Real Life Intrudes on Fantasy League

published January 6, 2011

It was certainly the first time I’ve ever heard the words “fantasy baseball” used in a eulogy.

My friend Jim died the day after Christmas, of a heart attack.  His brother, in a heartfelt and moving address, referred to the breadth of Jim’s interests, saying, “He was equally at home at a Wagnerian opera and at a fantasy baseball draft, overpaying for Phillies pitchers.”

The remark drew an appreciative laugh.

I say Jim was my friend, though in fact we usually saw each other just once a year, at the April auction and gathering of the OCBA (Obsessive-Compulsive Baseball Association).  We’d be in a room together for six of our favorite hours of every year, go for a beer and/or dinner after in however large a group could stick around, and then Jim would drive the nearly three hours back to his home.

We’d ask each other about families and work; we met originally when I was a book editor and his ad agency handled my publisher’s account.  But more often than not, the conversation centered on sports, as it does in many of my friendships.  That was certainly the case in our email exchanges through the years, through the many years — the OCBA has weathered 28 seasons, and Jim was a part of it for all but one of them.

It may be a silly little game, to crib the title of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary about the birth and growth of fantasy baseball, but we’ve played it for roughly half our lives, and spent untold hours thinking and stewing about it.

Bob Ryan once said something to the effect of, “Men who don’t follow sports– what do they talk about?”  There’s politics and religion, of course, but those topics are as likely to divide us as to bring us together.  In our current hyper-partisan climate, disagreement often ends the conversation, and sometimes the friendship.

With sports, disagreement merely spices things.  Our debates touch on the three great realms: people, events, and ideas.  The subject is filled with history and passion, ripe for analysis and consideration, and blessedly irrelevant, which gives it a measure of safety.  Even between fans of hated rivals, it is possible to have a beverage, revisit the past, talk some smack, and generally do with words what young male animals do with their paws, horns, and antlers.

I’ve never been in an on-line fantasy league with random people; what’s the point of proving I’m smarter than people I don’t even know?  Our league began with college friends and others from work.  It has mutated through the years, drawing in friends of friends and colleagues of former colleagues.  Two of the original six owners are still in it.  Others have been part of the league for twenty years or more.

Like any group of people who’ve been doing something in common for so long, we’ve developed a history we speak about in shorthand.  “Chip Hale” brings back the guy who placed a bid on the Twins farmhand by phone while attending a wedding.  “Dante Bichette” cracks us up, recalling the incredulous reaction of the fellow whose girlfriend had bought the Angels outfielder while he was out of the room.  “Felix Hernandez” brings groans and rueful shakes of the head, but I can’t tell you why – you had to be there.

Our drafts are a combination running joke and stress test, a yearly fix of camaraderie and needling, of fierce competition and unspoken bonding.  It’s a distillation of everything that’s fun about caring about sports, with enough of a cutthroat edge to keep it from getting cuddly.

Maybe that’s why I was surprised at how shaken I felt when I heard about Jim.  Our interactions were so light, so breezy, full of banter and good spirits.  He was the person to turn to whenever calm good humor and wisdom were called for.  It was so easy not to notice the bond being formed through so many hours of shared laughter, so many years of picking up where we’d left off, so many lunches of pizza or cold cuts, so many trades – including the league’s only transatlantic transaction, when I was in London as the deadline approached.

There was laughter in the church when Jim’s love of the Phillies was mentioned, but why wouldn’t it be?  Why shouldn’t we be remembered for the things we love, whether it’s family, music, books, or the Washington Square Senators, the team he built and rebuilt and shaped and schemed for?

All our games are silly, but that doesn’t make them little.  They’re as big as our ties to the people with whom we play them.

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