Monday, October 03, 2005

The Art of War: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Placido Polanco's Head and Love Baseball by Michael Baker

The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.
Albert Einstein

It is August, I am outside New York City, and it is Rwandan sweltering, in the year of our Lord and Savior, Travis the Hafner, 2005. The city is in ruins: blue-haired grannies from Dubuque search angrily with needle-sharp elbows for Broadway discounts; young, dark-eyed dudes from Nebraska, potential mass murderers all, pretend to care about CBGB’s closing, the Parthenon of punk clubs; vicious, marauding gangs of Yankees lovers search for one fucking original thought to drunkenly sputter. At home it was much worse—I was working (cleverly) on ignoring my wife for the 437th consecutive day, easily smashing Joltin’ Joe’s famed streak of discord with Marilyn the Mammarian; somewhere was my infant son, my love, my guilty future, roaming unseen through stacks of Baseball Prospectus printouts; I was geekily hording every note (mono, stereo, parlophonic, 8-track octophonic) ever struck by Lennon and What’s His Name; and at least two editors had started to write obituaries for me concerning my prolonged absence and my pathetic life. For I had become earlier in the spring, when all hope is permanent and crystalline, the proud owner, head executive, and manager of a baseball fantasy club, the streaky but iridescently glowing Expos. I was no longer a fantasy virgin.

Fantasy baseball, or for that, all fantasy sports, started where most great ideas start: over cocktails at a French restaurant. In this case, it was NYC’s La Rotisserie Francaise and it was baseball/business writer Daniel Okrent, with some pals, who drew up rules, established teams, picked the players, and decided the scoring for a season-long contest of managers vis-a-vis managers, and their innocent and oft-hobbled selected players. In my league it was ten teams, two divisions, with head-to-head competition weekly; the two leaders of the divisions will square off in mid-September for a two-round playoff. Scoring in a head-to-head league is based on the team that you had selected from your pool of 22 available players, and whatever motley has-beens that you have exchanged for later, that are already on your team; if your pitcher is going against Peavey at home or faces the Rockies for an afternoon game then obviously you will select another teammate, the pitcher, let’s say, who has two starts at home, against Kansas City and the Mariners. You chose your team thirty minutes before the first game on each week’s Monday. Although the league cares about total points for the season the real meat is found in the weekly competition; the scoring is skewed to the Big Bopper; a Rod Carew Hall of Fame type night (4 singles, a walk, a run scored) will net the same points as a meaningless solo shot in Philly; the narcissistic solo home run guy may be an indifferent teammate, a world class inept fielder, slower than Bush’s response to the hallowed and holy grounds of New Orleans (forgive us, Reverend Louis Armstrong), an upper cutting free swinger who makes contact as often as Friends is funny, but in these leagues this über Dave Kingman is going to be a better fantasy player than a steady and sure handed Shannon Stewart. Singles hitters drive Hondas and date stagehands; home run sluggers, Hummers and Lohan.

The pitching statistics—there are no penalties for losses, blown saves, or screwing an L.A. reporter—center on the inevitable: getting dudes out, preferably in a winning cause and through the mechanism of the strikeout. Points are taken off for base runners and earned runs; points are gathered, conversely, through the elimination of such concepts; pitching against the Nationals in cavernous Washington every game will make you a stud, with a capitol S on your chest. But a crafty Moyer, consistent Maddox, wild Elarton, and smooth Garland are not the league’s cup of tea. We reward and revere flamethrowers; for instance, in a 4-3 loss, a pitcher who K’s 11, allows six hits and one walk and those four runs, will score for your team a solid 16 points; a finesse pitcher who in 7 innings wins 5-3 and walks three, allows seven singles, and strikes out only one will also get you 16 points. A Lidge can come in for a mop up 8-5 save, strike out the indifferent side, and get 15 points for 4 minutes of work.

The winner of our league (“The Wine and Roses”) from the previous two years was in last place. One team had five relievers; another had only one; some teams got lucky with breakout years by mediocre artists; others got saddled with a Barry Bonds all year—there is a list of 50 players or so who cannot be cut, so an injury to a Prior, Pujols could really cripple your maneuvering. This was one reason I dumped Cliff Floyd: he was on the list and always breaks down around Labor Day, right? This was a tough but knowledgeable league. My trade offers were not even responded to or were rejected via e-mails instantaneously. Some of the owners were eerily silent throughout the entire year. But who needed human company when you had numbers? The site’s operators kept up to the minute updates on all the players, their peccadilloes, their histories, their statistical breakdowns, and their Herculean possibilities. There were polls, a message board with the other 9,000 leagues, informative essays regarding minor league prospects, individual pages for each player and his past and present stats, and pitch by pitch description of all games played in real time. It was the best $9.95 I ever spent, if you discount that hooker in Montana but that is quite another story, possibly better suited for Field and Stream.

Early on I experienced emotional problems with my team: Jose Reyes was walking less than Detective Ironsides; Floyd bailed against lefties; Derrek Lee couldn’t be that good; Tejada’s unethical and geriatric line up protection (Palmiero and Sosa) was a combined 106 years old; Victor Martinez was hitting so far below .200 Minnie and Mario Mendoza were threatening a class action suit; and my pitching staff (Odalis, Penny, Hudson, Hampton, Lawrence, Franklin) was either on steroids or needed them. I found myself—gasp—rooting for weird causes, all dictated by that week’s matchups, like praying for that wanker Mike Maroth versus my sainted Tribe. I was a mess. I was obsessed. I was not thinking clearly, emulating Pete Rose trading autographed bats for a tenner on the Braves, getting six. I was a mad scientist in search of a larger laboratory. And yet, I was eight and one—simultaneously, a shithead novitiate and merciless scourge. It was then I decided to revamp my team. I sought perfection.

Our league has no limit on free agent moves. At last count I had made over 200. The other nine owners combined for roughly one fourth of that staggering total. Now, many of that total was simply playing around, an insane tinkerer picking up Hidalgo, Guillen, Encarnacion, Cameron, Beltre, and then before they even donned my imagined uniform—Fatty Arbuckle’s strangling of an actress—I would drop them and pick up for the bench an equally worthless Fuentes, Backe, Batista, Loaiza, or Chacon. I dumped Hafner, stockpiled solid reserves for trade bait (Floyd, Cameron, Michael Young, Sizemore, Ordonez), and decided in separate deals to trade Tejada, Cabrera, BJ Ryan, Hoffman and Lidge (I was 8-1 for a reason!) for better starters and more speed. Say hello to Mussina, Weaver, Silva, Eaton, Soriano, Benson, Beltran and Bay. And last place here I came! I lost a couple of matches by 18 points in a league where the average winning score was 360 or so; I lost the truncated week of the All Star break which doesn’t even count to me; I lost Mora one week on a Monday costing me dearly. But losing I was and more troubling was that I got pounded by the two league powerhouses, Gagne’s Gruppo Sportive and Stiff Little Rollie Fingers.

I also made beginner’s mistakes; my draft day naiveté landed me three shortstops: dumb. I kept Hafner in the line up way too often during his May swoon; I traded Michael Young and then John Patterson for peanuts; I gave up on Haren and Capuano too early. My pitching staff resembled—with its roster of 10 cent heads and 5 cent arms—a Lollapalooza tour. After I re-acquired him I immediately played Hafner after his beaning, thinking it was a glancing blow; I traded for Eaton when he was hurt: dumber. I chose Mora over Cantu in August. I should have been more patient with Cliff Floyd. I fell in love with the 2004 playoff Beltran, not seeing the complete sissy hermaphrodite that he had become: dumbest. But my myopic shortcomings were balanced out by my sagaciously prescient (and lucky) moves: Bay and Soriano more than made up for Tejada and Cabrera. I had picked up Garland, BJ Ryan, John Patterson, and Todd Jones off waivers. I did draft Derrek Lee, I was patient with Victor Martinez and Tim Hudson (even if I offered Martinez in May to every other team), and Reyes has been a monster.

You have to start seven pitchers every week, and can keep six reserves of any position for any given week, pitchers or non pitchers. And my staff soon stabilized; I beat the Stiffs by five points with an improbable late Sunday night comeback; was barely bested by Gagne—a team managed by my pal from Omaha who secured for me my initial inclusion. Hudson is now healthy and I no longer keep any everyday players as reserves—it’s all about the pitchers: with limitless moves possible among 13 hurlers I try to have a great closer (Todd Jones) and five or six of my remaining six pitchers to have two starts each. Going into the playoffs I own Derrek at 1B, Reyes at SS, Soriano 2B, Mora at third, Victor Martinez catching, Hafner (picked off waivers in late June) DH’ing, and Beltran, Bay, Ichiro in the OF. In any given week my opponents will face two starts from, let’s say, Florida’s Vargas, Ervin Santana, Mussina, Silva, Weaver, or for the next session, my foe will have to tolerate 10 starts from Hudson, Benson, Cliff Lee, Eaton, and Jon Garland. Only Lee and Hudson were initially drafted by me. I’m not sure whether my team is stronger than it was in April, but I sure have an OK starting staff versus early on a staff comprised of malcontents, stiff necks, and retards driving around the parking lots in broken-down cars thinking they were in downtown Akron.

I’m losing this week in a meaningless playoff tune up; next week, the final regular season competition, I have my stacked line up all ready for domination in the playoffs that start on the 19th. I like my chances: Gagne lost Halliday, Stiffs rely on Turnbow and Looper too much, and the Replacemits have many, many all or nothing hitters: Pudge, Peralta, Blalock, Roberts, Casey. In other words, I will probably get destroyed, but that’s cool, because I have learned the following things:

1. Never make decisions based on allegiances. I skipped over A-Rod (I had second pick), but traded for Mussina has been solid for me. Part of my love for Beltran was conditioned by the 162 Mets games on television. It has not been must watch TV. Painful.

2. Don’t start players from same team; I once had Sizemore, Hafner, and Martinez one week, and Reyes, Beltran, Cameron another. One rainout, one encounter with an Oswalt can kill your week’s scoring.

3. Who needs a hitters’ bench? Stockpile arms, 90% of them starters.

4. In the draft, don’t waste a high pick on corner infielder or third outfielder; the point differential between the fourth best 3B and the tenth (remember: in a ten man league you are assured of the Major League’s tenth best positional player) isn’t worth drafting a Mora over a Millwood or Lackey or Morris. I wasted valuable mid round selections on Corey Patterson, Orlando Cabrera, Mora, and Jimmy Rollins that should have gone to third starters on above .500 teams.

5. Don’t hang onto an injured player who is not a stud—for every Bedard, Odalis Perez, or Eaton, there is a potential producer who may even blossom: a Duke, a Francoeur, or an Utley.

6. When drafting, you must secure a stud pitcher in his late 20’s and a reliever for a contender in the second through fourth rounds. Stay with them all year. Zito, Clemens, Santana, Lidge, and Rivera are having monster years, even with all the early question marks and downsides. If you had chosen a Thome or a Mike Lowell before these guys your season was finished before it started.

7. Make trades: in an “even” situation you are 50% likely to get better and therefore reduce another’s team’s effectiveness. And you have percentages on your side: if you have five OF’ers a trade will certainly help your team.

8. Study matchups; don’t be sentimental; AL outfielders, NL pitchers; trade for hard throwers; take a chance on a Rockies pitcher now and then. OK, maybe not that last one.

9. Don’t buy cocaine from a man named Tarique.

10. Ignore the rules.

Most of all, talk to the other owners: keep your enemies placated and pacified with a periodic transaction, a funny line, a good bit of your own humility. I was chastised by my owner friend once for taking a loss hard: it destroys the fantasy game aspect to be angry he claims, which in retrospect, was fairly easy to say, especially since it was his team that beat me. But, of course, he’s right, and my knowledge of baseball has grown in leaps and bounds. Tendencies of lefthanders in Dodgers Stadium, stolen base percentages, Triple AAA catching prospects, the direction and speed of the wind at Wrigley later this afternoon: ask me and I just might tell you the truth. I am also a more patient baseball fanatic, less willing to reduce athletic complexities into one sentence, or one glib rejoinder. At least once a week (Mussina) I don’t hate the Yankees more than I hate the Bush daughters, genital herpes and Grand Funk Railroad combined. The season is long and a player’s concentration and desire may disappear for ten days or so, or he will temporarily lose his bite on his curve, or get over anxious about the three way he’s getting at the Chicago Hyatt later that night. Cut the players some slack. They are just like you or me: multi-millionaires who can hit a god damned Mulder cut fastball 470 god-damned-feet into the night skies over dying strip malls. Well, we can fantasize. So, draft eight or nine solid dudes and stick with them like family for the entire campaign, a family that, of course, suffers the occasional brotherly suicidal leap off a bridge, hides the perv uncle from Portland, or dresses up the tomcat lesbian cousin from Indianapolis. But love them anyway. It’s all you got. Or ever will.

World Series here I come. Wish me luck.

Michael Baker teaches composition at New Jersey colleges, where his students write about their fierce hatred of the New York Yankees.

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