Monthly Archives: March 2009

The Real Thing

In a bittersweet ritual, I just bought two fantasy baseball magazines while in New York this week. Without a broadband connection, I can no longer have a fantasy team, but now it seems I am fantasizing about fantasy. How tissue-thin can this get?

Still, I enjoy imagining picking my players and creating the perfect team. As I’ve learned through losing (and sometimes winning!) fantasy contests, my version of perfection isn’t precisely mainstream. I have trouble whipping up sufficient enthusiasm for monochromatic sluggers. I’m just not too interested in Adam Dunn and Matt Holliday launching another long ball. Even Josh Hamilton’s story isn’t remarkable enough to counterbalance the tedium of at-bats that consist of a homer or not. So my fantasy teams have always been, shall we say, a tad unbalanced.

I miss constructing a team and tussling through the draft to make it come true, but it’s possible that life without broadband is shielding me from the dark consequences of fantasy baseball. When I first ventured in, I had trouble initially disconnecting myself from rooting for a team and investing myself exclusively in individuals. Soon enough, though, I was swept up in wanting Brad Radke to pitch one more ill-advised inning in pursuit of the additional points, or hoping Edgardo Alfonzo would get batted in from second. I craved stats and only stats, and often couldn’t tell you which team won or lost, only that Fernando Tatis hit a double.

Without a fantasy team, I have to go back to the real thing—actual teams that invariably have glaring weak spots. The Twins have a goodly number of them this year. The third base sinkhole is distressing, and hope as I might that Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris will somehow congeal into a single useable player, I know our batting order is going to be eerily quiet for long stretches. The Twins have quite a few players that wouldn’t even be reserves on fantasy teams, and the urgent wish for pleasant surprises may be especially futile this season.

Last year, we had several novelty factors. Would Delmon Young reclaim his titanic potential? (Um, nope.) Will Carlos Gomez make up for the Santana trade, as the only item of visible value obtained from the Mets? (Actually, kind of—he was a ton of fun to watch as he slowly acquired various life lessons about how to conduct a big-league at-bat and the all-too-real limits of bunting skills.) And can this new guy, Denard Span, replace the injured Michael Cuddyer? (Well, if you don’t mind little more than decent second baseman contact stats from your right fielder, this is your guy, but he does show nice clutch potential.)

Last season featured a fairly large overhaul of the lineup, but now we’re looking at sophomores and vets at nearly every spot. Curiosity remains, because many players are poised to advance their careers or watch them fizzle. Alexi Casilla, for example, might evolve into an excellent second baseman. Or he might sputter and stall. And the entire starting pitching crew consists of players twitching with some upside but little proof they can harness it. Some will, but to what degree?

So this will be reality baseball: if Mauer is injured, the reserve is the doughty but statistically meaningless Mike Redmond. If Morneau has one of those long RBI-less stretches, I won’t be slotting in Mark Teixeira to replace him. And I’ll be sticking with all the pitchers as they fall and rise and tire and strengthen. There will be inexplicable gusts of bad luck and good, but the team will all wear one uniform and sit in one dugout. I might wish I could have run them and made some trades, but instead I will be their fan and nothing more. I still like saying it: Twins win.

Why the Minnesota Twins?

Why the Twins, I hope you ask. It’s a purely aesthetic rooting decision, really. The Twins have no geographical claim on me, but they are one of five or six small market teams that have been forced to be resourceful with a puny payroll. Of course, it’s only puny by comparison with the otherworldly levels of compensation for those who strive for the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, and Dodgers, but in baseball, the gap between what’s called rich and poor is acute.

Most every year, the Twins are forced to dispatch two or three great players to the rich, hungry teams that harvest Minnesota’s superior player development system. From the 2007 roster we had to give up major jewels: Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. The 2008 team hasn’t lost anyone of significance, but should one of our promising pitchers actually bloom, he’ll be plucked at free agent time. That magical, delicate moment when a small-market team has just enough top players to win the World Series before free agency sets in hasn’t quite happened for the Twins.

Right now, the team is pulled by two opposing forces. They’ve signed their mightiest men, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Nathan, to deals that will keep them in place for the first few years after the new stadium opens in 2010. They have real (and costly) anchors in the lineup. At the other extreme, they’re forced to churn up odd-lot third basemen from various discount centers, and the dugout is home to plenty of third-tier journeymen. For the Twins, fielding a full squad is a bit of a strain. We have exciting young talent bubbling up in the form of Carlos Gomez and Denard Span, but both enter their sophomore year in 2009 and there’s no telling how they’ll do. We’ll need another crop of rookies to make up for our desultory hunt for a real-deal infield.

I am a true fan, which means I have disproportionate affection for the scrappy, hard-working Nick Punto at short. I cheer for Brendan Harris and Delmon Young. I forgive them, well, everything. But the harsh truth is that many of the Twins pitchers and hitters will not be lured away by big money from the Red Sox because they aren’t quite worth it. These are our baseball players, though, and we have to root as hard for Kevin Slowey as those Yankee fans will for CC Sabathia.

So, I root for the Twins because I root for baseball craft. They (usually) can’t win by overpowering the other team with an individual pitching or hitting performance. They have to win as a team. They need to sprinkle baserunners around, salt in some hits and steals, and score them one by one more often than in grand slam bunches. The pitchers need to labor away inning by inning, from starter to mid-reliever to closer, and if it’s working right, the other team doesn’t quite know why they haven’t scored enough runs.

I root for the Twins because most of the players appear to lack the towering ego and sense of entitlement that either precedes or immediately follows a big salary. I root because there is this faint possibility that these men really like playing baseball and find a pretty challenge right in doing so, not in keeping financial score. And I root because I want my heart right out there, capable of being broken, yet always ready for joy.