Fantasy sports flourish on Martha's Vineyard
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Imagine you own a baseball team with present-day versions of Williams, DiMaggio, and Mays patrolling the same outfield — or Aaron, Musial, and Mantle.
Or how about owning a football team led by Patriots' QB Tom Brady? (Peyton Manning would be the backup in these parts.)
Bill Narkiewicz has been livin' the baseball vida loca since 1982. A year later, Owen Maloney of Chilmark and his gridiron pals were born with a destiny to "own" their own fantasy football league on the Island.
In the fantasy sports world, Mr. Narkiewicz and his UConn frat pals are pretty much founding fathers, creating their version of a game called Rotisserie Baseball, which itself was invented by best-selling author and baseball savant Daniel Okrent in 1980.
Today more than 11 million Americans play some sort of fantasy sports, including hockey and international soccer. Legend has it that players in some high roller leagues put up thousands of dollars in prize winnings. Players here take their pastime seriously, but the stakes are more apt to be few dollars or a case of beer.
Whimsy is a core element in fantasy culture. Mr. Okrent named his game after a decidedly downscale Manhattan eatery where he and his friends gathered daily for lunch. A search last week revealed that the sport has outlived the restaurant, called Rotisserie Francaise. Teams in Mr. Maloney's league sport names like "The Extension Cord Flailers" and "The Walk-Ons."
In real life, Mr. Narkiewicz is host of the weeknight program "Blues at 8" on WMVY-FM (92.7) radio here. In fantasy, he and three college buddies have developed a long and detailed rule book of regulations over the years. A primary regulation is that the name of the league "must remain a secret, even from the owners."
And a generation later, Mr. Maloney's fantasy football league, composed of Islanders like Jeremy Scheffer, Sam Griswold, and Taylor Ives, along with some off-Island buddies, take their work not so seriously as well. Over its five years, for example, league headquarters were established and remain at Lucy Vincent Beach, hard by the volleyball nets.
For readers who have never heard of Ted Williams or for those old enough to have actually seen him play and have no clue about fantasy sports, here's how it works, according to input from Messrs. Maloney and Narkiewicz:
A group of people who enjoy a particular sport and each other gather together — in person, online, or on the phone. Each selects a team of professional players in that sport. They do this by way of "drafting" players for specific positions. Draft Day, as it's called, usually involves food and beer.
The object of the draft for each owner is to assemble a juggernaut of talent that will crush its opponents, win the league, and lead to a few dollars, unlimited bragging rights for the season, and more beer.
Drafts are conducted as close to opening day of the season for that particular professional sport as possible. That's important because a player's real life accomplishments during the season provide points to the team owner who has drafted him for his or her fantasy team. "Owners try to avoid a player who's been injured, retired, or sent to jail before the season begins.
"I think players should call the fantasy owners when they do stupid things like shooting themselves," Mr. Maloney said. "The NFL should make them call us and apologize if we have them on our fantasy team." He was referring to Plaxico Burris, a former New York Giants receiver who shot himself in the thigh with his own gun while walking into a New York nightclub, a gaffe that carried a two-year prison term. Mr. Burris is expected to be released this spring, and he has said he expects to return to pro football.
The baseball draft for Mr. Narkiewicz's four-team baseball league took place on March 23 this year, one week before Major League Baseball began its season. The draft was held in a secret Island location this year on the second floor at Offshore Ale on Kennebec Ave. in Oak Bluffs.
Mr. Narkiewicz and his pals are now spread from here to North Carolina. So for tight security purposes and a chance to visit each others' families, the Draft Weekend location changes every year. The host is required to provide dinner the night before the draft. "It's a great chance to catch up with each other," Mr. Narkiewicz said. "We've been doing this for 29 years. It's a wonderful experience, enjoying time with friends you've had for so much of your life."
For Mr. Maloney, who works in the stone masonry business with his dad, John, draft day is always held at Lucy Vincent. "It's where we gather weekends, playing volleyball and hanging out," he said this week. Fortuitously, he pointed out, football fantasy draft is best done in late summer, just before National Football League play begins.
Lest readers get the impression fantasy players are simply slackers or get-a-lifers, they have real and busy lives. Mr. Maloney recently became engaged to Erica Finger, and the couple will wed on June 9, 2012. Mr. Maloney tried to emphasize that the June date was not selected to avoid conflict with Draft Day in August.
Playing fantasy sports is not all fun and games. The growth of the Internet over the years has created a mind-boggling slew of statistics, including player tendencies and preferences. There are even online draft services that will actually select your team for you (for a fee).
Paying someone else to pick your team seems counter-intuitive to Island players who enjoy the process and the camaraderie too much.
Mr. Narkiewicz spent several days picking his choices before the recent draft weekend. But disappointment is inevitable. "You've got your eye on someone for several rounds and then, just before your turn, someone scoops him up," he said with an unconvincing chuckle.
The matter of divided loyalties can be a major issue for some owners. "I'm a Patriots fan, and I won't draft Peyton Manning because I don't like him," Mr. Maloney said. "I won't draft New England Patriot players because I don't want to root against them," even if a poor performance by the Patriots would improve the standing of his fantasy team. First things first, after all.
Charlie Nadler knows about that. "Last year was a nightmare," he said last week from Los Angeles where he works in the film business. A graduate of Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, Mr. Nadler grew up in Oak Bluffs. He teamed with his uncle for several seasons to field a fantasy team.
"We drafted [Red Sox center fielder] Jacoby Ellsbury really high, and he was out injured the whole season. With all the injuries, we were losing from all angles. Your favorite team, your favorite player, and your fantasy team all go down. On the other hand, your favorite team can be having a bad year and your fantasy team can do well," he said.
Mr. Nadler has retired from fantasy ball. "I learned that while I'm a huge baseball fan, I'm not that interested in who the Milwaukee Brewers have in their farm system," he said. "I'm a Red Sox fan."