You gotta have faith
This past Monday night in San Francisco was a great night for you. Not that we've ever met, but if you're reading this column you play fantasy sports, and if you play fantasy sports you appreciated Monday night, even if you don't realize it yet.
I was in the Bay Area, along with many of my colleagues, for the Fantasy Sports Trade Association's annual summer conference.
I know. The idea of a fantasy sports conference sounds kind of nerdy and silly, and I'm not gonna lie: It's not the coolest gathering in the world. And it gets sillier- and nerdier-sounding when I tell you the conference kicked off with a Hall of Fame induction ceremony. But while you may scoff and make fun, it's really important to a lot of people who take fantasy sports seriously, and if they hadn't cared so much and worked so hard for many, many years, all of us would be playing a different game with different tools, and there wouldn't be nearly as many of us -- including maybe you -- who get to take so much joy from our hobby.
So we gathered Monday night to honor three people that most of you have never, ever heard of but without whose contributions, fantasy sports wouldn't be what they are today.
Wilfred "Wink" Wickenbach was inducted posthumously by his grandson. Wink, as his grandson noted he was known to his friends, was a limited partner of the Oakland Raiders. And in 1962, with the help of some friends, he created a game in which you drafted professional football players to imaginary teams and got points for those performances. The GOPPPL (Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Procrastinators League) was essentially the first league to play what we now know as fantasy football.
I never met Wink, but the other two who were inducted that night are dear friends of mine. Rick Wolf, currently a muckety-muck executive at NBC Sports, started his fantasy career at Prodigy (1987-95), where he was on the development team for Baseball Manager and the PRODIGY Network Golf Tour, two of the first online fantasy games. He has since worked for several other fantasy companies and also worked long and hard for the industry as a member of the FSTA, including serving as chairman during some of the toughest times the industry has faced.
And I was honored to be asked by Peter Schoenke of Rotowire.com to introduce him. Among the remarks I made about Peter that night were that, when he founded RotoNews in 1997 (with Jeff Erickson and Herb Ilk), he created the "What happened and what it means" news and analysis blurb for fantasy player news. Peter has also been a FSTA board member since 2000, and as the chair of the market research committee from 2001-10, he got the word out about just how popular our little game was: 32 million players strong in the United States and Canada, according to the organization.
On a personal note, both Rick and Peter are very important to me. Rick was one of my first bosses in the industry, and he was told to fire me multiple times. Rick always fought for me and defended me, long before it was popular to do so. He introduced me to many people in the industry and was a sounding board and adviser many times over the years as I was starting my own websites and trying to figure out how to navigate the sometimes insular, still small but growing fantasy sports industry.
When I wanted to try this idea I had for my own RotoPass.com site, Peter was the first to say "Sure" and agree to have Rotowire in the offering. With no track record as anything other than a writer, having Peter say yes was huge for me in terms of credibility when I presented my idea to other website owners, and as a result, I was set on a path of being able to make a living in fantasy sports. I don't know how my career would have turned out if Peter said no to me, and I certainly don't know how it would have turned out if Rick had given into pressure and not supported me in those early years.
Looking back on it, there was no reason for Rick or Peter to stick their necks out for me. I'm sure I caused more headaches than I solved, and on the business side, I had never run a site before, I had no track record and the idea of joining with a bunch of other competitive websites for RotoPass.com had a lot more risk than potential reward for Peter and his already established and successful site.
There was absolutely no reason to support me, yet they did. It doesn't always happen, but having complete and total blind faith, even when there is no reason to, can get rewarded. I like to think it did for Rick and Peter, and I know that it happens in fantasy baseball. I'm a longtime believer in the "back of the baseball card" theory -- that more often than not, a baseball player will do what he is supposed to do and put up stats similar to what you see him do year after year on the back of his baseball card.
And so, in honor of Rick and Peter, I present my blind faith list. Here's a bunch of baseball players that have really struggled this year and have so far failed to live up to their draft position. You're gonna have to give me some leeway here, and I've got no real statistical evidence to show to suggest they will turn it around.
Look, at some point, you have to just bail on guys and say it's not their year. And I have in some cases. I think the ship has sailed on Justin Morneau, I was down on Mat Latos before the season, my hate for Jason Bay is well-documented, and the wall has been well-acquainted with Derek Jeter for a while now.
But there are some guys out there whom my gut, my heart and my crossed fantasy fingers still believe in. Here are 15 of them.
Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Indians (Currently 201st on the Player Rater): Hey, at least he's stealing bases. He's too good a pure hitter to hit .236, and he's definitely getting unlucky. I also refuse to believe the Indians could have a much better year than anyone expects but that the only player who ends up not performing is the guy who was considered their best player at the beginning of the season.
Ted Lilly, SP, Dodgers (204): He's given up two earned runs or fewer in four straight starts. His ERA pre-All-Star break the last three years? 3.97. Post-All-Star break the last three years? 3.17. Don't worry. It'll get less stat-based and more gut-call-y going forward.
Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins (264): He's Hanley Ramirez. The consensus second overall pick in almost every fantasy league draft. You'll have to pry him from my cold, dead fingers before I bail.
Gordon Beckham, 2B, White Sox (303): Hit better than .300 in May and hit well in the second half last year. Wish he ran more, but he's just 24, and at some point Ozzie is gonna curse in a way that reaches Beckham.
Juan Rivera, 1B/OF, Blue Jays (325): As Peter Schoenke's Rotowire pointed out, he's hitting .325 as a first baseman this year, .230 as a DH and .167 as an outfielder. If Rotowire noticed it, can't the Blue Jays? Adam Lind can DH, right? Or can someone just tell Juan Rivera he's playing first base but he's doing it from the bench when Toronto is in the field? Anything? Work with me, people.
Alex Rios, OF, White Sox (443): Fair warning: You're gonna see a few White Sox on this list. He's usually a good source of power and speed, even if the average has been shaky. He's a career .277 hitter -- nothing amazing, but significantly better than the current .210 -- and he's always been streaky, so hey, maybe he's gotten the bad out of the way!
Will Venable, OF, Padres (449): At least he's back in the majors! That's something. Actually, despite spending some time in Triple-A and hitting just .220 this year, he still has 11 steals. And the nice thing about owning him (in just NL-only for now) is that you'll get all his home runs, since he hasn't hit one yet! Sigh. I continue to be tantalized by the power-speed combo and believe he'll hit for an average you can live with, rather than the one he's currently killing you with.
Casey McGehee, 3B, Brewers (451): The guy has been an RBI machine the past few years and continues to hit in the middle of a lineup that is currently top-10 in runs scored in major league baseball. If his manager still has confidence in him, so do I.
Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Rockies (478): Anyone that has read me the last few years knows I am not rational when it comes to Ubaldo. And hey, he's now gone three straight starts without getting rocked! His K rate (still almost eight per nine) and the fact that he's gotten unlucky with his strand rate keeps hope alive.
John Danks, SP, White Sox (498): Another White Sox! The decline in K/9 is a bit disconcerting, but he's at least still usable as a spot starter, with a 3.10 ERA at home this year (and, ahem, 6.50 on the road). For the record, I'm not comfortable with how much faith I have tied into the White Sox in the second half. And -- gulp -- I'm not done.
Vernon Wells, OF, Angels (508): Look, I hate Vernon Wells. Always have, and when my Angels traded for him, I was not happy. He was on my preseason "hate" list, and I also pointed out his lack of back-to-back 20-home run seasons in my "100 Facts" column. But he's not this bad. He's not gonna hit below the Mendoza Line, and he will hit for some power. And on the Angels, he can't help but wander into double-digit steals. He's been so bad, even I feel sorry for him, which tells me he's due to bounce back.
James McDonald, SP, Pirates (523): Last nine starts for my preseason sleeper? A 2.84 ERA with a 43-22 strikeout-to-walk rate in 50 2/3 innings. Sure, I'm picking a random slice of the season to make my point, but it's a gut-call column. Its more stats than you deserve.
Adam Dunn, 1B, White Sox (533): I'm not dunn with the White Sox yet! Get it? Sure, that joke is terrible, but it has to get better, just like Dunn, who despite hitting .183 on the year is still on pace for 68 RBIs, which is amazing considering no one is ever on base in Chicago. Look, I'm all in on the White Sox being a lot better than they've been, so what's one more? He seems to be showing signs of life, and I'm hanging tough.
Brandon Morrow, SP, Blue Jays (582): OK, I do actually have some stats to back this one up: a strikeouts-per-9 rate of over 10, a 5.63 ERA and a FIP (per FanGraphs) of 2.55. Yes, he is walking too many (over four per nine) but everything about him screams unlucky. I love Brandon Morrow and I don't care who knows it.
Brian Duensing, SP, Twins (625): More for AL-only, but another pitcher whom I think is much better than his record indicates. He's gotten unlucky, and getting Joe Mauer back helps the pitching staff much more than people realize. Pitchers love throwing to him, and I'm counting on both Duensing's luck reversing and Mauer's return to help him be the pitcher he was last season.
The first man in space, falling in love and my career are among about a billion things that would never happen without first having to close your eyes, ignore conventional wisdom and just hope. Here's to your fantasy team and someone, somewhere, taking a chance on you for no good reason whatsoever.
Matthew Berry -- the Talented Mr. Roto -- thinks no amount of blind faith will let him believe Grady Sizemore will ever stay healthy. Berry is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off. He is a charter member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame. Cyberstalk the TMR | Be his cyberfriend
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