A day like any other? Hardly. Soon, Larry Mize would plunk a 140-foot chip into the final playoff hole cup at Augusta, giving Greg Norman the most bitter defeat of his career at The Masters.
But the day belonged to baseball, really. Here we were, a dozen general managers, an auctioneer, several wives, girlfriends and hangers-on in a downtown watering hole about four Mickey Mantle home run blasts from the Mississippi River.
Doug’s, a Beaux-Arts establishment, sported 20-foot ceilings, massive maroon drapes, heavy tables with captain’s chairs, a dartboard and jukebox at the back and a curved-screen, cathode-ray tube piping The Masters in over the bar, helmed by a discreet bookie who’d triple as our barkeep and auctioneer.
Draft Day – all’s right with the world, and just as we pored over our cheat sheets, penciling in last-minute strategies in our Rotisserie reveries, the scene-stealer burst through the door with a stack of research in one arm and a stack of neon yellow caps on the other.
Lyman Gore, a wiry, 40-ish attorney with curly, dishwater blond hair, strode in from a nearby print shop with a gleam in his one good eye and a gift for every Fantasy Baseball owner at the table: A purple logo printed on the yellow caps, LSU-like, but this was no Eye of the Tiger. No, Lyman – confident of claiming his first championship – lavished upon us custom caps with a purple bat striking a purple baseball festooned with his trademark glass eye and a caption below his team name: “Cyclops – In the Bat of an Eye.”
Laughs cascaded to the ceiling, and the loudest was Lyman’s, a hoarse cackle that crinkled the corners of his eyes and that echoed through every River City League draft until, finally, two decades later he would claim his first title.
‘I Hate Pitchers’
Pitchers were the bane of Lyman’s existence. It was as if his mind’s eye suffered from a loss of perspective the way his physical eye suffered from a lack of peripheral vision.
Seated with his roster sheet and inside baseball publications – typically at a separate table – he’d grab his thermos and swill some coffee of the Irish kind. When it came his turn to nominate a player in the draft auction, he’d slap his thermos on the table and mutter an oath, “I hate pitchers,” usually followed by the corollary phrase, “with a passion.”
Year-in, year-out, the Cyclops couldn’t seem to break that cycle. The pitchers seemed to hate Lyman as much as he hated them. He’d spend big on sluggers and base-stealers until someone would say, “Lyman, when you gonna draft a pitcher?” His rejoinder: “I hope never.”
Some years he’d sit out the bidding altogether until, at the first break, one of us would say, “Lyman, when you gonna draft somebody?” His rejoinder, “I’m saving my money,” reflected his upbringing as a banker’s son, and then the corollary “I don’t want to blow it all on pitchers” would precede another cackle and a round of good-natured ribbing.
But clearly a pattern was setting in. Lyman, who scouted spring training and pored over player rankings with the best of us, usually exceeding the preparation any of the rest of us could muster, slowly but surely sank into a bidding paralysis. He seemed not to want to pull the trigger and, eventually, seemed incapable of doing so in the crucial moments of the draft.
Fantasy baseball purists know the pitfalls. Never spend too much, too early. Never bring up a player you don’t want to own. And never get so excited about a player that your bid is out of proportion with the player’s Fantasy, not real, value. Sometimes the most modest of bids is excessive. One year, my brother Glen, playing with a Canadian oil man named Lloyd Thomas as his partner, listened while someone opened one of the first bids with “Kevin Ritz, starting pitcher, Colorado.” Now these were the 1990s, and Coors Field was the ultimate hitter’s crib: One simply didn’t draft Rockies pitchers if they could be avoided – and never early in the draft. To his horror, Glen heard the oil man bellow a second bid for Ritz from behind his bushy mustache. A split second of silence ensued, then came the thundering sound of my brother’s foot stomping and the exclamation: “Lloyd!” Wounded, the oil man defended himself: “Well, he won 17 games last year. He’s worth at least one more bid.” Ritz also had surrendered 105 walks and 125 earned runs the prior year to go with a WHIP of 1.601 and a 5.28 ERA.
By then, the jig was up, laughter knifed through the auction tension, and I don’t have to tell you who laughed loudest.
The Comeback Kid
Still, Lyman couldn’t break his lovable loser mold. He’d overcompensate in ways that led to more mirth. When time came for our Minor League picks, Lyman amped up the levity by selecting farm hands for the peculiarity of their names: Razor Shines, Motorboat Jones and Boof Bonser all spent time riding the Cyclops bench.
And yet Lyman flourished in his role as our league’s commissioner. Our River City League began nearly 30 years ago when Rotisserie founders Glenn Waggoner and Daniel Okrent penned the first edition of the classic, Rotisserie League Baseball, and we original owners read it. In those days, we crunched our own stats by hand – ugh! – and delighted in the delayed discovery of who was winning. Lyman joined a couple of years later, when we’d begun receiving weekly faxed stats from a service in Maryland.
When, a decade later, Web leagues burst onto the scene, Lyman stepped up to the plate as our online commissioner. On any given summer night, you could go to our site, glance through the standings and there in the chat room Lyman would be lurking, as sure and certain a presence as the moon outside.
We exchanged hundreds of emails about transactions and trades over the years, often never seeing each other between drafts because we lived in different cities. And then a funny thing happened.
Lyman embraced the baseball strategies of John Benson with a passion and began moving up the standings from his perennial also-ran status. Most miraculous of all, he embraced pitchers. With Benson behind him, Lyman learned that pitchers could be his friends, especially the innings-eaters with low ERAs, stingy WHIPs and frequent W’s in a holy pitching trinity. He learned to eschew saves – you can’t win every category, the reasoning went, so don’t overpay for a bunch of unpredictable relievers.
Gradually, he applied the same systematic approach to hitters. He climbed from 4 pitching points, 21 total points and 10th place (last) in 2001 to ninth a year later, with 14 pitching points and 37 total points. In 2003, he scaled to third place with a balanced line of 24 points in batting and 23 in pitching. The next year, he claimed second place (44 points) in the most competitive year in our league’s history.
And then it happened. In 2005, the Cyclops claimed the no-longer mythical championship, beating my Peripatetics team by 4.5 points and recording the league’s best balance: 26 batting points, 23 pitching points. I couldn’t have been happier if I’d won myself, and I almost felt the same way in 2006 when Lyman edged me by 2 points to take his second consecutive crown.
If anyone deserved to gloat, it was Lyman, but he remained uncannily gracious as a champion and continually competitive in the succeeding years. Shortly after the All-Star Game this year, I pulled into our office parking lot after lunch, heard my phone buzz with what I expected to be a work email and read the impossible: Lyman had died after surgery and a brief illness.
I’ll never know what going to war is like, fighting with brothers in arms on foreign soil. But this felt like someone blasted my bunkmate out of our foxhole. I lost it. When I posted a brief email to my fellow owners a few moments later, it stated the unfiltered truth about Lyman: “Devastating: It will never be the same without him.”
Fantasy commissioners aren’t supposed to die, they’re supposed to go on forever – longer than Bud Selig, God love him. Several other league owners had died over the years, but none in mid-season and none more dedicated to this silly, romantic, guts-and-glory game we pursue.
The best I can do is step off the pitching mound and hand the ball over to the late great Mike Royko, whose posthumous collection of columns in 1999 began with this requiem on the final day when his beloved Chicago Daily News ceased publication in 1978:
When I was a kid, the worst of all days
Was the last day of summer vacation,
and we were in the schoolyard playing softball,
and the sun was going down, and it was getting dark.
But I didn’t want it to get dark.
I didn’t want the game to end.
It was too good, too much fun.
I wanted it to stay light forever,
so we could go on playing forever,
so the game would go on and on.
That’s how I feel now: C’mon, C’mon!
Let’s play one more inning.
One more time at bat.
One more pitch. Just one?
Stick around, guys.
We can’t break up this team.
It’s too much fun.
But the sun always went down.
And now it’s almost dark again.
Elsewhere, the sun is rising, and I see Ray Kinsella tossing a baseball to his dad, the catcher. Ty Cobb is filing his spikes, and Shoeless Joe Jackson is lacing up his cleats, staring down Cobb. Satchel Paige is on the pitching mound, staring over his shoulder to see how far Jackie Robinson is cheating toward second base.
Perched on the front row of the bleachers, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis casts a quizzical eye at Shoeless Joe and glares at the first baseman, Chick Gandil. Beside Landis, Bowie Kuhn engages A. Bartlett Giamatti in a scholarly debate on free agency, and next to them, wearing the golden cap with the purple eye, sits Lyman Gore – thermos in one hand, stat sheet on his knee.
Today, Gary Perilloux’s RCL team stands in sixth place, a point behind the late Lyman Gore’s Cyclops, who are tied for fourth and leading the league with a .282 team batting average.