"John Denny, two dollars," he said. We laughed.
He was, still is, Daniel Okrent, owner of the Okrent Fenokees. We were, still are, the Rotisserie League, a flock of loons who have and hold our own baseball teams. You could say that these teams are imaginary, but we prefer to think of them as real, and the Chicago Cubs as imaginary.
We gather every year on the first Sunday after Opening Day, at Corona Park, which is really the dining room of Corlies M. Smith, the former owner of the Smith Coronas. There we choose National League players for the coming season in a sort of auction. Each of us, in turn, introduces the name of a player and his appropriate price, and the highest bid wins him. We cannot spend more than $260 to assemble a 23-man team. In that way we are like Calvin Griffith.
The Rotisserie League is silly, and we know that. We also know that it has caused great changes in the lives of each and every one of us, mostly for the better. We play for money, of course, but we also play for friendship, competition, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
May 13, 1984
Corona Park, on Manhattan's fashionable East Side, is a very special place, for it is here that we share our innermost secrets, such as the knowledge that one of us once paid $32 for Paul Householder. At 10 a.m. on draft day, we board a mysterious elevator that beams us up to Corona Park. We exchange pleasantries, sip coffee and then get down to business. Laden with books and charts, we take our places around the table, and a wonderful table it is—long and mahogany. That's the way it was when we gathered for the 1983 draft, and that's the way it always will be, we hope.
But it's last year's draft of which we speak. Someone said, "John Denny, one dollar." Pause. Okrent said, "John Denny, two dollars." Snickers, but no other bids, followed. After all, in 1982 Denny had been a combined 6-13 for the Indians and Phillies, giving up almost five earned runs every nine innings. Sold to Okrent for $2.
What genius! Denny won 19 games for the Phillies, had an ERA of 2.37 and gave up just 1.16 hits and walks per inning pitched. Denny also won the Cy Young Award in the National League, but that's for sentimentalists. "John Denny, two dollars," said Okrent. Of course, he also said, "Greg Minton, forty-two dollars," which comes out to about $2 a save, so what does he know?
Okrent certainly didn't know what he was about to start on that dreary January day in 1980 when he and five others rendezvoused at La Rotisserie Fran√ßaise, a restaurant—now morte—on Manhattan's fashionable East Side. They met for a regular session of the Phillies Appreciation Society, but out of that meeting came the idea for a statistical baseball league. The league was actually organized at another East Side eatery, P.J. Moriarity's—also now defunct—but the Rotisserie League sounds a lot better than the Moriarity League, don't you think? It's also a nice play on Hot Stove League, but you probably don't care.
And so the Constitution was hammered out in long, painful sessions. "I felt like Madison writing The Federalist papers," says Okrent, who, incidentally, is Vedie Himsl's biggest fan (see page 575 of the fifth edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia): "Glen Waggoner was Hamilton and Bob Sklar was John Jay. At one point Glen said, 'Why do this for money? It'll be fun to play for nothing.' We looked at him as if he were a Martian."
The basic rules are fairly simple. At the auction, each owner assembles a team of nine pitchers, two catchers, a first baseman, a third baseman, a first or third baseman, a second baseman, a shortstop, another middle infielder, five outfielders and a wild card player (or DH). If you use NL players, there should be 10 teams, and with AL players, 12.
Your team's performance is based on the cumulative stats of your players in eight categories: batting average, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases, wins, ERA, saves and the ratio of hits and walks to innings pitched. Fielding doesn't count because it's too hard to figure. First place in a category is worth 10 points (or 12 in the AL) and last place is one point.
There's a little more. You can protect as many as 15 players a year. You can hang on to your player for three years at the price you paid for him, and if you want to keep him longer, you add $5 a year to his salary. Thus, we've instituted free agency, although we're still working on arbitration, visa problems and a drug-treatment program. We make trades, lots of them, and we have waiver deals, farm systems and September call-ups. Some of our clubs have special promotions. The Fleder Mice, owned by Rob Fleder, have a special May Day celebration at the House of Mouse in honor of the slowest man in the majors, Pittsburgh catcher Milt May. The game starts an hour late, and the last 500 fans through the turnstiles get I [LOVE] MILT buttons.
From the very first draft on April 13, 1980, the league began to take over our lives. No divorces, thank goodness, but relationships became strained. Sleep was lost. Sports Phone's profits soared. The fervor spread. Because many of our members patrol the publishing field, we were able to garner publicity on the Today show, in The New York Times, over National Public Radio. Soon offshoots were springing up all over. Is this a great country, or what?
In February, Bantam Books put out Rotisserie League Baseball ($5.95), modestly subtitled "The Greatest Game For Baseball Fans Since Baseball." The book is gripping and enlightening, thought-provoking and rib-tickling. We have wisely retained the movie rights.
Okrent, our Founding Father, should draw satisfaction out of all this attention, yet he found the whole thing rather unrewarding until last year, when he finished third. You wouldn't think that was much, but Okrent had never before finished in the money, which is fourth and above. And he has every baseball book ever written, including Yankee Stranger, the Ed Figueroa story.
Okrent has other interests. He edited The Ultimate Baseball Book, has written a book about the Milwaukee Brewers entitled Nine Innings, to be published next year, and is the editor of New England Monthly magazine. He and his family lead an idyllic life in Worthington, Mass. But every night of the baseball season, before he goes to bed, he calls up each NL box score on his home computer.
For this computer service, Okrent pays $50 a month. He spends about $500 a year traveling to league headquarters in New York. He lays out another $450 a year assembling, trading, waiving, promoting and futzing around with his team. In his first four years in the league, Okrent figures that he laid out about $5,000. For finishing in third place last year, he received a fraction of that amount and a special certificate. That certificate, tastefully framed, now hangs in Okrent's office. "If you have to ask if it's worth it," says Dan, a.k.a. the Swampman, "you don't belong in this league."
"Von Hayes, thirty-seven dollars," said another voice. The funny thing was, we didn't laugh.
The man behind that bid was Glen Waggoner, who, with Peter Gethers, owned and operated the Getherswag Goners until the start of the 1984 season. Waggoner is an administrator at Columbia University, a free-lance writer and an authority on chili. Gethers is an editor at Random House, a sitcom writer and a bowler. Together they fashioned the most successful team in league history. They were the first to have the ceremonial Yoo-Hoo poured over them, and they followed their inaugural championship with three straight second-place finishes. They still did some stupid things, though, like bidding $37 for Hayes, who finished the year as the Phillies' sixth outfielder. Despite their past successes, each wanted his own team. So Gethers has taken over Smith's Coronas, renaming them Peter's Smoked Fish, after a favorite St. Petersburg dive, and now refers to himself as the Sturgeon General. Waggoner has renamed his team the Glenwag Goners.
Waggoner embodies the true spirit of the Rotisserie League, and what a body he has. The Iron Horse, we call him. The league really did make a new man out of him. Okrent recalls, "In those first few months, I used to get calls from Glen at the oddest times, like Tuesday afternoon at four. 'Dan,' he'd say, 'you've made my life. This is the best thing that's ever happened to me.' Then he would hang up." Waggoner's funny news releases gave him the confidence to embark on what is now a thriving writing career.
Nobody spends more time on the league than the Iron Horse. He rises at 6:30 each morning during the season to update his arcane charts. As league secretary, he records all transactions. His own administrative assistant at Columbia, the faithful, lovely and talented Sandra Krempasky, has always done our weekly stats—unfortunately, she's being replaced by a computer this season.
Waggoner and Gethers also own franchises in the officially authorized AL version of the Rotisserie League, called the Junior Circuit: the Waggoner Wheels and the Gethers Ye Rosebuds. Their joys and despairs are naturally doubled.
Joy is owning Jeff Leonard, opening the newspaper to the Giants' box score and reading: LEONARD LF, 5 1 4 5. Despair is owning Doug (The Fidrych) Bird, scanning the Red Sox box and seeing: BIRD L, 1-2 2‚Öî 8 11 11 2 1.
"Juan Bonilla, eight dollars."
The voice was familiar. Oh, it was mine. What possessed me to say that? Why would I spend eight bucks on a slow second baseman with no power and a less-than-average average? Why did I make Bruce Sutter, at $47, the most expensive player in league history? Why, for that matter, did I pay $28 for Dave Parker, $12 for Tom Seaver, $10 for Pete Rose, $6 for Dane Iorg? Why? Because I liked them.
That's why the Wulfgang finished seventh for the second year in a row. It's all my fault. I won't point the finger of blame at players like Tony Scott. I pick too many players with my heart, and I should have realized by now that there is no room for sentiment in this game.
I write for this magazine, and baseball is my beat. I hang around ballplayers so much that my hobbies are hunting and fishing. I can't help but find out useful things about certain players, but it doesn't seem to help. If a player was nice to me once, I go out of my way to draft him, even if I suspect his fastball is gone or the curveball is his weakness. I wasn't always that way, though.
Which is why, in my very first year in the Rotisserie League, I won it all. Mine is a story that I think is worth passing on to future generations of Rotisserians. One day, a week before the second annual draft, Okrent came to me and asked if I would take over the last-place franchise, theretofore known as the Guinzburg Burghers. Touched, I said O.K. Left with only a thimbleful of talent, I fashioned a draft strategy that combined wisdom with foresight, over to brilliance, double play! The short season also helped.
My fellow owners thought I'd won because I'd acquired inside information on the job, but I was very lucky. I made it up to them by so scrambling my team that I may be mired in the second division for years to come. I also have a team in the Junior Circuit, the Stevie Wunders, and I did the same thing there—my club went from first to seventh.
The money that first year was sweet, but what was better was gaining a dozen friends in one fell swoop. When the original Rotisserie League was assembled, many of the owners were total strangers to one another. I don't mean to get mushy here, but solid friendships were formed out of knowing Biff Pocoroba's vital statistics. Without exception, the members are nice people. Nice and crazy, but nice.
Where were we?
"Ivan DeJesus, eight dollars."
That voice belonged to Bob Sklar, professor of Cinema Studies at New York University, and the man revisionist historians consider the true auteur of the Rotisserie League. It seems he devised a crude prototype of the league when he taught at the University of Michigan, where one of his students was the callow youth Daniel Okrent.
The only reason we could think of for Sklar's bid was that he was a member of the "Jews for DeJesus" movement. The Phillies' shortstop batted .239 in '82, before helping the Sklar Gazers finish ninth. In the league's first year the Gazers finished second, but since then they've fallen upon hard times. Sklar walks around a lot, muttering like Brando: "I coulda been a contender."
In June of '82, Sklar married psychologist Adrienne Harris, and they honeymooned with Mookie Wilson at a game at Shea Stadium. They became the first true Rotisserie couple last year when Adrienne assembled the Harris Diet-Doc Killers of the Junior Circuit.
Our spring training expedition to St. Pete has become quite a tradition. For four days in the latter part of March, we stay at the Don Ce Sar Hotel and descend like locusts upon Al Lang Field, devouring Rolloburgers and any tidbits we pick up about players. Those of us who can find a way to get on the field report back to the others with such exciting news as "Hub Kittle says Andy Rincon is going to win 20 games."
We are of a single purpose in Florida, and that is to improve our ball clubs. Trading activity is dependent on both the number of rum punches consumed and the amount of time left before we board the plane for home. Ask not for whom the steel band at poolside tolls, it tolls for thee.
"Craig McMurtry, one dollar."
That bid rode the dulcet tones of the sole female owner in the Rotisserie League, Valerie Salembier. Onetime publisher of Inside Sports, Salembier is now advertising director of USA Today.
It's a mistake to underestimate the Salembier Flambés, who finished in the money the first year and nearly crept up there again in '83. Valerie has a tendency to draft "cute" players. The cute McMurtry won 15 games for her.
Salembier's personal favorite is catcher Luis Pujols, who she claims is the perfect choice for team captain. "He can't hit, run or throw, so he makes all the other boys on my team look great by comparison," she says. "When he went down to the minors last year, he told me he wanted to make all the other guys think they were All-Stars. I gave him a kiss."
The reason the Rotisserie League limits itself to just the NL is that our teams more accurately reflect the major leagues. We know of other statistical circuits that draft players from both leagues—bad, wrong, no, no, no. Luis Pujols belongs in this great game of ours.
"Chili Davis, thirty-eight dollars."
That non compos mentis bid came through the lips of Michael Pollet, lawyer and managing general partner of the Pollet Burros. Pollet has argued cases before the Supreme Court, but he has never gotten his asses above fifth. Such was the depth of his depression that he released each and every one of the Burros before the draft last year. He still finished eighth.
His exorbitant bid for Davis didn't seem so dumb at the time. Pollet just got sophomore-slumped. Every once in a while a player's cost will exceed all reason. We told you Householder once went for $32. He was subject to what we call the Littlefield Effect. Coming into the 1981 draft, San Diego relief pitcher John Littlefield had two saves in the Padres' first two victories, and he became the subject of much spirited bidding. He finally went to the Eisenberg Furriers for $15. Six months later Littlefield still had two saves.
"Lee Mazzilli, twenty dollars."
That was Fleder. The Mets, Rangers, Yankees and Pirates have all made that mistake. Fleder is a long-distance member of the league, operating, we like to think, out of the Playboy Mansion in Chicago. He's an editor at Playboy, and as such is responsible for the great articles that everybody buys that magazine for. Fleder's turn-ons are players named Dale (he has Berra and once had Murphy). Turn-offs are people who remotely resemble Dave Kingman.
We let Fleder move to Chicago because he was so hard to deal with. A fine fellow, make no mistake, but his trade conversation tends to sound like "You give me Steve Carlton, Lee Smith, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines, and I'll give you Warren Spahn, Don McMahon, Willie Mays and Lou Brock.... Oh, did they all retire?" Still, we need somebody to finish fourth every year.
Not infrequently, a league owner must endure the torture of watching two of his players face each other on television, and Fleder went through a particularly difficult such moment last year. "I saw Scott Sanderson, whom I own, throw one at the truly long neck of Claudell Washington, whom I also own. Claudell went out after Scott, and I had to watch in utter dismay as my Mice fought among themselves."
"Bryn Smith, one dollar."
Lee Eisenberg said that. Nobody in the league wheels and deals like Eisenberg, who found himself left with $7 to spend on seven players going into last year's draft. You never know what you'll find in the bargain bin, though, and Smith turned out to be a blessing, with six wins, three saves, a fine ERA (2.49) over 155‚Öì innings and a good ratio (1.191). Of course, the Fur King has since traded Smith.
Eisenberg is a contributing editor at Esquire. He used to be the guy who escorted selected beauties for the "Esquire Goes On A Date With..." series. He once took Susan Sarandon to a Yankee game and struck out. He couldn't understand why she wouldn't want to be herded like a cow by surly Yankee Stadium guards, fed pork byproducts in a soggy bun and made to watch Oscar Gamble play rightfield.
Eisenberg wrote the book on trading. Well, actually he wrote the chapter on trading in the Rotisserie League book. In the chapter, he lists ten Cardinal Rules (Blue Jay Rules, if you have an American League league). We wonder which rules Eisenberg was applying when he swapped Ryne Sandberg, Greg Brock and Dave Anderson for Johnny Ray, Ray Knight and Dave Concepcion. The once-proud Furriers fell from first in '82 to fifth last year.
"Joe Price, one dollar."
Good for Cork, which is what his friends call Corlies Smith. Cork resigned before the start of this season, after finishing seventh, 10th, 10th and 10th. He's a respected book editor and a man of letters. Actually, he's a man of postcards—that is what he sent us as a reminder that we owed the league money.
Cork was almost as frenetic a trader as Eisenberg, and, indeed, he made some good deals in his time. But he invariably made one more trade, and so, in the course of one week last summer, he rid himself of both Darryl Strawberry, with whom he had grown impatient, and Price. We all know what Strawberry did, and Price helped the Goners finish second. Bad for Cork.
Fortunately for us, Smith has been elevated to Commissioner, superseding Okrent, who now becomes Former Commissioner-For-Life. Cork will continue to host our draft.
On the day Smith retired from the league, phone circuits all over the league lit up. His patient wife, Sheila C, explained it this way: "Cork loves baseball, and the league was a very nice hobby, certainly better than hanging out in bars and chasing women. But it just got too frustrating for him. If only he had won something. I like having you people come over, though. I feel as if we're running a speakeasy."
"Pedro Guerrero, forty-one dollars."
Sometimes a player is worth it. Harry Stein, mogul of the Stein Brenners, bought himself 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 23 stolen bases and a .298 average. He also had Dickie Thon, Jody Davis, Jose Cruz, Raines and Leonard on offense; and Jesse Orosco, Steve Bedrosian, Charlie Lea and Fernando Valenzuela on his pitching staff. Not only did he win the pennant, he won it with an unprecedented 77.5 points, finishing first in six of the eight categories. We're not telling how much he won.
Stein, author of the baseball novel Hoopla, is something of an expert on ethics, having written a column on the subject for Esquire. But that doesn't stop him from trying to foist Householder off on unsuspecting colleagues. Stein's partner in crime is Cary Schneider, a public-relations executive who named his child Stanley Frank Musial Schneider. And she was a girl. Just kidding, folks.
Stein had taken over the franchise, formerly the McCall Collects, in the second year of the league. He made the team competitive, but we do miss the newsletters of former owner Bruce McCall, humorist, ad exec and Canadian. McCall did leave each of us splendid logos for our teams. I'm particularly grateful for the Wulfgang symbol, which is a wolf dressed as Mozart in powdered wig, waistcoat and spikes, wielding a musical symbol as if it were a Louisville Slugger.
At the end of last season Stein underwent the sacred Rotisseritual, the same rite that Waggoner, Gethers, myself and Eisenberg had been through in previous years. The champion gets Yoo-Hoo, the chocolate-flavored drink, poured over his head. Take a look at the ingredients on a Yoo-Hoo bottle sometime—ferric orthophosphate is a personal favorite. Yoo-Hoo actually leaves your hair soft to the touch. You can also drink it.
I'll never forget my Yoo-Hoo shampoo, and with that memory in tow, I walked into the Yankee Stadium clubhouse one day last summer. Much in the manner of a disciple asking the master the secret of life, I approached Yogi Berra to ask him about Yoo-Hoo. Yogi has long been associated with the drink, even though he is no longer Yoo-Hoo's executive vice-president for promotions. We talked for a bit about Yoo-Hoo, and then I just happened to mention that I belong to this crazy group of baseball fans who operate their own statistical league, and at the end of the season we pour Yoo-Hoo over the head of the winner. Upon hearing that, Yogi, who was dripping tobacco juice from the left side of his mouth, gave me a look of total disgust and said what I think was "Ooy-ooh." I later found out that's Yoo-Hoo upside down, or something.
Still, there isn't one of us who doesn't long for the day when he or she will stand under a cascade of Yoo-Hoo. It's with that dream in mind that we took our seats in Corona Park last month.
Did I hear "Dale Murphy for fifty dollars"?