Editor’s note: Jim’s column on gambling, The Nervous Light, which comes from the chapter title “The Nervous Light of Sunday” in Frederick Exley’s masterpiece of obsessive fandom, A Fan’s Notes, will run once a month.
Ah, spring. When a young degenerate’s fancy turns to thoughts of gambling.
When it comes to sports, spring has it all. March Madness. Spring training. Opening Day. The NFL draft. The Kentucky Derby. But from a bettor’s point of view, all fall short of the majestic yet exasperating complexity of fantasy baseball.
I have a complicated relationship with fantasy sports. I got my first taste of fantasy victory in 1999 when I entered an NBA playoff challenge. The rules were simple: choose three players from every position to fill out an active roster of ten starters and a five-man bench. Any player on the 16 teams competing in the playoffs was eligible.
I’d decided to go with the New York Knicks because I grew up in Northern Virginia and a friend’s mother who worked at Georgetown University was sometimes able to score tickets to see Patrick Ewing play summer league games.
The 1999 Knicks were not an attractive fantasy option: I’d get steals from Latrell Sprewell, three pointers from Allan Houston and Larry Johnson, and blocks from Ewing and Marcus Camby. On the other hand, the Knicks weren’t very good. They barely qualified for the 8th seed during the final weekend of the regular season. While I was guilty of overvaluing the Knicks talent, I wasn’t impressed with any of the teams in the Eastern Conference, including the #1 seed: the Miami Heat, which featured an aging backcourt of Tim Hardaway and Thunder Dan Majerle, the mercurial Jamal Mashburn on the perimeter, and PJ Brown doing the dirty work down low. Their best player was the fearsome yet spasmodic Alonzo Mourning. On a good night they were good for 90 points.
To win at playoff challenges, you need players who will deliver stats in each round and to do that you have to guess correctly about the outcome in each conference. The conventional wisdom holds that you start the best players from the top seeds and then load your bench with back-ups from the team you think will go all the way. The Knicks were intriguing to me. They’d added Latrell Sprewell to the mix but it was a lockout-shortened season of just 50 games. The Knicks felt like a team that was still putting the pieces together and because they’d barely squeaked into the playoffs I figured no one else would pick the Knicks.
I was right. Those three words are what make betting on sports so intoxicating because at the end of the day when you’re cashing in your tickets or banking your winnings, being able to say “I was right” makes the skill of the athletes or the way the ball bounces secondary to the native intelligence of the handicapper. You cannot assign a value to a feeling.
The Knicks beat Pat Riley’s heavily favored Heat in five on a gorgeous shot by Allan Houston (has there ever been a jump shooter with a purer shot than Allan Houston?) with less than a second to play, a game I watched shipwrecked on Anchor Steam in an Irish bar in San Francisco. This upset wiped out more than half of my competition and when the Knicks swept the Atlanta Hawks and shut up that finger-wagging freak Dikembe Mutumbo, the majority of the entrants in the contest were all but eliminated.
I shot to the top of my league and started to make some noise in the overall standings. The Knicks were facing the Indiana Pacers led by their Nosferatu lookalike nemesis Reggie Miller. Ewing was injured in game two and had to sit out the rest of the series. In game three with the Knicks down 91-88 with 12 seconds left to play, LJ did the unthinkable:
Dagger city. LJ’s controversial four-point play crushed the Pacers. Even though it only put the Knicks up 2-1 in the series, it was one of those games that should have gone the other way and everyone in the basketball universe knew it. Now things were getting interesting.
While fantasy sports have been around for longer than the Internet, for legions of fantasy freaks 1999 was still an era of clipboards and calculators. I pored over stats in the morning paper and did complicated calculations to determine the relative value of blocks, steals and three-pointers. A friend who works as an engineer pointed out that I was performing differential calculus. I was an English major in college. I’d rather do my own taxes than solve for x. But put me on the leaderboard of a fantasy challenge and I’ll figure out Fermat’s Last Theorem in order to stay there.
That’s the beauty of fantasy sports, at the end of the season each statistical category will have a finite number and a corresponding value. The value of that number shifts from game to game, but at the end of the competition the numbers crystallize into something meaningful. You don’t have to win every statistical category. You don’t have to win any of them. But you better not lose any and you better get your share.
On game six of the Eastern Conference Finals, I went to a bar in Manhattan Beach, California, called The Hole in the Wall. It was a dingy dive across the street from my apartment with brand-new TVs and dirty taps. I spent so much time there watching basketball, playing Golden Tee 2, drinking beer by the pitcher that many patrons thought I worked there.
It was an East Coast game with an early start and the bar was empty. The bartender was new and bored. She was fussing with one of the tap handles when it came off and beer started gushing out of the tap with no way to shut it off. While she filled up pitcher after pitcher of beer I ran into the back and unhooked the keg, stopping the flow. She was so grateful, she told me I could drink for free the rest of the night. Reader, I did not decline that offer.
Game Six had plenty of drama. LJ suffered a knee injury and was sidelined. With LJ and Ewing out, Sprewell went nuts and all but single-handedly knocked the hated Pacers out. The Knicks were going to the Finals for the first time since they lost to the Rockets during the OJ Simpson slow-speed chase. I drank myself insensate, went to my apartment and took a nap, and then I came back to ride the free beer pony until closing time. I’m told I had a wonderful time.
With the Heat, Hawks and Pacers out of the contest, stats were very hard to come by, unless you had a roster full of Knicks. And I had all of them. I even had Charlie Ward, the only Heisman Trophy winner to never play for an NFL team, and Chris Dudley, a 6’11” goon from Yale with the low-post skills of a barber pole who was good for getting fouled but not for making shots from behind the free-throw line.
So even though the Knicks were battered and would go on to lose to the Spurs, I had the contest sewed up. At some point during Game Two I moved into the #1 spot on the leaderboard and never looked back.
I won $5,000, which in 1999 could have bought me majority ownership in yahoo.com. I made what I thought was a very adult decision and used part of my winnings to buy a giant slate-blue sofa with a matching chair-and-a-half. Charlie Ward, Latrell Sprewell and Chris fucking Dudley are all out of basketball, but I still have that blue sofa. Who’s laughing now?
Which bring us to baseball, which is no laughing matter. I’m teaming up with my brother, Emmett, who has a sweet jump shot and a NASA-level genius for numbers, and our friend Pat, a small business owner. We’re entering a high-stakes contest limited to 15 players. The entry fee is equal to what I won in 1999. It’s a steep fee (please don’t tell our wives) but I’m using the money I made writing a book proposal for an entertainer who is a notorious gambler. There’s no separate prize for the overall winner. Whoever wins the league takes home the whole enchilada.
In the months that follow, I’ll keep you posted on the progress of our team, the Uplifting Gormandizers. $5,000 is a lot of money but I like the odds. Never mind that I haven’t had a big payday in fantasy sports since the Knicks were decent.
On second thought, maybe this is a terrible idea…
NEXT: Las Vegas
High-Roller Haikus 1-4
Native night at Ute
Mountain Casino. All you-
can-eat mutton ten
ninety-nine. Five big
Indians at the table.
Double deck, five-dollar bet
minimum. Won a
hundred and seventy-five
bucks. Chips clicking like
bones until my wife
got in on the action and
we gave it all back.