I have long thought about a Field-of-Dreams style all-time baseball league, and how much fun it would be to pick a team to play in it, drawn from across the leagues and decades. I have a fair bit of confidence in my ability to draft such a team. The Bill James and other sabermetricians of the world might do better, but even they disagree with one another, so my own choices have at least some chance of being as good as theirs. I have toyed with this for years – there are a half-dozen saved lists on my computer covering one aspect or another.
I set up my own parameters – hey, it’s my fantasy, Jack – but I think them defensible. I didn’t want a single season; ten seemed to be about right. You would get a player’s ten best consecutive years, say from age 24-33.
Here’s the most-fun feature: Each season would be a different era, style of play, and appropriate equipment: a season of the dead-ball era with those hopeless gloves, followed by a barnstorming season of 200+ games with miserable travel and sleeping conditions, followed by 1980’s ugly uniforms, 1960’s raised-mound…you could get a lot of variety in ten seasons. Ten team league, ten seasons.
I was going to draft heavily from the Negro Leagues and from players throughout the modern era (officially defined as since 1903), but if someone wanted to pick Japanese players, or before the modern era, or high minor leagues under the old system, that would be fine. Having Old Hoss Radbourne face Saduharu Oh would be fun for everyone, even if I found both too risky.
I hypothesised nine other managers drafting teams, and gave each of them a personality and set of biases. Because it is true that most fans don’t know as much as I do about history, I thought it fair to reflect that – though current fans would know current players far better than I, so they at least get that back. There were three managers who were ignorant and opinionated, three who knew some things, and three who had a good knowledge of baseball. That’s probably tougher competition than reality – real life has more ignorant and opinionated fans, and even sportswriters don’t consistently get above that second group. One guy was a clear Yankees fan, another gravitated to small ball, a third knew almost no one before 1997 or so.
I drafted last. The first six rounds were mildly interesting. My own strategy was not to spring immediately for Negro League players, because the moment I said “Josh Gibson” the next manager, even a knucklehead, would say “Satchel Paige.” Someone would think of Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell fairly soon, and I didn’t want to give the smarter managers too much time to think. So I picked Mike Schmidt first, because someone took Rodriguez and somebody’s gonna have to play third. There was an early run on third basemen. Drafts are funny. Next I took Lefty Grove.
It was actually fun to put myself into the heads of other people and wonder “What would they know? What would their strategy be? How would they adjust?”
It got tedious quickly after the sixth round. This was where it was supposed to be fun, when others started realizing they were going to need a third baseman and could only think of Graig Nettles (not a bad choice, but closer to 20th best that top ten), while I was grabbing Roberto Clemente* and John Wettland just to take them away from the others, saving Bullet Joe Rogan and Mordecai Brown for the late rounds. Except that’s not much fun, wondering repeatedly from ten different points of view if Dwight Gooden or Mickey Lolich should go this early (or if the younger guys would pick Barry Zito instead). All my imaginary managers are now drafting by position, even the stupid ones having figured out that catchers are important and the best ones are gone. Putting myself in their heads now isn’t fun at all. It hurts. I’m just enduring.
After the 15th round (of a potential 20), I’m looking at my list and seeing it stacked with earlier players and Negro League players and I realize that I am banking everything on the idea that they really are better – that Pop Lloyd and Mule Suttles really are slightly better than Derek Jeter and Frank Thomas. Sprinters, swimmers, jumpers, and basketball players are all far better now, but I’m counting on baseball being eternal, just like in the movies. That even though no one threw the sinker/slider in the teens, that Honus Wagner would adjust to it in Field of Dreams. Also, by the very nature of all-star teams, even the bad teams look very good indeed. The managers who know about only the modern players are still able to put Roger Clemens and Junior Griffey out there, which aint bad. (Steroids and injuries are two parameters I remain undecided about.) Yes, I’m overestimating their ability to remember Scott Rolen under pressure, but everyone still has quality players.
So I just stopped. Saved. Who cares? Nothing ruins a good fantasy like getting too close to reality.
*Another advantage of the best ten years stricture is that guys who had several great years but not great lifetime totals – Roy Campanella, Duke Snider – are just as valuable here.