My Serious Credentials As A Dodger Fan
Under normal circumstances, opening day of the 2021 Major League Baseball season would have had me rooting for the Los Angeles Dodgers. No surprise there. I’ve been following the team ever since they abandoned Brooklyn for L.A. in 1958. The first Major League Baseball game I ever saw was at the L.A. Coliseum that year. Don Newcombe lost 2-1 to the Cincinnati Reds, but he went the distance and had three hits. Big Newk was always a good-hitting pitcher.
I saw Sandy Koufax beat the Yankees and Whitey Ford in Game Four of the 1963 World Series—a four-game Dodgers sweep. But what I remember most of all is after the game, as the defeated Yankees were solemnly trudging out toward their team bus which was parked just beyond center field, somebody turned the sprinklers on them. And I thought that was the funniest damn thing I’d ever seen. I was 14.
Two years later, I surreptitiously listened to my transistor radio in history class when Koufax beat the Minnesota Twins, winning Game Seven of the ’65 Series even though he didn’t have his good curveball that day.
I cheered through the dog days of the late-60s and early 70s. I agonized with Tommy Lasorda’s Dodgers with their million-dollar infield and World Series heartbreaks. I was there for Fernandomania, Gibson’s home run, the emotionally and fiscally bankrupt Frank McCourt era, the near-misses of the last few years right on up through last year’s World Series triumph in a pandemic bubble, where my team finally prevailed after a 32-year drought.
Those are just some of my credentials as a Dodgers fan.
My Fantasy Baseball Team
So why, it would be fair to ask, was I rooting for the Colorado Rockies instead of the Dodgers on Opening Day?
The answer is as simple and as complicated as why my experience as a baseball fan has undergone a complete metamorphosis in the last fifteen years. You see…the Rockies’ starting pitcher on opening day, a young man by the name of German Marquez, also happens to pitch for The Soapmen. Who? What? Huh? Allow me to explain:
The Soapmen, so named because I spent the vast majority of my adult life writing TV soap operas, is my fantasy baseball team. It’s one of several I currently operate in various leagues, including The Bo Belinskys named for the colorful Angels left-hander from the early 60s; Van Lingle Mungo’s Ghost, representing my favorite name in all of professional sports; and Ossie Bluege’s Boys, because I just liked the name Ossie Bluege.
These fantasy teams compete against such terrors of the diamond as the Sleepy Penguins, Kreisman Commith, Havana Curbsharpeners, Stars of David, Sherman Oaks Smogmonsters, Killer Rabbits of Caerbannog and, don’t ask me why: Cux. Just…Cux.
We all play the same 162-game schedule the real teams play and it can get pretty cutthroat. We make trades. We pick up players on the waiver wire. We talk smack and scheme to take advantage, spending countless hours pouring over statistics, studying minor league rosters like the Talmud and generally spending far too much time and energy toward winning the ultimate prize: a few bucks in cash along with the coveted championship bobblehead figure, who all look like Chicago Cubs’ pitcher Jake Arrietta.
The History Of Fantasy Baseball
Did I also mention it’s fun? And challenging? And that it makes you feel like that ten- year-old kid again, who lived and breathed the game of baseball but who recognized early on they weren’t going to get to… The Show. So we became fans—shorthand for fanatic—only now, instead of flipping baseball cards, we flip actual baseball players and are given a reasonable facsimile of what it might be like to actually run a team.
The origins of fantasy baseball dates back to 1960 when a Harvard sociologist named William Gamson started “The Baseball Seminar,” where colleagues would form rosters from the then sixteen teams in Major League Baseball that earned points on the players’ final standings in batting average, RBI, ERA and wins.
This pastime circulated among the baseball geeks of academia for the next two decades, slowly building in reach and popularity before ultimately landing at the feet of magazine writer Daniel Okrent, who gathered a group of like-minded friends at the La Rottisserie Francaise restaurant in New York City and invented the game we know and love today as: Rotisserie baseball.
The format of this is an expansion of Gamson’s original idea. You draft a team of twenty three players: Usually two catchers, an infield (first, second and third base along with shortstop), a corner man and middle infielder, five outfielders, a utility player and nine pitchers. From there, you play the season, add the statistics from all your players, and whoever has the best numbers at the end of the season wins. Since baseball from time immemorial has always been a game of numbers and statistics, this made absolute sense. But which numbers were to be considered most important?
For Rottiserie, which is still the standard fantasy baseball format, the categories consist of batting average, home runs, runs, RBI and stolen bases on the hitting side. For the pitchers, it’s wins, strikeouts, saves, quality starts (a pitcher who goes at least six innings and allows three runs or less) and WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched.)
There are variations on these categories depending on the league you play in. For example, some leagues substitute OBP (On-base percentage) for batting average. Some leagues count pitcher’s losses. The commissioner of one of my leagues added an errors category because he doesn’t believe we should be rewarded for drafting hard-hitting, stone- handed shortstops (I’m talking to you, Eugenio Suarez!).
Budgeting Your Fantasy Team
We arrive at these rosters in a variety of ways. There’s what we call a “snake” draft where, say, a 12-team league would choose their players one-through-twelve, then reverse order as the rounds move on. But by far my favorite are the auction or “Salary Cap” drafts. Each team is given $260 to pick their twenty-three players. Why they chose the amount of $260 was explained to me once in such brain-numbing, mathematical detail that my eyes glazed over. All it meant to me was: if you go crazy and bid $50 for Mike Trout, that means you have $210 for the rest of your team. So budgeting your funds and looking for player values is the name of the game.
If you really want to go crazy—and I certainly have—you have what they call “Dynasty Leagues,” where you’re not only drafting the twenty-three players for your active team, you’re drafting a forty-man roster that can consist of minor leaguers, major league players who weren’t drafted in the regular draft, college and high school players, Cubans who either have or have not defected, Japanese players who may or may not ever come to the United States and, last year, a junior high school kid who they say is the next Bryce Harper.
If you dive into this particular rabbit hole you will end up knowing far more about the Kansas City Royals minor league system than any casual fan has a right to (it’s pretty good, by the way) and you’ll keep a pretty close watch on injuries, who’s getting called up, who’s hot, who’s in a slump and you will do that for 162 games, day after day, week after week, month after month until the end.
Wives, Girlfriends & Fantasy Baseball
Wives and girlfriends love this, of course. Nothing makes a woman swoon more than seeing her husband or boyfriend hunched over a computer, madly putting his lineups together and cursing the Gods when their ace pitcher blows out his elbow and is headed for Tommy John Surgery. I’ve tried bribing my wife with presents from my fantasy baseball winnings, but the best I can say is: she tolerates it for the most part, although she did put her foot down recently when I woke up at 5 a.m. in a panic because I had forgotten to make a pick in my reserve draft. You had to be there.
But thank God for computers and the internet. In the early days of Rotisserie baseball, you actually had to physically go through each day’s box scores to determine your stats. Okrent credits some of the success of USA Today to the fact they had the most complete baseball box scores anywhere, which were an absolute feast for baseball nerds like myself who could never get enough. Now, of course, it’s all on the internet, with a variety of fantasy baseball web sights updating the statistics from minute to minute.
A Multi-Billion Dollar Industry
It’s also a multi-billion dollar industry. With daily fantasy leagues on such sites as Fan Duel and Draft Kings, some serious gambling is going on here so you’d better make sure you’re not betting the rent on Mookie Betts having a good day at the plate. Since money is involved, there are no shortages of books, magazines, radio shows and podcasts all promising to give you the inside information. The more advanced of these provide such new-age baseball statistics that measure spin-rate, exit velocity, barrels (don’t ask!) and other, equally arcane measurements that Babe Ruth never had to worry about.
The serious fantasy players know all of this stuff and draft their teams accordingly. Since I don’t have the band-width to absorb all these numbers, I tend to draft the old- fashioned way: I look at the back of the baseball card, make sure the player doesn’t get injured every other week, and throw darts, hoping to hit on a winner. I ignore saves until I absolutely can’t anymore and generally try to pick a balanced team that is representative in all or at least most of the various categories. And I’ve done pretty well, too. Won more than I’ve lost. But beyond any and all of that is the fun I’ve had along the way.
The Joys Of Draft Day
Draft day for us is like Christmas. The league where the Soapmen reside usually operates out of my friend Glenn’s house and everyone tries to be there in person. We have an oncologist from Nashville who flies in for the draft every year, even though the date sometimes falls on his wedding anniversary.
We have players from Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and New York City who either fly in or participate in the draft via Zoom, some of them wearing the baseball regalia of their favorite team. One year I drafted from a hotel lobby in Milan, Italy. Another guy conducted his draft during breaks at his niece’s Bat Mitzvah. Like I said, this is very serious business.
And when you win? Oh my God! A few years ago, I won my eighteen-team league for the first time, avoiding a final-week collapse and hanging on to win the league after ten years of trying. The next year I won again, going wire to wire and winning handily. The year after that, I was in first place on the last day of the season and would have been in line for a three-peat, which had never been done before.
But Todd Frazier struck out. And because Todd Frazier struck out, my batting average dropped and I ended up losing the league by a point. One point! And boy was I pissed! Todd F- ing Frazier! I’ve never drafted him since and, since he’s practically out of baseball anyway, probably won’t ever have the chance to do it again. And yes, I realize Todd Frazier didn’t mean to rob me of an unprecedented three-peat. But did I also mention we were all ten-years-old?
COVID-19 & The Hopes Of A “Normal” Season
Last season was kind of a drag. They only played sixty games, for one thing—which meant one hot streak or slump could make or break you. We also had to draft via Zoom for the first time, which was okay but just not the same as being in the same room, looking your opponent in the eye, and daring them to top your $50 bid for Mike Trout. This is not to mention gorging on the pizza and donuts that are the staples of any ten-year-old’s dream diet.
We Zoomed again this year, too. But with the promise of a full 162-game season and a hopeful summer of attending actual baseball games again, we all felt normal—or at least semi- normal life—was right around the corner. And next year, like families gathering together for the holidays, our league will gather again at Glenn’s house, wearing the hats and jerseys of our favorite teams and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” before the draft begins. I’m smiling just thinking about it. As all little kids do waiting for Christmas.
Oh, before I let you go, one piece of advice: never talk to anyone about your fantasy baseball team. If they’re not into it, they won’t care, and if they are into it, all they want to talk about is THEIR fantasy baseball team so you will receive no satisfaction.
And how did I do on opening day? Marquez went four mediocre innings but he had a few strikeouts. But across the country at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Cedric Mullins went five- for-five. He’s a Soapman, too. So it was a good day.