So I was sitting in the press box at Camden Yards on Sunday with a real baseball game unfolding on the vibrant green beneath. And wouldn't you know, my mind was 1,000 miles away at Tropicana Field.
Actually, it was melding with my computer screen, where the box score of the Boston Red Sox-Tampa Bay Devil Rays game was unfolding in CBS Sportsline's glorious real-time scoring. Wily Mo Pena had just homered to draw Boston within one run, and the Red Sox had runners on first and third with only one out.
Kevin Youkilis struck out, setting up the perfect fantasy showdown.
Mark Loretta, the second baseman for my head-to-head team Beane's Addiction, had a chance to deprive my opponent, the Golden Sombreros, of a Scott Kazmir win. A mere single would give me two points and deprive the Sombreros of 10 points.
Every time a black line appeared around the box score, signaling that it was about to be updated, I held my breath. Until finally, a long pause and ... Loretta grounded out. I cussed my screen and muttered something incoherent to a curious co-worker.
Such are the joys of head-to-head fantasy baseball.
I know a lot of you probably have played head-to-head, but I always resisted it. I like the format in football, where urgent, once-a-week contests reflect the nature of the real sport. But baseball is such a long haul. Wins and losses in April count, but they often don't reveal which players and teams will have us buzzing come September.
So it is in fantasy baseball, where you often don't know the true nature of your team until midsummer. Sure, you accumulate statistics all along, but margins of 20 RBIs or three saves can be overcome in a blink.
Not in head-to-head. For those who don't know, the format pits you against another owner for the week. In my league, you start 10 offensive players, five starting pitchers and two relievers. They accumulate points for whatever they do (on offense, for example, a point for each total base, walk, steal, run and RBI, but points are deducted for strikeouts, failed steal attempts and double plays grounded into.) And at the end of the week, you get a win or a loss.
It doesn't matter if you lose by 200 or if your team has its best week of the season and gets nipped by two points. A win is a win and a loss is a loss. It mirrors the cruel capriciousness of real sport in that respect.
But, anyway, I had resisted it until an acquaintance asked if I wanted to play for fun with some other media types. Seemed like a good idea in January. Well, the day of the draft, another reporter and I had driven to Fort Myers, Fla., to cover a Red Sox-Orioles spring training game. As we were speeding back to Fort Lauderdale, a produce truck overturned on the one highway through the Everglades and we moved maybe a half-mile in 90 minutes. I started to daydream about the gators and bugs crawling out of the swamp and consuming us all.
The point is, I was frazzled when I stumbled into my hotel room to pick my players.
The beauty of a points system is that you don't have to have a speedy guy or a starter who gets lots of strikeouts or any of the other oddities we overpay for in a normal fantasy format.
Balance is out the window. You can spend your first six picks on guys who hit homers, draw walks and do little else. Which is kind of what I did, drafting Mark Teixeira, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi and Troy Glaus. I also had studied the format closely enough to know that low-strikeout, contact hitters such as Mark Kotsay and Jason Kendall might be more valuable than usual. I might have gone too far in ignoring starting pitchers, who can pick up 20 points with a single good outing.
But, oh well.
We're four weeks into the season now and I've learned the sweet highs and terrible frustrations of head-to-head play. My team has been quite steady, accumulating the third-most total points in the league with 843. But our opponents, whom we have no ability to defend or thwart, have put up 883.8.
That's left Beane's Addiction stuck in a pack with four other teams at 2-2.
Last week's loss hurt worst of all.
We had posted our best six days of the season and held a seemingly safe 30-point lead entering Sunday. Then, Sombreros started lighting up the board. First, Kazmir won, then Jamie Moyer, then Joe Blanton (he didn't even pitch well!). Orlando Cabrera went 3-for-4 with a homer, three RBIs, two runs and a steal. Carl Crawford went 2-for-4 with a homer, two RBIs and a steal. Johnny Damon went 3-for-4. And I was left with the second-most points in the league for the week and a big L to show for it.
Despite such cruelties, I'm coming to like this head-to-head thing and the urgency it brings to every happening in a given week. I wouldn't cast aside the traditional rotisserie format, which strikes me as a fairer test. But it's awfully nice after a day like Sunday to look at the fantasy scoreboard, see that 0-0 score for this week and realize that hope lives again.