Thirty years of fantasy baseball stars
Thirty is a magical baseball number.
OK, so what isn't a magical baseball number? In a game that revolves around numbers, surely every digit has significance. But for today, we're declaring the number 30 special. Here's why:
There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball.
Thirty is the number needed in two key statistical categories that earns a player honors in an exclusive club: 30-30 performers.
Thirty is the number worn by such greats as Orlando Cepeda, Nolan Ryan and Tim Raines (who still belongs in the Hall of Fame).
See our "Silly Little Game" package:
• 30 For 30: How it all started
• Rotisserie League history
• Interview with Dan Okrent
• "Rotisserie is my life"
• Inside Sports article
• ESPN The Mag: The last draft
• Eric Karabell's first draft
And, yes, 30 is the anniversary that our beloved game of rotisserie baseball celebrates today, April 13. That's right, it was on this date 30 years ago that a group of friends and baseball enthusiasts gathered at a New York apartment to conduct the first rotisserie baseball draft. The game's name was coined from a local restaurant called La Rotisserie Française that the group used to frequent.
A lot has happened since. Bill James published his abstracts. Four work stoppages occurred, three of them strikes during the regular season. Pete Rose was banished from baseball for life. The Internet arrived and, with it, instant player news, statistics and league-management software. Baseball left Montreal and arrived in Denver, Miami, Phoenix, Tampa and Washington. The Milwaukee Brewers jumped from the American League to the National League. Cherished records fell, then we learned later that many standards were set during a time we now refer to as the steroids era. "Moneyball" was published, bringing new attention to some previously overlooked baseball statistics. The Boston Red Sox finally won a World Series. Drug testing was introduced. Pitch counts became all the rage. World Series winners got into the playoffs thanks to the creation of the wild card. The list goes on and on.
But through all of that, rotisserie baseball has remained constant. Thirty seasons have passed since that first Rotisserie League draft at Cork Smith's apartment and, with them, 30 annual draft days, 30 seasons chock-full of meaningful statistics and 30 league champions crowned at season's end, even if these days most of them are no longer showered with Yoo-Hoo (a popular ritual of the game's founding fathers).
This column celebrates those 30 seasons gone by.
Below are capsules of each of the 30 seasons in the history of rotisserie baseball, with the year's top hitter and pitcher listed in terms of value. We've also taken a quick look at some of the more interesting storylines of each season.
Now, let's take a stroll down memory lane
Quick click by year: 1980 | 1981 | 1982 | 1983 | 1984 | 1985 | 1986 | 1987
1988 | 1989 | 1990 | 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994 | 1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998
1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009
Remember when? Generally known more for his fielding than his pitching, Mike Norris put it together on the mound for one glorious season, coincidentally the first in the history of rotisserie baseball. He won 22 games and posted the American League's second-lowest ERA (2.53) yet scarcely received proper recognition, finishing second in the Cy Young balloting to Steve Stone and failing to make the All-Star team. Norris would earn that elusive All-Star nod in the next Midsummer Classic, but perhaps the 284 1/3 innings he logged in 1980 wore him down over the long haul. He made only 67 more starts in his career, and his 22 wins represented 37.9 percent of his career total in the category.
Remember when? Who could forget "Fernandomania"? Astute fantasy owners might have been on to Fernando Valenzuela as one of the game's more promising prospects coming off 17 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen late in 1980, but who could have guessed he'd be as dominant as he was in his rookie year of 1981? He paced all National League pitchers in starts (25), complete games (11), shutouts (8), innings (192 1/3) and strikeouts (180), in a strike-shortened season at that. He also won each of his first eight starts of the season, all but one of them complete-game efforts. Valenzuela remains the only player in history to win the rookie of the year and Cy Young awards in the same season.
Remember when? Position scarcity always has been a popular topic in the fantasy baseball world, and even back in the early 1980s, getting the kind of production out of your second-base spot that Damaso Garcia provided was a huge advantage. His 54 stolen bases might have been overshadowed by Rickey Henderson's single-season-record 130 that year, but they still ranked second in baseball, and Garcia's .310 batting average ranked sixth in the league.
Remember when? No team in baseball won as many games as the Chicago White Sox did in 1983, and in these days, when 20 wins seems like an extraordinary feat, to see that the team boasted two 20-game winners might seem quite the surprise. Sure enough, LaMarr Hoyt won 24 games and Richard Dotson won 22. Hoyt's success was fleeting; he was arrested twice in a month on drug-possession charges three years later, completing his career two victories shy of 100. Meanwhile, Dotson battled arm problems at times during the next decade, finishing with a winning record only once in the next seven seasons (when he went 12-9 for the 1988 New York Yankees).
Remember when? Dwight Gooden is one of the main reasons fantasy owners clamor for rookies, because he entered his rookie campaign of 1984 surrounded by hype and finished that year at least as productive as advertised. The No. 5 overall pick in the 1982 draft, Gooden breezed through one season of Class A ball, then took the NL by storm in 1984, leading all major league pitchers in both strikeouts (276) and WHIP (1.07). He was one of the game's most untouchable pitchers for three seasons at the start of his career, one that was eventually derailed by off-the-field problems.
Remember when? Speaking of productive rookies, how about Vince Coleman's performance in 1985? Always known for his speed, Coleman presented a serious threat to Rickey Henderson's aforementioned single-season steals record, instead settling for the rookie mark with 110 thefts. It was the third of five consecutive professional campaigns that Coleman reached the century mark in the category, but that he did it in his first big league season is nothing short of extraordinary. To this date he is the only player in history to steal at least 100 bases in each of his first three big league seasons. Unfortunately, after that string was snapped, Coleman was labeled a one-category player, as he was never much with the bat and had a career average of .264.
Remember when? The eventual World Series champion New York Mets were terrified of the prospect of having to face Houston Astros ace Mike Scott in a possible Game 7 of the NLCS in 1986. Who could blame them? Scott, a former Mets prospect, realized his potential in an overwhelmingly dominant 1986, during which he paced all major leaguers in ERA (2.22), WHIP (0.92) and strikeouts (306). He even tossed a no-hitter on the day his Astros clinched the NL West title.
Remember when? The 1980s were a great time to be a rookie, and 1987 was no exception, as a slugging first baseman drafted out of USC burst onto the scene with one of the more impressive power displays that fantasy owners had seen in some time. It was considered a juiced-ball year, but don't let that take too much of the luster off Mark McGwire's rookie-record 49-homer campaign. At the time he was a much scrawnier version of the slugger we all came to know during the late 1990s, yet he was one of the most threatening power sources in baseball.
Remember when? There were six 20-game winners in 1988, but none of the other five was nearly the surprise that David Cone of the Mets was. He had been a swingman the year before and spent the season's first month working out of the bullpen, receiving the call to join the rotation on May 3 only because Rick Aguilera had been so ineffective in two turns as the team's No. 5 starter. Cone rattled off 20 wins, a 2.22 ERA and 213 strikeouts, yet finished only third in the NL's Cy Young balloting. What's more surprising -- or perhaps damning of the category as a measure of a pitcher's true talent -- is that Cone, despite a Cy Young, five All-Star appearances and 2,668 career strikeouts to his name, wouldn't win 20 games in a season again until 1998, exactly 10 years later.
Remember when? Once a member of the run-run St. Louis Cardinals, who captured the World Series title in 1982 when he was a member of that team, Lonnie Smith endured an otherwise ordinary career. From 1984 to 1988 he averaged .262-5-32-28-58 numbers, and in 1987 and '88 combined, he appeared in just 91 games total. That's what made 1989, his second season as a member of the Atlanta Braves, so shocking and out of character. Smith swatted 21 home runs, 12 more than he had in any other season in a 17-year career, set a career high with 79 RBIs, batted .315 and stole 25 bags to boot at age 33. Not a bad comeback campaign, eh?
Remember when? Who can forget "Big Daddy" Cecil Fielder's return from Japan? The portly slugger clubbed 51 home runs after signing on with the Detroit Tigers before the 1990 season, enjoying arguably the greatest comeback campaign of any player who had made a brief trek to Japan. Fielder's power was always evident, and he did manage 38 homers in Japan in '89, but few could have seen him adapting so well to the U.S. game upon his return. After all, he'd had just 31 homers and 84 RBIs combined in his first stint in the U.S., a four-year stint with the Toronto Blue Jays from 1985 to '88.
Remember when? Speaking of out-of-character performances, Terry Pendleton had endured a miserable final season with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1990, batting .230 with six home runs in 121 games. With Todd Zeile on the horizon, the Cardinals let Pendleton walk as a free agent, and he ended up signing with the Atlanta Braves, who at the time were coming off a year in which they sported the game's worst record. Pendleton made his four-year, $10.2 million contract pay off immediately, as he captured NL MVP honors with a remarkable comeback campaign, setting career highs in hits (187), home runs (22), runs scored (94) and OPS (.880). Pendleton enjoyed one more MVP-caliber campaign in 1992 as his Braves made back-to-back trips to the World Series, losing both years, but reverted to his formerly ordinary self in 1993.
Remember when? At the time the Cleveland Indians traded Joe Carter to the San Diego Padres in December 1989, most people assumed catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. was the most prized part of the deal on the Indians side. That might have been true, as Alomar had a meaningful 11-year career with the team, but Carlos Baerga might have been the more underrated chip included in the deal. Remember, position scarcity matters to fantasy owners, and what could be better than a second baseman who bats .312 with 20 homers, 105 RBIs, 10 stolen bases and 92 runs scored? Those are MVP-caliber numbers from a thin position, and Baerga was relatively that productive for a half-decade. Unfortunately, his career fizzled at age 27 after a trade to the New York Mets in 1996.
Remember when? The chase for a .400 batting average was a popular topic during the 1980s and 1990s, and in 1993, we saw one of the closest contenders of the past quarter century in a young, left-handed first baseman named John Olerud. He kept his number at that mark or greater until as late as Aug. 2, and although he finished with a mere .363 batting average, Olerud served as one of the more valuable midround selections in fantasy baseball leagues. After all, he had batted .269 and averaged just 16 home runs in the three previous seasons.
Remember when? The 1994 strike cut short another chase for .400, as Paul O'Neill finished with an AL-best .359 mark after carrying a .400-plus average deep into June. Who'd have thought O'Neill could be as productive as he was in 1994 when the New York Yankees acquired him for the cheap, cheap price of Roberto Kelly in November 1992? OK, so at the time Yankees fans largely believed Kelly had the better future, but 1994 served as the second in a string of six consecutive .300 seasons for O'Neill, and in his nine years in pinstripes, O'Neill averaged .303-21-95-9-80 numbers.
Remember when? Before Ichiro Suzuki, before Hideki Matsui, before even Daisuke Matsuzaka, there was Hideo Nomo, the poster boy for impact Japanese imports. No one knew quite what to make of Nomo at the time he exploited a rules loophole to escape Japan and sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers -- especially opposing hitters, who batted .182 against him and struck out 236 times in 681 at-bats during his "rookie" campaign. Nomo enjoyed a few productive years in the majors, but the unfortunate reality was that opposing hitters caught up with him in each successive year, and his ERA rose in 1996, 1997 and 1998. He played just 12 seasons in the majors and sported an ERA under 4 in only four of them.
Remember when? In perhaps one of the most surprising campaigns of the rotisserie baseball era, Brady Anderson shocked the world by belting a career-high 50 home runs in 1996, adding a personal-best 110 RBIs despite logging 485 of his 687 plate appearances in the leadoff spot. Don't attribute the performance to Camden Yards, considered at the time to be one of the more hitter-friendly environments in the game; Anderson actually swatted just 19 of his homers there, and his road OPS was 170 percentage points higher than his home OPS that season. Unfortunately, it was a one-and-done for him in the power department, as he hit 36 homers the next two years combined, although he did manage two other years in the 20s in the category, in 1992 (21) and 1999 (24).
Remember when? Younger fantasy players are probably more familiar with the version of Shawn Estes who has a 4.71 career ERA. But in his first full season in the majors, Estes went 19-5 with a 3.60 ERA for the San Francisco Giants. Back then, we might have pointed to his league-leading 100 walks as a sign of the bad things that were to come.
Remember when? Jose Offerman is most famous for things that happened after his major league career ended, such as charging the mound with bat in hand during a 2007 Atlantic League game and striking an umpire in a Dominican winter league contest in January, the latter earning him a lifetime ban. But in 1998 he was simply one of the best fantasy second basemen in the game, as he hit .315 with 45 stolen bases.
Remember when? The New York Mets really could use a power-hitting first baseman right now, so it's too bad that 35-year-old Fernando Tatis bears no resemblance to the 24-year-old version. In his first full season in St. Louis, Tatis exploded for 34 homers, 107 RBIs and 21 stolen bases. It was the first (and presumably last) time he would hit even 20 homers in a single season.
Remember when? Darin Erstad didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but before 2000 he had never hit even .300 in a season. We don't know what changed, but the former University of Nebraska punter hit .355 with 25 homers, 100 RBIs and 28 stolen bases while leading the major leagues in hits (240) and at-bats (676). But Erstad hit .258 with nine homers in 2001, and just like that, his run as a fantasy star was over.
Remember when? How's this for a late-career power spike? Luis Gonzalez hit a then-career-high 31 homers in 2000, but it was just a warm-up for 2001. Gonzo blasted 57 homers to go with 142 RBIs and a .325 batting average, capping off a dream season with a single off Mariano Rivera to win the World Series for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Remember when? Perhaps Billy Koch should serve as a cautionary tale against the overuse of closers. In his one and only season in Oakland, Koch saved 44 games and won 11 more while pitching a career-high 93 2/3 innings. Did all those high-stress situations ruin him? Koch's ERA exploded to 5.77 in 2003, and he was out of baseball a year later.
Remember when? The next time you see a career journeyman pitcher break out for a monster season amid reports that the light finally went on, please remember Esteban Loaiza. With a career ERA just under 5, Loaiza justifiably slipped way under the radar in 2001 fantasy baseball drafts. All he did was go 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA and a league-best 207 strikeouts. And after 2001? He went right back to being a journeyman with an ERA just under 5.
Remember when? Long before gaining notoriety as the father of quintuplets, Melvin Mora sired one of the most underrated seasons of all time. Mora led the American League in on-base percentage (.419) while hitting .340 with 27 homers and 104 RBIs. In a glaring indictment of the voters, Mora finished a distant 18th in the MVP balloting.
Remember when? We all know that new closers come into the league every year, but few have done so with the stealth of Derrick Turnbow. Before 2005, Turnbow had been a mostly ineffective prospect for the Philadelphia Phillies and Anaheim Angels. After trading Danny Kolb to the Atlanta Braves, the Brewers ticketed Mike Adams for their closer role. That didn't work out, and Turnbow saved 39 games and won seven more in really the only effective season of his big league career.
Remember when? Because this was only a few years ago, not too many things will really surprise you. But if we told you to name the pitcher who threw 240 2/3 innings with a 3.29 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, you'd probably need a lot of guesses before you got to Bronson Arroyo. His first season in Cincinnati was the best of his career.
Remember when? The line between fourth outfielder and fantasy superstar can be awfully thin at times. For most of his career, Eric Byrnes has struggled to persuade his employer to play him every day. When it finally happened in 2007, Byrnes responded with 21 homers and 50 stolen bases. Unfortunately, he crossed right back over the line, hitting a combined 14 homers with 13 steals in the next two seasons.
Remember when? Only time will tell whether Ryan Ludwick can produce another All-Star season, but the odds seem to be against it. At age 29, he hit 37 home runs, a number that currently accounts for 43 percent of his career total. For fantasy players who owned him in 2008, at least they'll always have the memories.
Remember when? It's hard to choose from all the surprise performances of 2009, especially without the benefit of knowing what comes next. But fantasy baseball is supposed to be fun, and there might not have been a more fun-to-own player than Ben Zobrist. "Zorilla" blasted his way into the everyday lineup on his way to a 27-homer, 17-steal season. Best of all, he was eligible at second base, shortstop and outfield, providing his owners with tremendous lineup flexibility.
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