Bronx Banter Guest Post
By Nick Fleder
I started going to Yankees games with my dad when I was four. I was shepherded to the outside gate to have French fries and Diet Coke before we found our way to our seats on the first base side of the diamond, close enough to the action that an errant throw on a double play could hit us in the head.
We walked past the same toothless usher who always guarded the section 71 seats at the old Yankee Stadium, and I would harass the same first baseman, Tino Martinez, for game balls until he retired and yielded his annoyance to Jason Giambi. Attending so many Yankee games, roughly twenty a year, was why I fell so hard for the sport. But even watching every game, part of the time starry-eyed under the stadium lights and the rest of the time in front of my kitchen TV set, didn’t completely satisfy me. I wanted to play.
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Dad caught on to my baseball passion and coached me through Little League. But I was afraid of the ball and no good as a hitter. I stood at the rear of the batter’s box and rarely took the bat off of my shoulder. I had trouble keeping my eye on the ball and vividly remember one at-bat on a Friday night under the lights at Loshe Park in Sleepy Hollow, NY. It was my third time up and I was facing a flamethrower, my friend Nick. I chopped the ball to shortstop and was out by a good ten feet. No runs scored on the play, but my friends and teammates cheered for me making simple contact, which sums up what kind of ballplayer I was. I still wanted to play.
Dad bought me a metal pole advertised on ESPN, the one that had a ball fixed in a black padding. I worked on hand-eye coordination by batting the ball at torso level over and over again, while it coiled around the pole like a tetherball and returned to its original position. I was decent at hitting a ball when it was stationary, but that didn’t help me when it was moving, in a game, so when I finally gave up playing, Dad wasn’t disappointed, probably because I wasn’t either. But he saw what baseball meant to me.
Later that year, he tested something on me he had never tried on my older brother, Jackson, who was indifferent to the game but appreciated the spectacle of the ballpark—the heckling fans, the salesmanship of the hot dog vendors and the cheering after a home run. He took me to his fantasy draft.
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My father was involved in the first fantasy league ever, and plays in what’s left of that league still today. He brought me into the world of fantasy sports through an expensive ($260 in, up to $1500 out) league of adult men (with a wealth of baseball knowledge) when I was almost ten, roughly six years ago. The league (originally called the Rotisserie league but now aptly named “AARP”) was the focus of one of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, “Silly Little Game,” and the creator, Dan Okrent, still plays. It almost instantly became an obsession for me.
Draft day was even better than the trips to Yankee Stadium. We developed a ritual of grabbing a Quizno’s sandwich before heading off to scrape together an underwhelming roster using the SI Baseball Preview sheets. Dad guided me with tips for the auction, telling me to speak up and pronounce my bids with confidence, encouraging me to stare my opponents down, look them directly the eye when I bid to try to get them to drop out. He used a ten-year old boy to try to intimidate his opponents.
We didn’t have a useful strategy, despite his twenty plus years of experience. Maybe it was to make it fun for me, but our overall approach was not exactly a recipe for success: he told me to identify a couple of superstars and pay “whatever it takes” for them, and allowed me to keep the expensive superstars left over from our roster the year before.
Our incompetence wasn’t limited to the drafting of the players. We traveled to the ESPN offices on 34th Street in Manhattan for our first draft together, only to hear from the deadpan security guard on the second floor that he “had no idea of any draft at ESPN.” A phone call later, we realized we had returned to the site of the previous draft but that we were across town from this year’s draft location – the commissioner’s apartment. Amid the chaos of drafting by cell phone from a bus for the first thirty to forty minutes, Dad made good on his promise to buy any superstar whose name I would recognize; Todd Helton for $40? Maybe. David Wright for close to the same amount? Surely. Carlos Delgado for $45? Why not? We didn’t have a list of sleepers, or even a list of players we wanted, but it really didn’t matter at the time.
One league led to another. To my friends, my growing obsession, fueled by my interest in sabermetrics and the acquisition of MLB Season Pass and NBA League Pass subscriptions on our TV at home, looked an awful lot like a gambling addiction. My pal Max teased me. “You know it’s a growing problem, how much money you bet on sports?”
But it was just a deeper way of connecting to the game, incentive to watch as much baseball as I could, and a little reward for all the hours I devoted to it. I had watched the sport through the prism of the Yankees, which meant the AL East. Soon after I began playing fantasy baseball, though, I found myself flush with knowledge about the NL West. The money was a factor in my love of fantasy leagues—free leagues were much less interesting, after all, with owners regularly dropping out—but what appealed to me most is the chance to match wits and baseball knowledge with grown-ups.
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Dad and I talked fantasy baseball while watching the Yankee games during dinners and my Mom suffered through the discussions. I continued to bounce ideas off him – “How does Ryan Howard for a cheap Aroldis Chapman sound?” – and we kept the Fleder Mice in conversations through our successes and our failures. He taught me the importance of keeping cheap speed (hello, $3 Angel Pagan), and how clean innings from a relief pitcher can pile up to provide more value than a starting pitcher who works every fifth day (meet a $2 Rafael Betancourt, and compare him to a $30 Josh Johnson) and as a result of the anecdotes of Roto wisdom he provided, I grew fascinated with the ins-and-outs of both the fantasy game and baseball itself.
Fantasy baseball appealed to me like nothing else I’d ever done, and playing the silly little game made me realize what my dream job in life would be. But with 30 General Managers in MLB and close to 7 billion people in the world, the odds are stacked against me. Even if I shorten the odds by accounting for only the roughly 300 million people in the U.S., my chances of actually running a big league team when I’m older are slim.
I continue to play the fantasy game for the same reason Dan Okrent invented it and my dad participated in the first place. When you can’t play baseball any more, because of arthritis or fear of the fastball, and when you get bored of watching your Cubs lose every year or your Yankees cruise to the postseason almost without fail, and when you itch for your favorite team to make a blockbuster trade, you can turn to your imagination. Dad may not be heaven-bound for creating a Rotisserie monster, but I love him for showing me how to play. And without jumping to conclusions, it looks like we’re going to finish in first place in our AARP league this year.
Nick Fleder is a high school junior who roots tirelessly for the New York Yankees. Fantasy sports are currently his only form of income.