Sunday, March 26, 2017

How Fantasy Baseball Forms Real Friendship

That's Pete, in the middle
Whenever baseball season begins, I think of Roger Angell’s famous observation about the game:

With time measured in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly, keep the rally alive, and the game never ends. You remain forever young.

I’ve also lately had a related thought:

If the most magical part of baseball is the way it suspends time, isn’t that also, precisely, the most magical part of friendship?

The two are connected in my own life – the timelessness of baseball and of friendship – in a very real way this week, as I prepare for the 32nd season of the Eastern Shuttle League, the Oldest Established Permanent Floating Fantasy Baseball League in the East.

The ESL was founded in 1985 by five recent college graduates from the New York area and five from New England (hence the league name, which refers to the now-defunct Eastern Shuttle airline route between New York and Boston). It was based on rules established in a 1984 book called “Rotisserie League Baseball” by Glen Waggoner, a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine.

We were all baseball fans, of course – but other than that, we really had little in common. My work friend and soon-to-be best man, Joe, new at the NY Archdiocese’s communications office, knew two guys from Syracuse University. We strong-armed another baseball fan who worked with us, he had a friend, that guy knew another guy…

The next thing you know, 10 of us were sitting around the back room of a now-closed dive bar called “La Hacienda” in Cambridge. We were surrounded – in the pre-web, pre-wifi era -- by plenty of cold beer, pizza and pages of handwritten notes, pre-season articles ripped from local sports pages and copies of Glen’s book and The Bible (the “1985 Sporting News Official Baseball Register”).

We spent the next few hours in raucous laughter, hurling insults at each other as we bid up to $260 to fill our 23-player slots of American Leaguers during a makeshift auction process. We argued baseball, made fun of each other’s draft selections, scared the hell out of the few women in the bar and grossly over-tipped the wait-staff.

We’ve never looked back.
  • We stopped playing for money before the end of the first season (which I WON, by the way, so somebody owes me big-time, considering the compound interest);
  • we’ve clung to team names that seemed oh-so-clever in the late ‘80s but are now just juvenile double-entendres (although I’ve long been the Bob Alous, which STILL seems clever to me);
  • we use the original rules and draft only American Leaguers (although I’ve only watched Mets games for the past few years – after all, as Angell also once wrote, "There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us" -- and now know practically none of the AL players, which is why I’ve never won since).
Notice how I dropped myself into every one of those statements? That’s pretty much an indication of how competitive the league has always been. I imagine it’s like growing up with a bunch of brothers, where you always have to be prepared to defend yourself.

I didn’t have any brothers growing up. Because of fantasy baseball, I’ve got some now.

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And, like brothers, we’re often pretty silly together.

One guy has long adopted Eddie Gaedel as his imaginary team’s manager. Eddie, the shortest player in MLB history, was hired by St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck to pitch hit during a meaningless doubleheader in 1951. He walked on four pitches. His jersey, bearing the uniform number " 1⁄8," is displayed in the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. You could look it up.

The ESL fantasy team owner, Ken G., is a talented writer with a whimsical flair. Over the years his detailed emails about his team, the KG Bees, written in Eddie’s voice, have come to rival anything Ring Lardner had ever written.

Eddie has become the ESL’s heart and soul: a foul-mouthed, wise-cracking midget with a Brooklyn accent, who provides weekly commentary on the fortunes of the Bees. Here’s a random sample from 2015:
The Bees front office exploded over the weekend with a testy, testosteroney "he said, wee said" battle of wills as the team's diabetic GM and dead midget manager lambasted one another for a dream thwee-peat season dashed to ruins. Giovanelli lambasted his pipsqueakity pilot for abandoning the club during the first six weeks of the season on a "selfish hellbent quest for Everest glory." He added, "And you had to go kick that freaking wolverine! It was all shit karma from that night on, yeti pelt be damned!!" Manager Eddie Gaedel in turn"wambastid" Mr. G over the team's humiliating fall from ESL dominance, blaming their ills on the GM's "wackwusta dwaft and keeping bweeping Jakobity!!" The two nearly came to bwows, until stalwart team members Brandon Moss and Mike Zunino (hitting a combined manly .199 on the season) separated the star-cwossed duo.
I know, it’s all a bit hard to explain. There was something about Eddie going to Napal and winning the Nobel Peace Prize that preceded this particular rant. And “Jakobity” is the expensively-priced (in ESL and IRL), under-performing Yankee, Jacoby Ellsbury. But you get the idea.

Not to be outdone by Ken, Joe often provides a hilarious preseason analysis of his team – the Joe Mammas -- in the voice of Casey Stengel, circa 1963.

Another team owner, Rich, once penned a song, “Don’t Worry, Be Lindy,” to the tune of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Don’t be fooled by any of this silliness, though. The free-spirited subject of the song, Lindy, has had a long and successful business career… just like one of the league’s other driving forces, the perpetually wise-cracking Roland (who fittingly displays a photo of Dr. Evil for his Facebook profile).

But now I’m naming names and getting too specific. If he ever reads this, Roland will probably kill me – and I’m not entirely sure that would be a first for him. I should stick with mentioning a few more general images:

There we are, all together at the end of the 1988 season at a sports bar in Manhattan, gathered around a big screen to watch Kirk Gibson take Dennis Eckersley deep in Game 1 of the World Series. There’s my baby girl, strapped into her carrier and propped next to me on the table the last time we held a draft at “La Hac.” There I am at my desk on 9/11/01, in an office building overlooking the World Trade Center – and the first email I received from anyone concerned about my safety… was from Roland.

There have been numerous births in the league since my daughter was born. Surprisingly few relationship breakups. Lots of job changes and relocations. Original ESL members have left and been replaced for so long that their replacements seem like original members. Cancer scares. Two deaths – one who overdosed from drugs after leaving the league many years ago; one last year, everyone’s dear friend Pete.

Pete was a lifelong Yankees fan and top executive at A&E Networks. We always had to make sure the April draft didn’t conflict with his travels to the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Vegas, or opening day at Yankee Stadium. When he died suddenly last summer, we didn’t know whether we’d keep the league active.

But then, within just a few days, it seemed even sillier to close down the league because of Pete. We’ve arranged for someone to take up the management of his team, and the players he had aggressively traded for who he was sure would have breakout seasons in 2017. For Pete’s sake (yes, Dennis already used that Dad-joke-of-a-phrase in a recent email to Larry and Bruce), we still make fun of his team just as much as when he was alive.

Pete would have liked that. Just as he would have liked knowing that Joe smuggled in a miniature plastic figure of Eddie Gaedel to his memorial service.

A group of us attended that service, not sure Pete’s family members would even know who we were. Yet when we introduced ourselves to his wife, daughter and sister, we were received as family. “It’s so good to see his friends from the ESL,” they said. “We’ve heard so much about you over the years.”

Such is the awesome power of shared experience, no matter what the circumstance.

So, do yourself a favor this year. Join a fantasy baseball league.

The baseball season will take on another life for you, in another dimension. No matter how bad your home team is, you’ve got your fantasy team, and all you have to do is succeed utterly, stay competitive, and the games never end.

You remain forever young.

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