Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. — Bull Durham
When I was growing up on a farm outside Richmond, Va., my family and I built a full-fledged baseball field in a cornfield (not quite a Field of Dreams) and spent hour after hour killing time playing pickup games and collecting baseball cards, this being the pre-Xbox era. Having no local team, I adopted the Los Angeles Dodgers when they reached the World Series in 1974, when I was seven. After playing high-school baseball at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, my playing career petered out with two less-than-memorable seasons of Division III baseball at Williams College, while my Dodger love had high points with World Series championships in 1981 and 1988.
However, that love of competitive baseball was replaced by the new game of rotisserie baseball, invented in the mid-1980s in New York. Our league, Fat Drunk & Stupid (from the classic Animal House line), was launched in the spring of 1991 among a group of University of Virginia Law School students. For those not familiar with “roto”: It’s like fantasy football, where you use actual professional games to generate player statistics for an owner’s team. Comparing roto to fantasy football, however, is akin to comparing chess to checkers. In most fantasy football leagues, players are drafted based solely on their projected performance for that year — you just guess whether Tom Brady is likely to be better this year than Aaron Rodgers. Our rotisserie league, on the other hand, asks owners to allocate fictitious “dollars” from a limited budget on salaries for 23 players, each with a contract that can stretch for years on end. Just as in real baseball, you can choose to trade a promising minor-leaguer for an established star, mortgaging your future in an effort to win it all now. At one point, one FDS owner commented that he had owned Atlanta Brave Chipper Jones for eleven years, or one-third of the owner’s actual life.
While in law school in Charlottesville, we had to read the Daily Progress for updates on our players, as this was before the Internet. After I left Charlottesville in 1993, our league became one of the main ways our UVA crowd stayed in touch, an especially enjoyable hobby for me because my squad, the Homer Simpsons, dominated the competition, winning four of the first six years. But then the Internet arrived, leveling the playing field for information. Living in Arlington, I got married, had kids, and developed a real career that took time away from player scouting and trade negotiations. Between 1997 and 2011, I won only one title, while UVA friends and competitors John Wollen, a New York City financial wizard, and Van Katzman, a Seattle lawyer, each won four titles, just one behind me.
But as my pretend team struggled, the Washington area successfully stole the Montreal Expos and brought baseball back to the greater D.C. area. My middle child, Chase, quickly took to the Nats; even as a three-year old in 2005, he would watch nearly entire games without demanding the inning-by-inning food and candy bribes that other kids negotiated as the price of attending the games. I gave up my boyhood Dodgers and adopted the lowly Nationals as my team of choice.
Loyal season-ticket holders, my wife, daughter, sons, and I suffered through the lean years for the Nationals. One year, not a single pitcher won ten games. A parade of has-beens and never-will-bes surrounded UVA alum Ryan Zimmerman on the field. Even solid performers like Alfonso Soriano and Adam Dunn left town for greener pastures. Much like my roto team, they played a lot and lost a lot. But we became loyal fans — I even ended up as a Facebook friend of the usher in our section.
As the calendar turned to 2012, there was optimism for both the Nats and the Homer Simpsons. The Nationals had drawn a straight flush in the amateur draft, selecting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in 2009 and 2010, respectively. The farm system had also produced young talent including Jordan Zimmerman, Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa, and Ian Desmond. The media touted the Nats as a fashionable dark-horse playoff team.
The Homer Simpsons were set up for a promising 2012 as well. Throughout 2011, I had traded for a bunch of low-cost, high-upside players, such as Jordan Zimmerman and Michael Morse with the Nats, Kris Medlin of the Braves, and slugger Mike Stanton of the Marlins. After we had our annual player draft via conference call in early April, I negotiated a series of trades with other owners who were giving up, or “tanking,” on 2012. My nemeses John and Van also had solid teams, and we battled it out throughout the spring to assemble all-star squads that could win the 2012 FDS title. I took over first place in June and led consistently throughout the summer. Not unintentionally, I doubled down on Nats, adding new star pitcher Gio Gonzales and catcher Kurt Suzuki to the squad. I also acquired star after star — Halladay, Cain, Rollins, Wright — to keep up with Van and John in the FDS arms race.
Meanwhile, the real Nats became a sensation. Chase and I cheered Bryce Harper’s season, unprecedentedly stellar for a 19-year-old. Gonzales, Strasburg, and Zimmerman all won Pitcher of the Month honors. Tyler Clippard became a stud closer, and Desmond blossomed into an All-Star. We went to 17 regular-season home games, and the Nats went 10–7, trying to impress us.