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.
As summer rounded into fall, it was clear that the Nats were going to make the National League playoffs, barring a total meltdown. While the media focused obsessively on Strasburg’s shutdown in September, the team never let its lead in the National League East drop below 4 1 /2 games. “Natitude” became a phenomenon. We couldn’t have given away Nats tickets in 2008; now they’d became prized possessions that made neighbors (and clients) envious.
Alas, the Homer Simpsons could not pull away from the competition as easily. John’s team faded, and he dumped a slew of high-priced veterans to Van on the last day we were allowed to make trades. I had foolishly traded Medlin to another team, Chris Plaushin’s Lannister, who used Medlin’s 10–1 record to make it a three-way race. But some stellar pitching enabled the Simpsons to retake the lead with three days of the regular season to go.
To play it safe, I benched several pitchers, praying Van’s pitchers would not throw well enough to catch up. On the last night of the season, with each of us online in real time, Van lost a point in batting average when another team, out of the running since March, used a pinch-hit single to move ahead by .0001, putting the Simpsons in first place. Van’s apparently last shot to catch me in ERA fell short when star Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw gave up one run and left the game. But as I began to type up an e-mail claiming my sixth FDS crown, the website suddenly refreshed automatically and flipped the ERA standings. So Van had passed me.
What had happened? With a sickening feeling, I clicked on Van’s team to find “Axford, 1.0 IP, 0 ER.” John Axford, the Brewers’ closer, had been sent out for a mop-up, meaningless, but scoreless inning in the last game of the National League season. Van’s ERA stood at 3.4598, mine at 3.4608. The Brewers game ended one minute later, and Van had his fifth FDS title, tying me for the most ever. He also picked up a not insignificant winner’s check. I was one batter short. The season was over.
It took me about three days to recover from the heartbreak, which I shared all too freely with my coworkers, acquaintances, and unfortunate passersby. But at least the Nats had clinched home-field advantage, and we were set for playoff baseball in D.C. for the first time since 1933. The games overlapped with my company’s annual retreat, but there was no way my family and I would miss the playoffs. After a crushing loss in Game 3 to the Cardinals, we watched as Jason Werth battled for 13 pitches before mashing a game-winning homer to force a Game 5.
And what a miraculous Game 5 it was. We seemed blessed when I caught a ball in batting practice and the Nats racked up six runs in the first three innings on rocket home runs from Zimmerman, Harper, and Morse. The Cardinals, however, never roll over easily, and I told Chase above the roars, “We need to keep scoring runs.” Alas, it was the Cards who scored one in the fourth, two in the fifth, one in the seventh, and one in the eighth to close the gap to 6–5. Instead of watching my fantasy team struggling to clinch in front of my laptop, I was watching my hometown team from section 131, row H.
The Nats scratched out a run in the bottom of the eighth, and we needed three outs to advance in the playoffs. After giving up a leadoff double, Storen fed off of the crowd to get two outs. The clock said 12:06 a.m., awfully late for my eleven-year old son to be awake, but there was no way I’d let him miss history. Just as in the pretend baseball league a few days earlier, I needed one out.
As all Nationals fans know, that out came too late, and the history that was made was infamous. Storen threw 13 pitches to Yadier Molina, David Freese, and Daniel Descalso, any one of which could have been the pitch that clinched the series, but when the inning was over, the Cardinals were ahead 9–7. The Nationals went down meekly in the bottom of the ninth, and the series was lost. Chase and I were among the 45,966 fans who trudged home in total silence. The season was over, one batter short, again.
The long, cold, baseball-less winter is coming to a close, and the Nats are in spring training, ready to defend their National League East crown, one year wiser and with Strasberg and Harper, each now with a full year under his belt, as part of their arsenal. I’d bet even money we’ll be sitting in section 131, row H, talking to Martha the usher when they represent the National League in the World Series this fall.
It will take more than one off-season to recover for my Homer Simpsons rotisserie team, however. A failed run for the title means I have little to build with for 2013, but the 23rd year of our league will coincide with our 20th law-school reunion in Charlottesville. I can’t wait to see John and Van and the other owners, normally scattered around the country and connected only by a website and a love for baseball. A love that not even twin heartbreaks can crush. Here’s to Opening Day.
— C. Stewart Verdery Jr. is an attorney and lobbyist at Monument Policy Group in Washington, D.C.