named Sonic Death Monkey and The Spider Monkeys taking over the top two spots in the standings, I felt the need for dramatic action. So I changed my team name to the Monkey Sox, reasoning that "you have to fight monkeys with monkeys." Within days, other managers had followed suit; the Haymakers and Frisco Discos became the Haymonkeys and the Frisco Monkeys, respectively. I've treaded water as the Monkey Sox, while the Haymonkeys are now just a half-point behind Sonic Death Monkey for 1st place. Yesterday, I changed back to the Gabe Sox. In my last hurrah, I'm going down fighting under my own name. You're done making a monkey out of me!

So there has been plenty of excitement mixed in with the frustration and the agonizing over personnel decisions (but at least you don't have to deal with agents). I've enjoyed being one of the few people to linger over the amazing accomplishment of Milwaukee reliever Mitch Stetter, who was picked up by the Gabe Sox the day before he launched a record-setting streak of 15 straight outs recorded by strikeouts. I've enjoyed following games on the computer in the evenings, visualizing how it will look in the box score if this or that Gabe Sox stalwart hits a home run next time up and occasionally having that very sequence of numbers appear on the screen when I check the box score again.

Then there are the negatives, including the perverse rooting interests it creates, so often conflicting with your real-baseball concerns. I'm a Reds fan and try to have at least a couple of them on my team (for the same reason that I refuse to have any Yankees or Dodgers on my teams). This season, the Gabe Sox backup catcher was Ramon Hernandez until he got hurt, and then I didn't have a Reds hitter on my team, only bullpen stud Arthur Rhodes. But a few weeks ago I picked up Johnny Gomes because he kept hitting home runs. He hit a couple for me, too, and then came the day in September when I benched him. The Reds played a day game, which I took in on my computer at work. In the 1st inning, Gomes came up with the bases loaded. Great! Well, not so great. Great for my team (the Reds), but I found myself rooting against Gomes. If he hit a grand slam, I'd be pissed at myself for benching him on the Gabe Sox. He popped up, and I felt elated. That elation bothered me. My natural rooting instinct was perverted by this artificial competition. Later in the game, Gomes hit a three-run home run. And I was pissed, doubly this time because of my guilt about rooting against him in the 1st inning.

The issue there is whether I really would've cared about Johnny Gomes if he hadn't been on the Gabe Sox at the time (I've since dropped him). Yes, I would've cared, perhaps not as strongly but certainly more purely. I realized that last night during the 9th inning of the Mets-Nationals game. In the fantasy league, I'm fighting for points in the saves category. In the final week, I'm one ahead of someone and two behind someone else, a potential 1 1/2-point swing. My big closer all season has been Francisco Rodriguez, who saved his first 20 attempts with the Mets but has struggled hugely ever since. The Mets haven't gotten him many chances for saves, and he's blown some in spectacular fashion. So last night he entered the bottom of the 9th with a 4-2 lead. I really needed that save. The first batter hit a sharp grounder to short which was bobbled, and the throw to first was late. Although Mets announcer Gary Cohen recorded an error in his scoreboard, it was officially ruled a hit. A very cheap single. Pretty soon, the bases were loaded on another hit and a walk. K-Rod got a couple of outs, then walked Adam Dunn to force in a run. I couldn't watch any more. I abandoned the television and went back to the computer. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later I saw the result on the small screen: a game-ending grand slam. Not only did the key save vanish, but because of that awful scoring decision on the first batter, all five runs were earned. If it had been properly scored an error on the shortstop, all the runs would've been unearned, and it wouldn't have put a couple of ERA points in jeopardy.

So that's what pissed me off--not that the closer for a team I root for blew one more game in a season that has long since been irrelevant, but that he got nailed for five earned runs at a time when my staff is struggling to hold onto a couple of vital points. I should've been able to laugh off K-Rod's latest explosion, but instead I took it personally. Instead of shaking my head at the shortstop for screwing up the play, I wound up pissed off at the official scorer for a home-town hit call that might deliver a fatal blow to my pitching staff.

I've lost count of the number of times I've added a pitcher to my roster when he was pitching against the two teams I root for the most in reality. Or I've had a pitcher starting for one of my teams against a pitcher from another one of my teams. The fantasy has gained priority over the reality, and while that might be appealing in some respects, ultimately it creates conflicts that aren't that much fun.

Next year, I'm going to try to regain a healthy perspective by discarding the fantasy leagues and once again becoming a productive member of society. This decision was made easier by a policy adopted in August by the place where I work. The filtering system they've installed in our computers to limit access to Dangerous Internet Sites has targeted the Yahoo page used for two of the three fantasy leagues I play in. Several of us have protested, arguing first that any site with baseball content should be okay at an institution supposedly devoted to baseball, and second that we are collectively more tuned into baseball history as it is being made because of our devotion to the league. Our arguments were made to no avail. We were told that there is no game-playing on work computers and that we will have to confine our league activities to home. God forbid we should have a little fun while keeping pace with current baseball events!

I think this is a short-sighted, Draconian [look it up!] policy. Two mornings a week, I get to my office at 6 AM, and you'd think it would be okay for me to spend a little pre-work time taking care of my fantasy teams. Or a few minutes during my lunch hour. But no. It's home or bust. The problem is that this policy has already cost my team. I know of four instances where Gabe Sox players who were in my starting lineup wound up not playing during afternoon games, and there was nothing I could do about it. Instead of substituting another starter, I was stuck with a non-playing performer. So far, this has cost me production in runs, runs batted in, and strikeouts. I might finish 4th, out of the money, because this policy prevented me from getting those three RBI which subsequently cost me the deciding point. Don't you think that would be frustrating? Wouldn't it be foolish to invest the kind the time and effort, study and rooting, that I've put into this season, only to have it crash and burn because someone thinks I might tarnish the sanctity and reputation of a hallowed American institution by checking fantasy-league standings in my office at 6 AM?

Here's to the Gabe Sox and a fast finish this weekend, enough to get back an investment I will not make again. Next season, instead of grinding out all those evening results, I'll read some good books, or maybe write one. When someone calls me at work to ask me about that hot new rookie, I'll just have to say that I never heard of him. And then I'll forward the caller to one of my colleagues who has.

No comments: