Monday, 19 May 2003

Baseball Rivalries Do They Really Exist?

There a few teams I consider myself a fan of, the Cardinal being one of them. St. Louis is a great baseball city, the uniforms are classy, and they’ve done wonders breathing baseball life into the cookie cutter by the Arch. Mark McGwire was my favorite player while he was playing, and Eck before that, and I’ve loved the A’s for a long time, so when Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan traveled to the Midwest, that just increased my interest in the Cards.

Then as a fantasy owner, I waited quite a while for Matt Morris to arrive, I went over the edge to trade for JD Drew, and I fell in baseball love with a single-A prospect who you might know by the name of Albert Pujols. And I knowingly smiled at the snickers my pick of Woody Williams collected this spring.

I’m a born and bred New Englander, and first and foremost a citizen of Red Sox nation, but as a baseball fan and as a fantasy owner, I also follow the Cards, among other teams.

So I was naturally watching the Cubs and Cardinals this weekend, taking in the Cubs broadcast on Direct TV, and there were more than a few declarations over the weekend, that this match up was “the best rivalry in baseball.”

That’s where I have to draw the line.

I understand my biases, and I acknowledge them, and allow for them when needed, but in this case, it’s not a bias. It’s simple truth. The best rivalry in baseball is the Red Sox and Yankees. Period. To borrow from Bill Simmons, I will not argue about this.

The Yankees fans and team will try to tell you that, sure, they get up for the Red Sox, but every team considers the Yankees a rival and the Red Sox aren’t much different than, say, the Orioles or any other team.

Don’t believe it. One need only think back to this spring’s Jose Contreras operetta to understand how much pleasure these two teams get in sticking pins in each other.

But while we are at it, let’s be honest, even the players don’t buy into any rivalries as much as they used to. This is just another stage performance with their brothers in the MLPA for the vast majority of players, at least in the cool of the show’s staging.

Still, when the lights come up on a Red Sox/Yankees series at Fenway, with the two teams tied for first place in the AL East, the ballpark will be buzzing, the fans will be stoked, and the electricity and adrenaline will wash down onto the field and fuel the game. Suddenly a night in May becomes a  pitched battle, the likes of which we will not see until the days dwindle in September and the pennant races reach a fever pitch.

The newbies on both teams will realize, by the second inning of the first game, what the veterans already know. These aren’t just 3 games in 162. These games mean everything to everyone at Fenway. Heroes and goats will be forever labeled in these games. The way Red Sox fans view their players will be formed by the lasting impressions of every game they play in the Red Sox uni against the dreaded Yankees. Stories of these seemingly innocuous May games …  just 3 in 162 … in 1 year of 100 …  will be told for four score and seven years.

On any given day Red Sox Nation would rather see the Yankees lose than the Red Sox win. But when you get to see the Yankees lose at the hands of the Red Sox, well, that’s better than finding a parking spot on Newbury Street with some meter left. And any Bostonian will tell you that you have to go a long way to beat that.

And when the Yankees and their fans see how important this all is to Boston and it’s fans, the blood gets in the water and then you have a street fight. Nothing gets you interested in a series faster than some leather-lunged fan at Fenway or The Stadium questioning your ancestry after he’s gone three innings against Milwaukee’s Finest.

Baseball has a unique flavor in the Northeast. There’s an edge that you don’t find anywhere else. The Giants and Dodgers, the Cards and the Cubs, the Mets and the Braves … There are a lot of great rivalries in baseball. But the greatest rivalry is that between the Red Sox and Yankees. Sorry everyone … that’s just the way it is.

Roger will be pumped. Pedro will be pumped. Nomar and Derek will share some laughs. Kenmore Square will be alive. The crowd will be explosive. And the beer and dogs will be a little bit sweeter in this series.

All will be right with the baseball world for three days. Win or lose.

Then we get to go to the Stadium and do it all over again.

Which brings me to the first of my soon-to-be-considered pretentious series of “Play it my way” pieces that will show up in the First Pitch from time to time. I’ve received a lot of e-mail in the last week and much of it deals with finding ways to maximize an owner’s advantages under their league’s set of rules. To me, many of the more popular styles of play in fantasy baseball are ill-conceived.

I started, and I still run my 17-year-old league and I try to design the rules so that it’s as close to running a real baseball team as possible. I try to force my owners to have to construct teams that are balanced similarly to real MLB teams. I tweak the roster limits, scoring, and lineup format so that you need to have depth, and balance to win. And I make it hard to fill your 4th and 5th starters slots, and your second catcher slot and your 5th OF slot, just like it is in “real” baseball.

Later in the year, we’ll get into some of the rules I see in other leagues, that tend to twist fantasy baseball away from being a baseball game, and towards being a math exercise. But today, with the Yankees in town, it seems like a perfect time to call out Rotisserie-style baseball. You should be playing head to head, like baseball is meant to be played.

Rotisserie style involves competing in 8 or 10 columns, usually, over the course of the 6-month season, and scoring is based on the year-to-date totals … Ho hum … That may be interesting for those into quantum physics AND who are within striking distance of winning the thing (not that even a quantum physicist could figure out most of the teams that actually do have a chance to win the thing at any given date). But there’s a good chance that 60% of your owners have nodded off already this year, hopelessly out of it, with nothing to play for.

Or, they are trading Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson for Juan Pierre because 2.789678 stolen bases a week the rest of the way could net them 6.789756 to the 3rd power of pie points in the standings (or is that grape jelly on your slide rule?).

Worst of all the season ends with a thud, probably in mid September, but always on the last Sunday, with the outcome about as suspenseful as the Massachusetts voting in a Presidential election (We would have elected Mondale AND Dukakis!). No playoffs, no nothin’ … And I bet 80% of your owners are setting their fantasy football lineups at the end and thinking “Oh ya, the baseball league is still going …”

Head to head leagues often compete in the same 8 or 10 columns, but pair teams up a week at a time. They give each team a win for every column they do better in than their opponent that week. Head to head fantasy baseball’s rhythms are much more like the real game, and you get a brand new scoreboard every week.

Playing head to head allows you to concentrate on your team, and your opponent’s team exclusively for the week. Each your starter’s starts are vital, and each start by your opponent’s starter is of great interest. In fact, almost every game has something of interest in it for you.

Sunday Night Baseball becomes an event. There’s usually a couple of players from your series in the game and there’s usually a couple of columns up for grabs, often with the batting average column or HR or Rbi column coming down to the last inning of the last game. Every AB, every lineup change, every pulled hamstring, and every manger decision becomes important when you are playing a week at a time.

In my league we play 21 weeks of the regular season, with every team playing every other team twice, one home and once away (home team wins column ties). With 14 teams we need 26 series to complete the schedule so we place two double header weeks in the first 4 weeks and play three straight double headers at the end of the season.

This format makes it important to draft well (60 games in the first 4 weeks) and then you get a string of single weeks to tweak and massage your team to battle injuries and surprises so that you are ready for the final stretch drive, which includes 60 games in the final three weeks.

If you work hard and keep getting better throughout the year, the final three weeks gives almost everyone a shot. The team that won our Championship last year was in 9th place in the league when the final three double headers started. They crept into the playoffs (when our rosters expanded for the final four weeks, they added Mark Prior and Josh Phelps who had been on their minor league rosters) on the final weekend and went on to win the whole thing.

Yes I said Playoffs! That’s another benefit of head to head play. We use 4 of the final 5 weeks of the season for our postseason, playing a two-week playoff and a two-week World Series. You haven’t wracked your nerves until you’d done it in a 14-day, win-or-go-play-fantasy-hockey fantasy baseball showdown, where literally, every pitch counts.

In 1991 in our league, Bobby Bonilla decided both of our playoff series on the last swing of the week, with a walk-off homerun to help the Mets beat the Giants. Bonilla’s HR won that column for his owner, thereby winning the series, and the loss he hung on the relief pitcher for the Giants (Jeff Brantley) cost that pitcher’s owner the loss column in the other playoff series and that playoff win. The last swing of the Series, swung both series.

In 1996 I was winning our World Series at 5pm on the final Sunday only to watch my team go 1- for it’s last –22 ABs that day swinging the BA column to my opponent which dropped our Series to a 5-5 tie. Our Series went 3 extra days and was finally decided (for my opponent) when Hideki Nomo threw no-hitter … at Coors …

Head to head series become like the games themselves, twisting and turning, with several critical turning points. And they each leave you with a story, some you tell years later as you can see.

But even if you are out of the picture in the standings you still get a fresh start every week and chance to beat someone. There’s no such moral victory in Rotisserie baseball. If you are 10th in the league in June, you are looking up the URL of ESPN’s Bass Fishing contest.

You also get to be a pain in the neck to the owners in your league that are battling for the playoffs by beating them in a late season series, so there’s always something to play for in a head to head league.

And no matter what the standings say, there are always a few match ups every year, when you … as they say … throw away the standings. The schedule always have some rivalries ahead, whether it be a cousin, or brother, or some obnoxious guy in your league, or the team that knocked you out of the playoffs last year, or the team that beat you to Doug Mirabelli in last weeks waivers. 

No matter what happens the rest of the year, there’s always the series against that team that plays your league’s Yankees to your Red Sox.

You’ll be pumped. Your opponent will be pumped.  The beer and nachos around your computer monitor will be just a little sweeter that week.

And all will be right in the fantasy baseball world.


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