"You're kidding. Seriously?"
Woody Thompson, proud owner of the Thompson Twins, nodded vigorously at me. In the process of moving, he had recently found an old VHS tape labeled "baseball."
Popping it in, he discovered a tape of the very first Fat Dog Rotisserie League Auction. The year was 1984 and it was my first fantasy draft ever.
I was 14 years old.
What an amazing stroke of luck. None of us even remembered it being taped. Watching it, as you can imagine, brought forth both a lot of memories and a feeling that I have a fairly good lawsuit against the makers of "Napoleon Dynamite." (In the clip above, I'm the dorky, hugely bespectacled, fully follicled kid. Seriously, throw a "Vote for Pedro" T-shirt on me and I might as well be Napoleon. Ooofa.)
It was early spring in 1984 and I was actually a fairly good high school tennis player, believe it or not; ranked in the state as a junior, etc. As a result, I took private tennis lessons from Tommy V. Connell, soon to be known as the owner of the plucky T.V. Sets. In the video, he's the guy in the yellow T-shirt and white hat. As I walked up to see him for my lesson one day, he was talking to his best friend, a guy I would later come to know as Beloved Former Commissioner for Life Don Smith, owner of the Smith Ereens. (He's off camera from this angle). They were talking in a weird language that felt newly familiar and going through names of guys they could ask "to join." It dawned on me what they were discussing, and I asked a question that would eventually set my life on a course I'd never imagined.
"Are you guys talking about Rotisserie League Baseball?"
They were just as shocked that I knew what they were talking about as I was that anyone else had read "Rotisserie League Baseball," the little green book that had just been released detailing the rules, spirit and advice about how to play "The Greatest Game for Baseball Fans Since Baseball."
Don, Tommy and their friends were forming a league and they were still in search of a 12th guy who had heard of this weird thing and was willing to try it. They were in their late 20s and early 30s and I was a freshman in high school. But we've all been in leagues where you just need one more guy -- any guy -- to play and that first year, the Fat Dogs were no exception, and I was that guy.
The Fat Dogs
As you might imagine, it was fascinating to me to watch the tape of our first draft, a clip of which I've posted for you to enjoy. Hopefully it makes you feel better about your own high school years. No matter how dorky you were, I bet I was dorkier. A couple of notes about the clip: That particular day of the auction was also the tennis singles finals for our district, which I was in. (Became the first freshman in 35 years to win it, too, dammit). So I had to show up late and asked a couple of buddies from the baseball team to help me out until I got there. So that's the two guys you see and why I have no idea if folks are available or not. Thought it was fairly hilarious to see me rip through names.
Weird to see an auction with no computers, but personal computers hadn't been invented yet. In the blue hat, at the bottom of the screen is Frank Smith, owner of the Frank Furters. You don't see his partner that first year, Randy Malazzo, who co-ran the Beefcake Bashers until year two, when Randy got sole possession of the Bashers. The man who taped this, Woody Thompson, is the guy with the brown hair at the very bottom right, and not on the screen are still-current members Warren Faulker (of the Faux Pas) and Don Smith of the Ereens. Don, Woody, Tommy, Frank, Randy, Warren and me, all in that tape and drafting 26 years later. And some of the other guys in the league have been in for close to 20. It's cool to see.
Most folks auction it off with an auctioneer and folks yelling out bids, but we still do the auction the same way we did in year one: Go around the table and everyone gets a chance to bid or pass when it's your turn. Takes a little longer, but it's much more civilized, less chaotic, and more fun as trying to convince someone to make a bid for one dollar more leads to tons of jokes.
People that know me here in Bristol found the clip hilarious for many reasons, of course, but all agreed: Mannerism wise, I haven't changed at all in 26 years. And finally ... I can't believe I paid $48 for Ryne Sandberg. I was stars and scrubs, even back then.
Craig Lefferts, $6: 3 wins, 10 saves, a 2.13 ERA in 105 innings pitched.
George Foster, $14: 24 home runs, 86 RBIs, .269
Greg Brock, $6: 14 home runs, 34 RBIs, .225. What a dog.
Ryne Sandberg, $48: .314, 19 home runs, 84 RBIs, 32 SBs. Good but worth $48?
I fell in love with the game, of course, and 15 years later I would get my first job writing about fantasy sports. Nineteen years later I would start the Talented Mr. Roto Web site and, in 2006, a scant 22 years after my first-ever fantasy auction, I came to ESPN. And much of that happened because of the Fat Dogs, where I not only learned how to play, but how to play the right way, to enjoy the game with a good group of guys where everyone wants to win, sure, but the primary goal of the league is just to laugh and have fun.
We play by the book, that is to say, the rules laid out in the original "Rotisserie League Baseball" book. We draft the same days every year. The Friday after Opening Day we do the American League, then on Saturday we do the National League. We sit in order of last year's standings, with the champion at the head of the table, second place sitting to his right, third next to second and so forth. Twelfth place gets to throw the first guy out for auction and the pizza is delivered promptly at 12:30. I fly back to my hometown for it every year.
And here's the best part: Seven of the guys from the video are, 26 years later, still in the Fat Dog League. For all the amazing advances the Internet has made to help the growth, popularity and ease of fantasy sports, there is one downside to me. And that's the fact folks no longer need to be in the same room to draft. It's just not the same. Especially when you get to draft with people you've known for more than a quarter of a century. Because you do something embarrassing at the draft -- and we all have over the years -- it gets remembered. Forever. And the amount of crap-giving is both hilarious and awe inspiring.
To me, more than anything else, baseball is history and statistics. Fantasy covers the statistics pretty well. Our upcoming 30 for 30 documentary "Silly Little Game" (Tuesday, April 20, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) covers the history pretty well. At least, the history of fantasy baseball and the founding fathers, including the inventor of the game, the great Daniel Okrent. If you are reading this, you like fantasy baseball, so I assure you that you will love learning about the origins of the game we all play.
And so, with the 30th anniversary of fantasy baseball being celebrated this week along with the "Silly Little Game" premiere and the discovery of the tape of my first-ever draft, I'm feeling a bit nostalgic, as you can see.
Since that first year, I've lost the glasses and a good chunk of the hair, I've gained experience, perspective and weight, but most importantly, I have played in many hundreds of fantasy leagues covering all kinds of sports. I'm pretty sure I even played fantasy hockey once.
But, as I reflected on more than a quarter century of playing in this league, I realized ... all I really needed to know about fantasy I learned from the Fat Dogs.
So, with a tip of the cap to Robert Fulghum, these are the things I've learned.
Don't over-react. Being in a league like this, where moves can only be made once a week and only if something (DL, minors, etc.) has happened to your player, forces you to be patient. Baseball ebbs and flows and I have found, over 26 years, that much more often than not, if you give them time, players will usually do what they are supposed to. Which means come back from the ledge, Carlos Lee owners.
Play fair. We all want to win, but we also play this game for fun. A victory you had to cheat to get isn't a real victory. In the Fat Dog League, only one person has to report a trade. Every other league I've played in has to have both parties confirm, but we only need one. When I asked Beloved Former Commissioner for Life Don Smith about this early on, he said, very simply "Well, if you're lying about the trade, we'll all find out pretty quickly." We've never had a problem.
Reach out. Touch someone. When it comes to trades, call the guy. We didn't have e-mail for the first 15 years or so of the league, which meant when we wanted to trade we had to call. So many times in other leagues, I get a trade offer through the host Web site with no explanation. And it's always terrible. So I reject and I suspect most others do, as well. You have a much better chance of getting a deal done on the phone where you can explain what you need, see what the other owner is looking for and negotiate. E-mail is an imperfect form of communication on many levels, including for fantasy trades.
To that end, our league trading deadline is the final out of the All-Star Game. Every year, a bunch of the owners gather to watch the game, and those of us who can't make it will call in knowing everyone who needs to trade will be checking in. Trade talk really heats up around the 8th inning, and nobody wants a 1-2-3 ninth. And let's not even talk about 2002.
Don't give up. Don't ever give up. Means a lot more coming from Jimmy V, but it's true in fantasy, as well. We're a keeper league, so you always have something to play for. After the auction, we do a minor league draft. And the No. 1 pick belongs to the team in sixth place. We reward those who finish first through fifth a different way. Sixth place gets pick one, seventh gets pick two and so on until 12th. Then it's fifth through first. So even if it's not your year, you want to compete to at least finish sixth. I did that two years ago and as a result, I have Stephen Strasburg for the next six years.
Our league has built-in incentives, but it's just good to do from a karma standpoint. By continuing to play, no matter what, it affects everyone else in the league. And next year, when you're in the title hunt, you'll appreciate everyone else keeping your opponents honest. I've phoned in only one league (not this one) in my life -- the summer I was going through my divorce -- and I still regret it. (The league-bailing, not the divorce). That's why I used that quote from "For Love of the Game" in last week's column. I love that quote. It's a game that Kevin Costner shouldn't care about; it means nothing to the Tigers or the team they are playing, the Yankees. But the game means something to the Red Sox's chances. So he's going, sore shoulder and all, to give it his all.
Have characters. Not character. Characters. That's a rule from Rick Hill, owner of the Zydeco Jukers. He brings a voodoo hand on a stick, Mardi Gras beads and a boom box to every draft. He is our defending Lone Star League winner (the AL offshoot of the NL-only Fat Dogs) and he walked into this year's draft blasting "We Are the Champions." And every year, when the Jukers roster a player, loud Zydeco music plays as Rick waves the hand and shakes the beads. Well, except this year, when Hill had no choice to but to spend six bucks on Cristian Guzman. That one wasn't worth celebrating.
It never gets old. Because all leagues need silly and fun. Bring out your inner Juker.
It's about a buck a homer. These days, we have all sorts of player evaluation methods, what a good auction price is and how to value players. But as Don Smith told me in the first few years we were doing this, it works out to about a buck a homer or, in 4x4 leagues, about a buck a save. And to this day, I've found that to be as good a rule of thumb as any. When evaluating trades, I always keep that in the back of my mind.
Don't ignore middle relief. As Carl Jaedicke, longtime owner of the Jed Heads in the Lone Star League wrote me, "I love no-name guys who can pitch 70 innings of 2.75 ERA to shore up my pitching numbers ... the Heads historically pitch much better than they hit." Because we go so deep, we always have to use middle relievers. And when you look at your box score in the morning and see your starter gave up four runs in six innings, it's a lot easier to take when you have three innings of scoreless relief by two middlemen, as well. In shallow leagues, where you have start limits for pitchers, I always try to throw in a middle guy (I used Neftali Feliz a lot at the end of last year) in my open pitching slots.
A league that eats together stays together. Just like the founding fathers did at La Rotisserie Française, the league eats lunch together every Thursday, rain or shine, at Jose's Mexican Restaurant in Bryan, Texas. During the second half of the season, this is also where we have a once-a-week blind free-agent acquisition budget (FAAB) bidding on available free agents. If I am visiting my folks for a weekend, I will try to come in on Wednesday night, just so I can make Thursday lunch. Lotta laughs, trade talk and studying of the standings. I'm the only one who doesn't drink iced tea.
There is no right way to win. Clearly, I have my own theories on how to win. But over 26 years I've seen every possible kind of team bring home the Yoo-Hoo. I've seen the Bashers win with their idea of crushing offense and getting a bunch of cheap innings-eaters and closers to top wins and saves while blowing off ERA and WHIP. Woody Thompson has a long-standing and, some might say, irrational hatred of the Dodgers. In 26 years, he's never owned one, but it hasn't stopped him from winning multiple titles. I've seen all young guys, all veterans, cheap pitching, expensive pitching, stars and scrubs, totally balanced and everything in between win. There's no right way.
No one knows it all. This league has been doing it for almost as long as the game has been around. It's as tough as any "expert" league I've ever played in. And as the Current Beloved Commissioner For Life Frank Smith points out, he (and the rest of us) are not nearly as clever as we think we are. The minute you think you know everything, you're dead. Every day is a learning experience. The rest of Frank's list?
• There's a sucker born every minute. OK, he stole that one.
• Wins and saves are always left on the table after the auction.
• Everybody has a price. Stole that one too, but it's not nearly as macabre as the original. Unless, of course, you're deep in trade talks with Frank.
• Livan Hernandez doesn't know when to quit.
• There are no more sleepers in the Fat Dog or Lone Star Leagues.
• Auction Day is truly the best day (two days) of the year.
• There are two seasons: winter and baseball.
• Crickets are loud.
• Never, ever, pay for saves.
I may have heard that last one somewhere before.
Don't trade until June 1. Back when the league started, we only got standings once a week. No Internet or computer to do them for us, we had to do them by hand and they were mailed. So it took a while before you could really get a sense of your team. But around June 1, you should know what you have, what you need. That was about eight standings reports in those days before you felt like you had enough info to make a deal. Unless it's a slam dunk or a desperation move, I don't even start thinking about trades until the middle of May and won't really pull the trigger until June 1 or so.
Every move counts. You may think a transaction in the middle of April is meaningless. It's not. I've seen more leagues than not come down to one at-bat, one home run, one save. I lost the Fat Dog league one year when, with two weeks to go, Don Smith waived a couldn't be-kept-Scott Rolen to pick up a prospect. The second-place team grabbed him, got one home run from him in the final week and that homer propelled him past me in that category, a two-point swing, on the final day. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
Another year, I was in first until the last day of the season. The only category the second-place guy could make a move in was wins and he had no starters going. But on the final day of the season, David Hicks, owner of the Country Hix, had two different closers blow saves and get cheap wins. And he had a third middle reliever get a win. Three wins on the last day pushed him to an extra half-point for a tie in wins. That half point tied him with me and then, in the tiebreaker, David led in more categories than me. You never know.
I miss Rod Beck. As Randy Malazzo, owner of the Beefcake Bashers, notes, Rod Beck was once asked about being a little heavy. He responded "I've never seen any one on the DL with pulled fat." RIP, Rod.
David Ellis, owner of the Dirt Dobbers, has learned that there is a positive correlation between how much you pay for a starting pitcher and his propensity to pull a labrum. Wade Kusler, owner of the Safe Sox, has learned to always play for next year, even when he's playing for this year. And all of them have learned, as Randy notes, that "Most of the overpaid analysts don't know much more than most of the owners."
But mostly, I've learned these leagues mean more to me than any other league I'll ever play in.
Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- is the defending Fat Dog League Champion. And is currently in 12th. He's not panicking. He is the creator of RotoPass.com, a Web site that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off. Cyberstalk the TMR | Be his Cyberfriend