Soundings: Week Three

I know it’s pretend.

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Miketrout Where have you gone, Mike Trout? (Erik Drost / CC BY

It is time on this Saturday morning to step away for awhile from all the seriousness. To speak instead of something else of utmost importance. At least to me. And maybe millions of others. 

Fantasy baseball.

Of course, my thoughts go first to everyone gravely affected by the coronavirus, to the health care workers and families and all who are wrestling with this global pandemic in various ways. I commiserate, too, with all the high school and college athletes whose spring seasons have been cut short or erased — especially the seniors.

Gone is their one last gallop across grassy playing fields with teammates, classmates, friends — the climax to all those years dreaming, preparing and working toward the fulfillment envisioned during their final year of high school or college eligibility. My heart goes out to them and to everyone whose livelihood derives from athletic competition, whether amateur or professional.

Please don’t think for a minute, while I take a minute to lament the loss of make-believe, that I minimize reality.

But I miss my fantasy excursions.

We did have our annual live fantasy draft in one of the leagues I play in. The online auction done remotely as it is every year — my two grown sons and me and nine other team managers I know only by team name (Biggio Smalls and Wet Bandits and Aperture Science Mantis Men). We prepped and picked and bid on players (it’s play money) not knowing when the actual season would start. It didn’t diminish the clock-ticking intensity of the competitive bidding, though — what possessed me in the heat of the moment to claim Jake Lamb? A bad move, even at $1.

Glove work by Gleyber Torres. (Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA / CC BY-SA

Still, I was ready for Opening Day with Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado, with Gleyber Torres at short and some guy named Renato Nunez at first base. So it goes. And with “Thor” Syndergaard the ace of my staff. Oh wait, he blew out his elbow in spring training. Tommy John surgery. Due back maybe sometime in 2021. Thirty bucks invested. So it goes.

Where else but in fantasy baseball would you care about Nick Ahmed, Kolten Wong, Robinson Chirinos and Kevin Pillar? Or be checking the stats of Jose Quintana, Domingo German or Anthony DeSclafani? Or bidding on Riley Greene, a 19-year-old still years away from the major leagues (if he makes it at all)?  Because this Ottoneu league is a keeper format with 40-man rosters and competitive GMs raking through hot-prospect lists to stash phenoms for future use.

My sons got me into this some years ago . . . how many now? Maybe 20 or more? It started with them and their friends, kids from the neighborhood, guys I had coached. I was the only “grownup.” Some of them lost interest over time as they grew up, had kids of their own, maybe couldn’t find the time.

So five years ago my sons joined this other league and took me with them. It calculates stats like WAR and BABIP and ISO and xRC+ and wOBA. And they matter, I guess. I’m old school. I still look for things like ERA and RBIs and Ks per inning. And guys I like. It’s still baseball after all. 

Shohei Ohtani (Keith Allison / CC BY-SA

A couple of us have kept the other league going, retaining some of the “kids” now in their 40s, the ones I’ve known since Cub Scouts and Wiffle ball at the park down the street. It’s a way of staying in touch. We’ve added newcomers — adult rookies who find the time to set their lineups and care about Shohei Ohtani’s health. The live, online draft is always the best night of the season.

Fantasy baseball (scoring based on real players in real games) brings us closer to the sport we love, and closer to each other . . . in a way that guys feel most comfortable. My sons and I talk much more freely about fantasy moves than personal stuff, what’s in our hearts, what concerns us (beyond having too much invested in Matt Carpenter). We show our vulnerable side through our affection for baseball, our favorite teams and players (and reveal ourselves as we make hard decisions when loyalty and performance go separate ways).

There is camaraderie here, fellowship, friendship. Talking baseball is a way to pepper life with superfluous fun. And there’s real value in that, too. Fantasy baseball is escape; it’s a diversion. It’s like recess in the schoolyard when you were a kid. You can forget about the math test and guilt from the missed assignment. Or politics, climate change and the fact that your septic tank needs replaced.

Sports — conceivably — take us away from all that. The games provide mental relief, a vacation from real life. The drama is ultimately inconsequential; the anguish and triumph, heartbreak and joy come from playing fields, from stadiums and arenas constructed for games that entertain and, yes, generate income — for owners and employees, coaches and athletes.

The pause, this season on hold, has created a vacuum in life. I missed March Madness a little and miss real baseball lot — and watching my own kids play. But I miss fantasy, too: switching over to ESPN before going to bed to see who had a big night, if one of my starters got knocked out early, if Craig Kimbrel blew yet another save (please no). I miss the impulsive drops and adds, perusing the box scores, the feel-good boost of self-esteem you get from watching your 10th-round longshot having a career year.

While the real world presses on against the tides of COVID-19, I know the loss of fantasy baseball is a minor thing. But even when life is hard — especially when life is hard — we still need those little deliverances that make things a little sweeter, that help us get through.

And this year was going to be my year. I just know it.

Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine and manager of BeansAndRice and Kierkegaard’s Leap.