Game Called

November 19, 2021

 

 

My career in the fantasy baseball industry has finally come to a close. I have enjoyed the last 30 years (20 of it as a professional) for the most part and feel pretty good about the legacy I leave behind.

 

Probably my two greatest fantasy finds (and probably what Iím most known for) were Johan Santana and Shohei Ohtani. I was writing about them on this site well before they were on anyone elseís radar. In fact, my article touting the potential of Santana the year before Minnesota even named him as a full-time starter and before he earned his first of two Cy Young awards was the primary reason I won the Fantasy Sports Writers Baseball Writer of the Year award. Both players led my teams to considerable success. I retire with the highest percentage for finishing in the money of any of the 21 people who have ever have participated in XFL. Currently, I sit 0.3 behind the leader for the all-time lead in average finish, despite starting as an expansion franchise (which meant I drafted my team from the players the other owners didnít want) in the third year of the league. And of the 197 experts who have ever competed in Tout Wars (which includes five Major League front office talent evaluators, both of the current prospect writers for MLB as well as the founders of fivethirtyeight.com and Baseball Info Solutions), Iím in the top 20 in money earned, an accomplishment achieved in just six years of participation. Only four others earned more in less time. I also won titles in an expert Strat-o-matic league and an industry experts points league. Iím not sure how many others have won expert league titles in four formats (redraft, keeper, points and simulation) but I imagine the list is not a long one.But as fun as playing (and winning) leagues competing against the best in the world is, those are not my proudest accomplishments nor my fondest memories.

 

I helped Tout Wars become what it is today. Lots of people have contributed to its success, none moreso than its founder Ron Shandler, who has done more than everyone else combined to make sure it is fantasy baseballís premier expert competition. Frankly, the man should have his own wing in the Fantasy Baseball Hall of Fame, but thatís another story. Anyway, some of the changes I instituted will likely continue as long as the enterprise exists.

 

The year before I joined, both the AL and NL auctions were held in Steve Moyerís basement. The photos from that weekend in March of 2000 are pretty mind-blowing when put in the context of fantasy baseball being the billion dollar industry it is today. Suffice it to say the participants were so sandwiched in with each other and their prep materials around the tables that there was barely enough room for chips to snack on.The year I joined (which was my first ever participating in an AL-only league) the setting was upgraded to a motel in New Jersey, a full half-hour from New York City. The closest attractions were a swamp in one direction and a Medieval Times a block down the road in the other. The following year it was held in a motel in Schaumburg, Illinois near a shopping mall. Each was an incremental step up but not nearly what Tout Wars deserved.

 

It was then that Ron formed the Tout Wars LLC and reached out to me to be one of its founding board members. He had invited Sam Walker of the Wall Street Journal to participate and chronicle the season on the AL side for an upcoming book about fantasy baseball and wanted to make sure we had all the bases covered. That year, the auctions were held in Queens, literally across the highway from LaGuardia airport. Even before the auction I was tasked with helping fill out the leagues. As hard as it might be to believe, there was a shortage of fantasy sites from which to invite. At the time, I was a stringer scoring games for MLB.com, and knew that several of the people involved played fantasy baseball. It was a natural match. So over a pizza lunch just a few blocks north of the financial district, I invited a couple of the guys from the MLB.com office to join Tout. The rest, as they say, is history. Tout Wars began to get wider coverage and it would never look back.

 

That was also the first year I was published in a major fantasy publication: The Fantasy Baseball Index 2004 Draft Guide. So not only was I under the pressure of a book being written about the league I was in, but it was also the first time that everyone in the league knew exactly what I thought about every player and how much I was willing to spend on them. Fortunately, my evaluations were pretty accurate and I ended up winning Tout Wars for the first time by the largest margin to date. Sorry to have spoiled the ending if you havenít read Walkerís book. I will say that for all its humorous story-telling, the book is not particularly accurate on many details. But thatís true of most things that aim to be funny.

 

The next year was also held in New York but not yet in Manhattan. That would come the following year when I persuaded Ron to let me put Tout Wars where it belongs: on Broadway (or at least close to it), where people will want to come just to be in the middle of one of the greatest cities on Earth.Expense was the primary concern. Manhattan properties tend to be quite pricey. So I spent two days interviewing and touring 23 different Manhattan hotels to find one that was reasonably close in price to our previous accommodations. The Millenium on 44th St, right across from Virgilís Barbeque, which has since become a Tout Wars mainstay dining destination, was the winner.A close second place was the Algonquin Hotel, birthplace of the New Yorker magazine. Built in 1902, it was home to the famous Round Table, where writers and performers like Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, Noel Coward and Edna Ferber spent their afternoons together carrying on. I was very tempted to choose it in order to associate the league with those legendary minds, but in the final analysis the extra expense wasnít worth an added significance that would likely be lost on most of the members.

 

Walkerís book had been successful enough to generate rumors of a movie deal so it was fitting that season also happened to be my second Tout victory. I put the auction back downtown the following year at a hotel within sight of the Empire State Building and a short walk from Madison Square Garden. In subsequent years theyíve also held the drafts at MLB studios in Chelsea and at CitiField the year after it opened. Altogether, for me it was a remarkable and wonderful journey. The postscript to my Tout Wars experience was that unfortunately, the movie Walker made ended up being something of a mockumentary. But by the time they had enough funding to film it, I was long gone from Tout. Nevertheless, the event was in NYC to stay.

 

Iíd like to think that people will one day discover I did some pretty good work covering the steroid era when few writers would even touch the subject. And even after it became a cause celebre, I kept the focus on the facts rather than the hysterics. There was also some yeoman-like work demythologizing a number of topics including Moneyball, Leo Mazzone, Montreal as a bad baseball city, spring training stats, pitcher usage as well as several of the myths that plague cogent baseball analysis across the eras. And when I did go off on a tangent into politics, college and pro football, movies or horse racing, those turned out pretty well, too.†††††††

 

Iím also pretty proud of being an innovator in fantasy baseball. I was one of the first to combine scouting techniques Ė many of which I had learned from sitting at games with scouting legends Bill Clark and David Rawnsley - and analytics to identify optimal players. Thatís one of the things Walker did get right. I also pioneered two winning fantasy strategies. The first has since become known as the ĎSantana strategyí: spend most of your pitching budget on one dominant starter who will carry your staff in the averaging categories, fill in the rest of the rotation with cheap gambles with upside to accumulate a respectable total in the counting categories, then spend the remainder of the budget on building an unstoppable offense. The second is the all-injury strategy. In this one, the object is to buy mostly players who spent a good portion of the previous year on the IL. People are so concerned about guys with an injury history that they often let very talented players go for well below their value for fear they wonít get the production. For most players, injuries are not predictable so downgrading someoneís value for what was essentially an accident that is highly unlikely to reoccur is just bad business.

 

But perhaps what Iím most proud of is that I always played the game as it was originally intended. The first fantasy league was formed by a bunch of guys who thought they could do a better job of building a winning baseball team than the current GMs. As a pundit I felt it was my responsibility to always try to put forth a competitive team regardless of the format. So every year, regardless of the league I was in, I played basically the way a real GM would, working with most of the same players because like any real baseball team, you draft the guys you believe in and you keep them (or keep redrafting them) for as long as you believe in them. There are obvious limits to playing that way in a fantasy setting but Iíve never seen players as purely fungible. My sharper competitors understood this about my playing style so they almost always made me pay an extra buck or two for the players I wanted. I was predictable in an industry that does not reward predictability. Yet because of my acumen and diligence for finding talent, I fared better than most. I donít regret my decision to play this way in the least because I know what I did works in the real world, which is kind of the point of the simulation.

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As with most finales, itís not one thing that causes the ending, but rather a culmination of events that finally build to a point where thereís nothing left to gain by continuing. The passing of two friends in the industry and my own serious bout with COVID has made me keenly aware of how brief this stint on Earth really is. Iíve spoken about this privately, but ever since November 2020, I just donít see the benefit of always fighting over molehills. Unfortunately, that seems to be something of a fetish these days. Combined with a number of opportunities that invite a greater appreciation of my energies, itís time for me to enter the next phase of my life. So for all of you who traveled with me here, thank you. It has been my pleasure to be your sharpening stone.

 

In closing, Iíd like to use the words of perhaps baseballís greatest scribe to encapsulate my feelings:

 

Game called

Across the field of play the dusk has come,

The hour is late

The fight is done and lost or won

The player files out the gate.

Game called

Where in the golden light the bugle rolled the reveille

The shadows creep where night falls deep

And taps has called the end of play

The game is done, the score is in

The final cheer and jeer have passed

But the night beyond the fight the player finds his rest at last.

Game called

Upon the field of life

The darkness gathers far and wide

The dreamís done, the score is spun

That stands forever in the guide

No victory nor yet defeat is chalked against the playerís name

But down the roll, the final scroll shows only

How he played the game.

 

- Grantland Rice

 

Namaste