Athletes prove fantasy sports aren't just for geeks

Updated: September 16, 2005, 8:22 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- You can't swing a plastic pocket protector these days without hitting another fantasy league geek. Just the other day I was surrounded by them.

Let's see, there was Adam from Porter, Texas; Derrek from El Dorado Hills, Calif.; Todd from Benton, La.; Kent from Dublin, Ohio, and Michael from Alpharetta, Ga. On and on they went about their "teams," their drafts, their team nicknames, their months of pre-draft statistical analysis. It was a regular Napoleon Dynamite convention.

Of course, the geeks in question were none other than Adam Dunn and Kent Mercker of the Cincinnati Reds, and Derrek Lee, Todd Walker and Michael Barrett of the Chicago Cubs. And they aren't alone.

Walk into any pro clubhouse or locker room and I'll bet you Jeremiah Trotter's $5,000 NFL fine that the place is crawling with fantasy leaguers. In all, there are an estimated 20 million fantasy goobers who spend countless hours examining box scores and injury lists as if they were ancient scripture. Major-league clubhouses are no exception.

The Cubs had their annual football draft during their last road trip. Lee, a National League MVP candidate who looks like he could play tight end for the Bears (6-5, 245), had the No. 1 selection.

"LaDainian was our first pick," said Lee, referring to everybody's No. 1, San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. As for the rest of his team, don't ask.

"I know [Michael] Vick was our quarterback, Corey Dillon was our running back, Hines Ward was a receiver, uh ... I can't think of anyone else," said Lee. Awkward pause. "I was the financier for the trainers. I tell them I'm the owner, they're the GMs."

The Cubs' All-Star first baseman is bankrolling "The Runnin' TarHogs," so named because Cubs trainer Mark O'Neal is an Arkansas alum, assistant trainer Ed Halbur is a Nevada-Las Vegas alum, and Lee almost accepted a hoops scholarship from Dean Smith at North Carolina. Lee isn't an NFL addict, but he understands the eternal truth shared by all fantasy leaguers.

"If you're watching football on Sundays, and you've got a player going, it makes it a little more exciting, you know," he said.

Yeah, I know. I own two teams this fall: "The Fightin' Oskies" and "Beers On Us." There's also a "Fightin' Oskies" baseball franchise. In fact, I showed Lee the 2005 draft results of our ESPN-based "I'm The One Driving A Porsche" baseball league, which features a dozen sportswriters and editors from around the country.

"Where'd I go?" Lee said.

"Late third round," I said. "T.J. Simers of the L.A. Times got you. You're a bargain."

"Who went first?" he said, scanning the sheet.

"Pujols."

Lee nodded his head in agreement.

This is weird. Lee is one of us, but he is also one of the names on that draft sheet. Fantasy leaguers approach him all the time with requests.

"They'll say, 'Need you to steal a base. ... Need you to hit a home run,'" said Lee, smiling at the ridiculousness of it all. "Yeah, OK, just for you, buddy."

But here he is, on the other side of the glass, rooting for "The Runnin' TarHogs" to kick some fantasy football butt. L.T. to him, is what Lee is to Simers: a commodity, a points-scoring machine, a name on his roster to be started, benched, traded, or dropped.

Cubs catcher Barrett, whose "Doc & The Kawano Kids" franchise took Donovan McNabb with the fifth pick, helped organize this clubhouse league. A four-year veteran of fantasy, he has teams in two different leagues, but knows some ballplayers who belong to nearly a dozen leagues. In our baseball league he went in the 16th round.

"For me, I look at it as kind of an honor," he said. "I know what it's like, because of the football fans. I look at some of the guys I have on my [football] team the same way they do me. I think it's kind of funny. My perspective is that it's an honor that I'm even on someone's team."

Honor and a mild curse. Walker, an 11th-round choice in our league, never heard a peep from fantasy geekers until about six years ago. Now it isn't uncommon for fans to regularly inform him of his status on their make-believe teams.

"Better to be on a team than not, I guess," he said. "Better than them yelling, 'You didn't get drafted!'"

Walker, whose "Deep South" franchise chose Peyton Manning with the second pick in the Cubs' draft, used to share a fantasy football team with former Reds teammate Dunn. Much like us in Geekdom, Walker said he gets excited about logging on to his computer during offseason Sundays and "checking out stats." Nor is he above ragging on a player who costs him fantasy points. So sad.

"In a bad way it makes you the fans that you hate as a baseball player," he said. "If you have a football player who doesn't do well for you, you put him on your black list. You get emotionally involved. ... You definitely see the fans' side of it."

Dunn owns four teams, began his pre-draft research in July, subscribes to the NFL's satellite TV program package and travels with his laptop so, in part, he can monitor his franchises. Do I like this lug, or what?

"I do it differently than the average fan because I know what's going on, and I live what those [NFL] guys live," said the 6-6, 275-pound Dunn, who played quarterback at Texas before giving up his scholarship for baseball. "I just do it because it helps get you through September. That's a tough month for us. It just kind of helps you get through it. Gives you something to look forward to."

The Reds are 20-plus games out of first in the NL Central. No wonder he has four fantasy teams.

Dunn lasted only until midway of the second round of our draft. He is among the league leaders in home runs and RBI, and yet he still catches grief from fantasy leaguers.

"You hear everything," he said. "I'll strike out and they'll say I'm killing them. Hey, don't draft me then."

For reasons I can only imagine, he won't tell me the name of the fantasy team he co-owns with teammate Austin Kearns. "But I can tell you the name of Kent Mercker's [team], who had the first pick," said Dunn, giggling. "His is the Tigers."

Mercker rolled his eyes and defended himself.

"Everyone tries to come up with something funny, and they do," he said. "And I felt it would be funnier to come up with something so normal that it would be funny."

What a geek. But in a good way.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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