The last day of the Major League Baseball season is an odd one for fans of teams that finished out of the running—in my case, the last-place Red Sox—but I tune in for one more go-round. And it’s a relief that the Yankees had a crummy season, so there’s no stress in half-heartedly watching the playoffs (unlike last year, when I had a toothache when the Yanks were playing the Astros for the ALCS; when Houston won my pain vanished). Sunday’s game at Camden Yards was like spring training, as the A.L. East champs O’s and Sox shuffled players around in a meaningless contest, although it was punctuated by the sad and sudden news that Tim Wakefield, a Sox stalwart for 17 seasons, died at the premature age of 57. Jim Palmer, the greatest Orioles pitcher, and now an excellent “color” commentator for the Orioles/Nationals MASN TV network, was typically eloquent in his words about the knuckleballer Wakefield (who won 200 games in his career), and this was just days after his teammate and close friend Brooks Robinson passed away, although at the full age of 86.
The “real” 2023 was following my son Booker’s fantasy league team—The Sultans of Swag—in competition for a “World Series” win. As I’ve noted previously, Booker’s an unemotional, analytical baseball observer—though as a fan he’s all-in for the Sox, almost from birth—and while he’s competed in “The Teens 4 Christ Young League” (14 teams, two divisions) for years with a rotating cast of opponents, from high school friends and now business associates, this was the closest he’s come to winning the season-long contest. The match came down to the last day, and before three p.m., he was pessimistic as his rival had more starting pitchers, and his texts were a series of “I’m toast,” “I’m done,” “It’d be terrible losing to James,” and at the nadir of the afternoon, he said, “This is my last year, too much stress.” Yet in the end, as MLB teams rested some players for the playoffs, Booker took home the bacon and to say he was delighted would be a gross understatement. I’ve no idea what the prize was, some amount of cash, but that meant little to him; it was the simple victory, and “bragging rights” that counted.
My brother Jeff twisted my arm in 1997 to give fantasy baseball a whirl, and it was a joke: I did no research, picked too many Red Sox players, and stopped following after about a month. So did Jeff. Booker, who as a kid rambled on, and on, about becoming a general manager one day, is a pro. It’s a long process, starting with the league’s “draft” a week before the MLB season begins. We talk about that, I offer suggestions, but they’re mostly ignored since I know little about the players outside the A.L. East. As if I could even name more than two players from, say, the Milwaukee Brewers or Arizona Diamondbacks. And sometimes, after watching a game, I’ll call say, “Bookie, you’ve got to pick up Tanner Houck, he’s killing it,” and he’ll answer, “Bad peripherals, Dad.” None of that matters, though, as I follow his club all summer long, try to be helpful in suggestions for trades mid-year (I did convince him to get Sox rookie Triston Casas) and, since I watch baseball almost every night, I text him about his roster’s high and lows in any given week. I have the ESPN app on my cell, and will look at scores in between innings of a Sox game; I might tell him that Yordan Alvarez hit a three-run homer (worth eight points) and he’ll text back, “Goat!”
I’m not sure if it’s true, as doomsayers bleat every single year, that baseball is “generational,” stuck with an old demographic (that’s me, Crazy Chester!), since this year MLB attendance was up nine percent and set a new record. And that’s despite the larcenous cost of attending a ballgame. I’m told that a not inconsiderable number of younger people follow baseball, spurred on by the betting apps that are now so ubiquitous. I don’t partake of that new twist, preferring a handshake wager in April, but to each his own.
Anyway, it’s Booker’s show, and I’m just glad to be along for the ride, since it’s a lot of fun (especially in a year when the Red Sox blow). We talked Sunday night after the Sultans of Swag were named World Champions and he gave his fantasy Cy Young award to the Giants’ Logan Webb (I’d never heard of him before May) and MVP to the Braves’ Matt Olson, an Oakland A’s power hitter who escaped that franchise, going to the Atlanta Braves. Jose Altuve, Pablo Lopez and Kyle Bradish were in the running as well. As I said, fantasy baseball is an intellectual (and entertaining) project for Booker, and now that it’s over, he’s turned his back on the Orioles’ Bradish, since he doesn’t want any A.L. East team to win the World Series. Cool, calm and collected, that’s Booker, and in my own fantasy, Sox owner John Henry would fly him to Boston (on a private plane) and they’d spend an entire day talking and plotting. He’d build a dynasty.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023