The rest of the world was watching masses of humanity crash into each other again and again in an attempt to advance an oblong ball. The crowds cheered as the players fell, like spectators at the Roman Coliseum.
On Sunday, I watched a purer game – one of sandlot dreams and the fabric of Americana. The pastime from a simpler time. The one where guys spit and grab their crotch all the time.
In the waning weeks of September, most of the pennant races have been decided. Bright-eyed prospects are fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing with the big league club while cagey veterans are resting up for the promise of October magic.
But for a small group, these final few weeks of September are paramount. They are the final challenge of a six-month test of strategy, skill, and sheer determination of will.
We are fantasy baseball geeks, and these are our playoffs.
We’re not like those fantasy football yahoos. Our drafts can’t be done by a monkey with a running back depth chart. You can’t win if you have no idea what’s going on (I’ve won more fantasy football championships by luck than fantasy baseball crowns by knowledge).
You have to check your roster more than once a week.
No, fantasy baseball geeks are in it for the long haul. From a night-long draft in March; through the blazing summer of injuries, slumps, streaks, and callups; to the stretch run of September, our game is not for the faint of heart (or the remotely cool).
And if fantasy baseball is our addiction, then these last few weeks are our ultimate fix. Nothing will stand between fantasy geeks and our fake game.
Years ago, I visited my girlfriend on a late September weekend. I tried balance time between my two loves. Then she noticed that my arm was around her shoulder so it could hit the refresh button on the scoreboard.
She explained the gravity of neglecting her for a silly game. I explained the angst of having my hopes and dreams of a championship rest upon the unpredictable arm of Edinson Volquez.
I realized my lady was right – I couldn’t neglect my love, especially not during the time she needed me the most.
That’s why this September, I let go. It was just the two of us. Well, three of us to be exact.
You see, I run with two fantasy baseball teams each year. The first is in what is called a rotisserie league. Teams accumulate points throughout the year as real-world players collect various statistics, like home runs or saves, in their real-world games. The South Jackson Superstars – the moniker of my fantasy teams since I innocently stumbled upon my geeky obsession in the days of dial-up – showed promise in 2011, but early season injuries ravaged the squad. The team, a hodgepodge of journeymen and stop-gaps, fell to last place in the early months.
But as the weather warmed, hope rose. Those tiny red “DL” tags began to fade from my roster, as marquee players came off the disabled list and began vaulting me up the standings. By August and September, the Superstars were an unstoppable machine, like a locomotive, or one of those toaster ovens your grandparents have had since you were old enough to have retrievable memory.
The surge was mighty and swift – from 12th to 2nd, with a significant cushion over the nearest competitor. But alas, it would not be enough to climb to the mountaintop and taste the sweet nectar of a virtual championship trophy. For as my team was coming into its own, the eventual winner was already making his victory lap, kissing the rookie card of Curtis Granderson and kneeling before the altar of Justin Verlander.
It was too little, too late.
But not for the Magnolia Muleriders.
That’s my head-to-head team. I always name it after my current locale. In H-2-H leagues, you face a different owner each week, battling for ten statistical categories – five offensive (Runs, Home Runs, Runs Batted In, Stolen Bases, and Batting Average) and five pitching [Wins, Saves, Strikeouts, Earned Run Average, and WHIP (a ratio of Walks and Hits to Innings Pitched – I told you this was nerdy)].
Head-to-head leagues are all about staying afloat and then peaking in the final month. If my rotisserie team was in one of these leagues, my fictitious winnings would be in the fictitious bank (I prefer Bank of America).
My Muleriders stayed in first place from week one all the way to the end of the fantasy regular season in early September. It’s a monumental accomplishment, akin to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or unlocking the human genome.
But head-to-head leagues can be cruel mistresses, because one bad week in the September playoffs can squander five months of supremacy.
In the semifinals, my offense failed me, placing four of the five categories out of reach. My pitching was strong, but the competition was still close. Feeling my chance at a championship slipping through my fingers, my desire for gold led me to the dark arts. Like a Cruciatus Curse, I turned to Streaming.
(For the record, I had to Google the Harry Potter reference. I’m not that type of geek.)
Streaming is a risky strategy most savvy fantasy owners save only for the desperation of the postseason. In an attempt to take the Wins and Strikeouts categories, owners add pitchers one day before a scheduled start. After the start, they drop the pitcher and add another about to make a start. Unfortunately, since most of the marquee pitchers are already owned by competing teams, streaming forces you to choose between a bevy of unheralded prospects (like a Drew Pomeranz) and proven gas cans (like a Freddy Garcia). This means that unless you play the matchups with the precision of a short trader on Wall Street, your ERA and WHIP are likely to get, well, whipped.
On Sunday, the final day of the week, I settled in for an afternoon of scoreboard watching. My streamers were woefully unsuccessful, and Wins became a lost cause. I looked at my fantasy scorecard once more. My opponent had five of his six categories locked down. My lone hope was the Save. If my closers (a hotly sought-after commodity in the fantasy world – like Ore in Settlers of Catan. Not helping with the nerd factor? Sorry, moving on…) could nail down three saves, I could come back and force a tie, to which my team, through its season-long dominance, held the tiebreaker.
Early in the day, Frank Francisco got the first (who would have thought Morrow could shutout the Yankees?). Houston’s Mark Melancon was on his way to the second in the afternoon slate, when the rain began to fall at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
The baseball gods had frowned upon my championship pursuit. No pitcher comes back after a lengthy rain delay, especially in a game – important as it was to my fake team – that meant nothing to the real-life Astros.
I was morose. Time to take down the banners. Put away the cheap champagne. Tell Nike to take those championship shirts I had made and ship them to some needy children in a third-world country. They can add it to their piles of ill-conceived Utah Jazz championship swag from the 1990s.
Hours later, I glanced at the scoreboard again. What was this? The Astros and Cubs had resumed play? Melancon came back to the mound for Houston? He got the save?!
We’re still in this thing!!!
“Hello, Nike? Tell the impoverished to wait. Those shirts aren’t going anywhere…”
Every Sunday, Major League Baseball pays homage to its history and plays a complete schedule of day games. Except for one – the Sunday Night Baseball game of the week, to be broadcast on ESPN. This week, it would be the Cardinals and the Phillies. I had Phillies closer Ryan Madson – my series-winning save. My opponent had Phillies starter Cole Hamels, who could go strikeout crazy and steal that category from me, ruining my whole day of managing prowess.
I watched the game with quiet anticipation, seated on the edge of my couch, hanging on every pitch. What I saw was the dominance of a crafty veteran pitcher. It wasn’t Hamels. And it would never be Madson. It was Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals ace who, in complete disregard of my fantasy aspirations, obliterated the Phillies lineup en route to the win, bringing St. Louis one step closer to what would eventually be an historic come-from-behind wild card berth in the real postseason (that’s why he’s getting drenched in cheap champagne over there).
He couldn’t sacrifice his team, and its baseball-crazy city’s chance at a World Series for my Magnolia Muleriders?
Selfish good-for-nothing mmphrgrphfl…
So I lost in the semifinal round. My team would hold their heads high, and perform admirably in the consolation round, cruising to a third-place finish. For the second consecutive season, my fantasy teams placed second and third. So painfully close to glory. So heartbreakingly close to immortality.
Now, the long season over, I wander aimlessly around the Interwebs. I’ve checked my Facebook six times today (the layout was redesigned twice during that time span). I participate in trending topics on Twitter (Why, oh, why did I trade for Carlos Quentin? #IfICouldDoItAllOverAgain) (I love my fantasy baseball team like a tween loves #JustinBeiber). I found out Pinterest is something only chicks do.
I gave up fantasy football this year. Compared to the sabermetric science of baseball, it just seemed primitive. Also, after that whole lockout and one-day free agency thing, I have no idea what team anyone plays for anymore. Did Brett Favre ever un-retire again?
I figure now that my geekiness has an offseason, there’s a chance for me to find love again, ala Jimmy Fallon in the underrated romantic comedy Fever Pitch (I took a date to see this movie, no lie). I can find the perfect woman for me and wow her with my charm, wit, and well-toned left-clicking finger. Then, when late March comes around again, I can take her by the hand, look deeply into her eyes as I drop to one knee and say…
“I hereby surrender my waiver claim priority to add this woman to my team. Baby, would you participate in a competitive roto-league live draft with me?”
It would be the happiest day of my life since September 23, 2007, when my South Jackson Superstars last hoisted a .jpeg of a golden trophy heavenward.
Until then, at least there is the real Postseason.
[Author’s Note: I wrote a version of this post on the actual dates being referenced in late September, only to have it be erased through a WordPress glitch. I tried to recreate the magic as best I could in my spare time over the next two weeks. It was a fun piece to pen – creative writing is something I rarely get the chance to do these days. I hope you enjoyed it, and for my own sake that it did the original justice.]