FANALYTICS: The Tout Wars Saga, Part 1
Apparently, I have a Wikipedia page. This is pretty unnerving, particularly since the information on the page is incomplete and often incorrect. It looks like someone just read Fantasyland and assumed everything in that book was true.
One of the citations from that book is this line:
"Shandler created Tout Wars in 1997 after being fed up with the lack of promotion USA Today gave its annual LABR fantasy baseball experts league."
I don't know how many times I hear this, but it never gets any more accurate. It's just more of "incomplete and incorrect." I guess that's why most school districts forbid their students from using Wikipedia as a reference source. Especially if they're doing research about Ron Shandler.
For the longest time, I've wanted to set the record straight. Given that this season's statistical sample sizes are still not meaningful, I figured I'd use this time to start to retell the true story about the creation of Tout Wars.
The industry's first experts' league—the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR)—will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, and since the Tout Wars story has to start there, this exercise did require some digging. It's a good thing that I am a bit of a pack rat; I still have many old newspapers and correspondences from that period. Still, some of the following is from memory. I'd estimate this is probably about 95-99% accurate. My colleagues who are reading this have been chiming in to correct any factual errors, and I'll be updating as needed.
Once upon a time
...in a day when online services were limited to America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy, there lived a popular weekly newspaper called Baseball Weekly. BW (as we all affectionately called it) was a fairly new piece of media on the sports landscape, having been birthed by the mighty Gannett on April 11, 1991.
That debut issue was a full 72 pages long and included a grand total of one page of fantasy coverage—a column by noted expert John Benson. On page 64. There was also one page of coverage for statistical analysis and one page for baseball collectibles, both meriting earlier placement in the newspaper.
You see, the mighty Gannett saw fantasy leaguers as a niche market, a fad that would eventually fade. They might have noticed that, in the same debut issue, there were already more pages of paid fantasy advertising than editorial content. Still, they paid little mind to the growing groundswell of stat-hungry readers. Over the next two years, fantasy ad space grew exponentially yet only minor additions were made to the hobby's editorial space.
In 1993, BW named John Hunt to head up their fantasy coverage. At the time, Hunt was but a copy editor who played the game. He was not an expert in the same way that published analysts like Alex Patton and Les Leopold (in Peter Golenbock's books) were trumpeting their innovations. He was just a less expensive alternative to Benson, their previous columnist.
Hunt took awhile to find his footing but eventually proved himself in the role, writing sharp copy and drawing a solid following. In recognition of the growing interest in fantasy, BW management decided to produce a special section devoted to the hobby in one of its March editions. It would be a terrific opportunity to corral up all the advertisers that were littering their pages in the spring and bump up ad rates by 15%.
The centerpiece of this special section would be an exhibition fantasy league composed entirely of industry experts.
The idea of an experts league did not originate with Hunt. It was the brainchild of Jerry Heath, who ran one of the industry's first commissioner services, Heath Research. Heath pitched the idea—in exchange for being the official stat-keeper for the league—and Hunt quickly signed on.
In mid-February, I received a phone call from Hunt, inviting me to participate in this league. He told me that I would be competing against the industry's top baseball writers—everyone from Bill James to Rotisserie Founding Father Glen Waggoner—and that all participants would be profiled in the special section. Since I was still trying to build my business, this was an easy decision.
It seemed like the perfect marriage. BW could boast the baseball industry's top brain-trust exhibiting their expertise, which would surely help sell more newspapers. And all of us "experts" could get the exposure to 300,000 readers. It was the ultimate win-win scenario.
The first ever LABR draft was the American League-only contest, held on March 8, 1994 via conference call. We all phoned into a toll-free 800 number at 7:30 PM and conducted our auction. The final $1 player was called out just short of 2:00 AM. It was exhausting. The National League auction was held the following night.
The special Fantasy Guide—the first Leviathan—appeared on newsstands one week later. It was 28 pages long, of which more than 12 pages were advertisements for hundreds of companies hawking draft reports, stat services, PC software and leagues. It was truly the Golden Age of fantasy baseball, the biggest growth period before the rise of the Internet.
On page 49 appeared my first experts league roster—there with its uncharacteristic $120 pitching staff—along with my postage-stamp-sized mug shot and a brief bio. And most important, my company's 800 phone number. Now folks would know who Ron Shandler was, that he wrote the Baseball Forecaster, and here was how to get in contact with him. Sweet!
BW netted out their end of the deal as well; the Leviathan would soon become their second best selling issue of the year, just behind the Opening Day edition.
During the season, coverage of the LABR leagues in BW was sporadic at best. It seemed a little odd, given all the effort that had gone into orchestrating the draft. But this was the first year; we figured it was normal growing pains.
I spent eight weeks in first place that summer but dropped to third just days before the players went out on strike, ending our season. Hunt took the NL title. Larry Labadini won in the AL.
But this is not the story of LABR. There are many more colorful stories about this league that I'll write about at another time. This is the story of how things started veering off course and the idea of a competing experts league began to take hold. It started the following spring.
Everything about 1995 was off kilter. The player strike had taken a huge toll on the industry, with many fantasy companies going out of business and lots of uncertainty about the future. When the players and owners finally came to an agreement, the baseball world had just three weeks in April to accomplish everything that was typically done between the last out of the World Series and Opening Day. It was a massive frenzy.
That year's LABR draft was similar to 1994 with 24 valiant souls hovered over their speaker-phones for seven hours each of two nights. Many of 1994's participants did not return, including high profile names like Bill James and Keith Olbermann. It was all thrown together quickly.
BW had to divide its fantasy coverage into two issues. The LABR draft results were pushed back to the second edition—the same one that included Opening Day coverage—so the auction values had little impact on reader drafts. It pretty much negated any value the exercise could provide.
The results that appeared in the special fantasy section also took on a slightly different look for us participants. Gone was everyone's contact information. My listing only read, "Ron Shandler, Baseball Forecaster."
Now, understand the implications of this. 1995 was a time before widespread internet access (in fact, LABR's internal contact list included everyone's phone numbers, fax numbers and a separate section that listed those few of us who had email addresses). There was no Google and search engines were in their infancy. A listing that said "Ron Shandler, Baseball Forecaster" did me no good. Without an address or phone number, potential customers had no way to find me.
So I faxed Hunt a note, tactfully noting my disappointment and making some other small talk. He responded with, "Would you take new SF 1B Steve Scarsone (3 HRs this week) for the DL'ed Jose Rijo? I'd certainly throw in Billy Ashley at this point."
In the end, I let it go because of all the fallout from the strike.
Call it the season from hell.
It began with BW receiving a $4000 bill from the phone company for the 1995 LABR draft conference call. Someone had to pay for 24 people dialing into an 800 number for seven hours. Apparently, the 1994 bill had been pushed through Gannett's accounts payable department without anyone asking questions. The 1995 bill wasn't as lucky. BW immediately shut down the LABR phone draft, leaving Hunt without a means to conduct the event.
Concurrently, I was involved in the planning of a fantasy baseball conference at the Hilton in St. Petersburg, FL that year. This was during a period when the First Pitch forums had not yet taken off. Jim Johnston of Centerfield Software and I had been doing promotional direct mail programs involving multiple vendors and this event was an extension of that effort.
We decided to invite Hunt to run the LABR drafts live at our conference, seeing it as a huge opportunity for us to increase our exposure. Hunt jumped at the chance to keep LABR alive.
But it wasn't that simple. Getting 24 people connected via phone was one thing; getting them all to travel to Florida was something else. The invites went out, noting that anyone participating would have to pay their own way. Owners dropped like flies, including 1995 NL winner Mike Vogel. The remaining participants now were not necessarily the best players in the industry; they were just those willing to buy their own ticket. The fallout effectively cut the owner roster in half and meant everyone would draft two teams, one in each league.
For me, I was already planning to be in Florida for the conference so paying my own way was not an issue. For others, it was a sore point. For Steve Moyer, then of STATS Inc., it was a very sore point when he arrived in Florida as an unexpected 13th owner and there was no team for him to draft. This was rectified at the 11th hour when Stu Baron of Barons On Deck gave up one of his teams.
While we were all familiar with each other's work, most of us had never met in person. Hardly anyone had met Hunt before; he was tall, friendly and soft-spoken. Hunt invited the group to a pre-draft dinner at Hooters as an ice-breaker. We were all expecting BW to pick up the tab; it would have been a minimal gesture given that we had all fronted our own travel costs. But that did not happen.
The morning of the draft, Hunt informed us that Russell Beeker, a BW photographer who had flown down to cover our event, was not being reimbursed for his travel expenses. We all needed to cough up $20 apiece to pay for Beeker's airfare. There was anger and confusion, but there was little we could do at that point; we were all already in Florida. But we all hoped that, between Hunt and Beeker, coverage of the industry's first live experts league draft would make it worthwhile.
The drafts were a blast, highlighted by Labadini's $9 pitching staff. The resulting coverage was not. Once again, nobody's contact information was listed in the BW issue. The fact that it was the industry's first live event appeared nowhere. There was no mention of the fantasy conference that had been LABR's host; no "thank you" for the free draft room space that LABR had piggy-backed on. Johnston had even incurred some LABR-related expenses that were never reimbursed.
Once again, I complained, this time going over Hunt's head. The official response from BW management was, "if you want publicity, buy an ad."
The season was a disaster, with missing stat reports and trades that were not communicated to all owners. There was speculation that Hunt, who acted as the SWAT for both leagues, was using the inside information afforded his role to win an inordinate number of FAAB bids. In-season coverage in BW all but disappeared.
In mid-September, Alex Patton and I had a lengthy email conversation about our concerns. In one note, I listed several changes I wanted to see in the league. Summarizing my long-winded missive...
1. LABR should have a sponsoring organization that should be an impartial third party.
2. Management needs to be fair and consistent.
3. We need to have a "mission statement" (for want of a better term).
4. Extent of publicity/exposure needs to be communicated in advance so owners can determine whether their participation is worth the cost.
I ended my email with: "What is our role as "experts" if not to educate? And we've done a damn poor job of it. In 1994, I saw LABR as the vehicle by which we could disseminate our collective wisdom to the masses. By 1996, it has become a collective joke, just another in a long line of poorly run leagues. We are a sorry group of role models and I have no interest in continuing under these circumstances."
Hunt finished the 1996 season atop the standings for the second time in three years, though tied with Moyer.
The February invites went out as usual but I remained noncommittal about my participation. I tried to push Hunt on some of my concerns but was getting nowhere. The decision turning point came from an unlikely source.
Fantasy Baseball magazine editor Greg Ambrosius had a contact within ESPN and arranged for the 1997 draft to be held at the ESPN Club at Disney World in Orlando. The draft was also scheduled during the week that Baseball Tonight would be broadcasting live from the same venue. We were promised some coverage on one of their shows, ESPN even pitching Ambrosius on how the segment would look. It seemed like an opportunity for some good publicity.
At minimum, it seemed like I should give LABR one more shot.
It was a fun atmosphere at the ESPN Club, drafting 20 feet away from the Baseball Tonight studio. We learned that Peter Gammons was always on camera barefoot. At one point, Harold Reynolds walked by and overheard that the bidding had stalled at $4 on Tony Phillips. He piped up, "Four bucks? I'll take Tony Phillips for four bucks!" The Chicago outfielder then soared to $7.
The LABR segment on ESPN ran one time, on Saturday, March 15. It was a 2-minute piece that opened with this scroll: "Rotisserie League in Progress. Baseball Freaks Only." Karl Ravech interviewed Ambrosius, Hunt and radio personality Irwin Zwilling, asking innocuous questions about drafting hitters versus pitchers and who the top buys were. It wasn't anything insightful that would put us on the map. Frankly, we came off as very much the stereotypical geeks.
The coverage of the LABR draft in the Leviathan was the sparsest in four years. At the top of my roster, "Ron Shandler, Baseball Forecaster" had now been reduced to, simply "Shandler." The LABR experts no longer even merited first names.
In-season was disorganized, but it had become business as usual. By the end of 1997, we were all once again looking up at Hunt, who took his third NL title in four years.
At that point, I knew my participation in LABR was over. But I also knew that the concept of an experts league still had value. It just needed to be done right.
COMING SOON: The saga continues