<
>

THE INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE WEEK 4: WATCHING THE NFL IN JAPAN

Meet the GM of Team Japan (center). Courtesy James Balthis

In Japan, NFL games start at 1:00 AM, as Sunday becomes Monday. The night games fall around lunchtime on Monday and Tuesday. If you're a U.S. Marine in Okinawa like Corporal James Balthis, manager of Team Japan, deep-night Sundays are thrilling. Balthis, 23, and his friends either sleep for a couple of hours and wake up to watch the NFL, or pull all-nighters and watch football on the Armed Forces Network until they go to work at 7 a.m.

During lunch on Monday and Tuesday, people watch at the USO, where the games are projected onto a huge screen, or in the chow halls, where the Marines watch "in our camouflage uniforms, dreadfully looking at the clock for when we have to go back to work or stand post, hoping the game is decided before then," Balthis says. Chow lines slow down and people linger before returning to work. "I've never been so excited to see a line get longer."

Last week, when I found out that Team Japan, 3-0, was my Week 4 opponent, I decided to profile its manager. His was the only undefeated team, and he certainly wasn't going to drop one to my 1-2 squad that put up 37 points the previous week. But lo and behold. Thanks to solid performances by Matt Prater (a kicker) and Earnest Graham—not to mention atypically anemic days from Team Japan's Marion Barber, Michael Turner and Andre Johnson—Team USA took down Team Japan this week. Hey, luck happens.

Corporal Balthis has been making his own luck in Okinawa for the last two years. He's from Plano, Texas originally and he joined the Marines about six months before shipping overseas. One bonus of the location of his deployment is that his mother is Japanese and he has family nearby that he sees often. Well, that and the admiration of the locals. Sometimes when he wears his beloved Cowboys jersey around Okinawa, people stop him and say, "Dallas Cowboys. America's team!" He replies, "Damn right." He's been a fan since watching the team win three Super Bowls in the 1990s alongside his father, a retired Marine Lt. Col.

Balthis is an aircraft maintenance administration specialist for Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 36. He monitors maintenance reports of aircraft and spots trends in the data, which he passes up the chain of command so that squadron commanders can make informed decisions about the aircraft in their charge. ("Pretty boring job, but it keeps me using my brain.") The attention to detail and data reading are the the perfect skill set for fantasy.

Off the base, baseball is the sport of choice, but Balthis says that you can find NFL games at the very few sports bars in Okinawa, most owned by ex-U.S. military who stayed there. The Marines hope that their favorite teams will be playing in one of the two or three games that the Armed Forces Network shows each week. Thankfully, Balthis' Cowboys are usually featured.

The Corporal has only recently become a fantasy expert. He used to be what he calls a "fan boy drafter." (He picked Julius Jones as a Cowboys' rookie in the first round in 2004.) But he's been in more than 40 leagues since 2005, and by his own account, really started understanding fantasy last year. He checks the stats every day with the same attention to detail that his job demands. "I really don't do it to try to win at Fantasy football," he says. "I do it because I enjoy football and I love being able to predict games' outcomes and how certain players will do. The fantasy football wins come as a side effect of my love of watching stats."

Despite a lucky victory by Team USA over Team Japan this week, and a newly tarnished record, Balthis' squad remains my pick to win the whole thing and get a trip to Saudi Arabia to meet the prince. That said, it's anybody's league. Team Canada is the only one without a win, and every other team but Lebanon has at least a 2-2 record.

Prince Abdullah update: On fire for the second week in a row, Team Saudi Arabia has clawed its way back to even at 2-2. Big weeks for Drew Brees, Steven Jackson, and Greg Jennings helped them knock off Kiran Paima's New Zealand squad (NZ's benching of Favre in favor of Aaron Rodgers also didn't hurt). Don't rule out the prince.