NFL Greats Talk Fantasy Football

There was a time when the typical fantasy of a red-blooded American male was Phoebe Cates dripping wet handling a carrot. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” being over a quarter century ago, those same men would now be quite content to have a durable top-flight running back, a swarming defense intent on stripping the ball, and a quarterback with a great interception-to-turnover ratio. These are the stuff of dreams.

Yes, those same testosterone-laden men (and some laden with extra testosterone, like Melky Cabrera) are all about the fantasy football now. You wait all year for this, study your charts, listen to the experts, alienate family, ignore friends, only to have your efforts derailed early on from a bad draft position or a freak injury. (My first pick last year was Jamaal Charles. Nuff said.)

So what’s your strategy? It depends on what type of league you’re in. Is it a keeper league? Do you make bids? Are you totally on board… unless you can’t pick Tom Brady? Does your league allow you to pay after you pick? Are you planning to not pay if you don’t get your first choice?

Regardless, the draft is just the beginning. You’re the general manager. You need to be up on the news. Rosters need to be in ten minutes from now! But your best player is “questionable” to start. What the heck does that mean?! You need to know!!! Will he start?! Dammit, that’s the question!

This has become our national pastime. The fanatics are now even more fanatic. As players, it’s not enough you have to help your team win, but now you have to do well individually. A win on the field could still be a loss for some random guy in Omaha (as opposed to the specific guy in Omaha). Talk about increased pressure!

At the recent Pump Foundation dinner, raising money for the Northridge (CA) Hospital to support the fight against cancer, I caught up with a few former gridiron greats and asked what they thought of the fantasy phenomenon.

“It was amazing to me,” says Hall of Fame wide receiver Tim Brown, “cuz I had some of my good golf buddies back in Dallas who were fantasy players and when I would come home in the offseason, they would be mad at me. I mean, literally, they’d say, ‘Dude, all you had to do was run out of bounds at the one-yard line, and Tyrone Wheatley would’ve scored and I would’ve won the game.’ And I didn’t know what was going on til I found out they were playing fantasy football.”

He doesn’t play himself because he’s a busy man in his “retirement.” “I would love to,” says the former Heisman Trophy winner. “Y’know, I started out about five or six years ago trying to do it and I just haven’t had the time to do it.”

The theme comes up again when talking to “Broadway Joe” himself who also complained of the time commitment. “I was involved a couple of seasons ago,” says Namath. “I really wanted to make it work, studying, getting help and all that. And what I’ve learned is I have to admire the people who are involved because it takes passion to take that much time in to study the athletes and their games, and keeping up with the week to week, and making the deals and all.”

But he had no problem memorizing the playbook week in and week out? “Well, yeah,” the former Super Bowl III guarantor explains, “but that was when you were living it. So the fantasy game has just added a wonderful time for fans and participants of fantasy football.”

Would he have picked himself in the first round? “I don’t know. With a bad knee, it depends.” Another questionable!

Then there’s the flip side. Former three-sport star and Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield doesn’t even concern himself with it. “I don’t follow it at all. I know it’s a big thing, but don’t follow it at all. AT ALL,” he says again for emphasis, utilizing his broad smile.

Meanwhile, one of the players who was consistently a lock to be an early-round pick pondered not even being an option for the fantasy players. With the Olympics just ended, Marshall Faulk had his own fantasy.

“If I could’ve gone back and done it all over again,” the recent inductee to Canton began, “I would’ve come back and probably played table tennis and badminton, or — I don’t know what the gymnast is called with the little string, but that looks fun too. It has a name. i don’t know what that’s called. We’ll call it that.”

I imagine he would’ve been a Hall of Famer at that, but he’s not so confident. “I would’ve be graceful. If my knees would’ve been a little better, I would’ve been good.”

So my fantasy is now this… I get a top 3 player at all the skill positions, they don’t get hurt, have career years, and I’m able to withstand all challenges to win my league. But I know that at the end of the day, it’ll be just that, a fantasy, and I’ll be left with Darren Sproles as my top tailback and Mark Sanchez, who will most likely be benched for Tim Tebow in Week Two, with my arch nemesis having the foresight to pick him up before I can.

It’s going to be a long season. Why isn’t it called Nightmare Football instead?

“Red Sox University” Mentioned in New Book

Andy Wasif’s “Red Sox University” (Triumph Books, 2009) will be mentioned in “501 Books Baseball Fans Must Read Before they Die” by Ron Kaplan (due out in April 2013).  Ron Kaplan reviews books and interviews authors for his site Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf.

Presumably “Red Sox University” will be among the top 501.

Really Inside Baseball: An Interview with Zack Hemple

The baseball playoffs are well underway, on a quest to find the last team standing in 2011.  Are you glued to your set?  Are you still wearing the same clothes you were wearing when your team entered the playoffs?  Can you name the team’s best hitter against left-handers after the seventh inning when facing a deficit of two or more runs?

There are many people who are obsessed with baseball.  Chances are you know one of them.  But there are comparatively few who can honestly claim to be obsessed with the baseball.  Zack Hample is one of those people. 

He’s the author of “The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches,” a truly fascinating look at the game’s most important element, the one constant since the very origins of a field game from the mid-19th Century.  Players have come and gone, but the baseball has seen it all. 

Though writing is his vocation, Zack could just as easily be called a “professional fan.”  For he is a ballhawk, someone who spends his time at the ballpark collecting as many baseballs as possible. 

The New York native took time out of his 12-city, 13-ballpark tour to talk to me about what makes this little round piece of cowhide so special.  “The baseball is the object that’s at the center of the national pastime,” he began.  “The game can’t be played without the ball.”  He calls it a “cultural artifact.” 

I think about that for a moment.  Baseball consists of bases and balls.  The ball is called a “baseball.”  The game is called “baseball.”  Without the baseball, there would be no baseball.  The sport might then have to be called “basebat” or “cleatcup” or something else related to the props on hand, no doubt diminishing its allure. 

From reading the thoroughly-researched tome, you’ll find that the controversy of the juiced ball is not a modern construct, but has survived longer than any accomplishment housed in the record books. 

In fact, it’s been criticized for being juiced longer than the leagues have been in place.  In 1867, when the ball could flop around, the Nationals of Washington were accused of “juicing” the balls by the Cincinnati Red Stockings. 

The term “tear the cover off the ball” used to be taken literally (due to the flimsy construction of it) and not simply as a hyperbolic statement describing a steroid-enraged (allegedly) Roger Clemens arguing a balls and strikes call.

Another little known fact, prior to reading Zack’s book – the baseball used to be the prize.  Winning teams were allowed to keep the ball as they were expensive and hard to come by.  “Hey, you won!  Here’s the ball.”  (That’s nothing like today’s World Series trophy.) 

Over the years, Zack has amassed a collection of official major league baseballs well into the thousands.  “It makes me very happy just to own so many baseballs.”  At press time, he claims it to be 5792 – “That kid’s got balls,” one might say – but that could change as games continue within travel distance.   

This (Pittsburgh) pirate’s booty resides in several locations. “They are mostly at my mom’s place,” he tells me, “in my old childhood bedroom, and she wants them the hell out.”  There are eight 32-gallon recycling bins that hold about 400 balls each.  Then he’s packed balls snuggly into five filing drawers.  He knows that each holds precisely 144 balls; no more, no less.   “It’s almost as if they built them for baseballs.” 

Who’s to say they didn’t?  Finally, he estimates close to a thousand sitting in various duffel bags, and maybe a hundred more in some plastic shopping bags.   

What is he saving them for?  Someday, he hopes to have children.  “I’d like to pass these along to them.  It’d be fun to dump them all out and then jump in them, play around in thousands of baseballs.”  He pauses for a moment, then proudly adds, “I like doing that now and I’m supposedly a grown-up.” 

All this for a little piece of cowhide stitched together with some yarn.  (Which one might think it’s as rudimentary as that.) 

The stitching process itself is interesting, an exhaustive and precise undertaking.  It recruits Canadian thread, Rhode Island yarn, a metal detector, a numerical code, a stamping machine, invisible ink, and the Costa Rican climate (though produced indoors with air conditioning so as not to affect the materials). 

The stitching process is done by hand where warehouses filled with slouching people hunched over balls lining fourteen rows of 25 chairs each at the Rawlings Factory in Turrialba, Costa Rica (which is of no relation to catcher Yorvit Torrealba of the Rangers.)

Read the book and you’ll discover all you wanted to know and things you didn’t know you wanted to know.  It’ll open your eyes to one part of the game you love that has been taken for granted all this time. 

The book, Zack’s third, is broken into three parts – historical and factual stuff, baseballs in the news, and, of course, snagging the ball.  The final section highlights some of the most successful ball hawks in the stands.  “Even though major league baseball is huge and spread out all over the continent, it’s still kind of a tight-knit community of guys who do this, at least to this level,” Zack explains, as one who is unique, but not nearly alone.

Pick up “The Baseball” and become a ballhawk yourself.  It’s something I’ve been sorely in need of.  I’m perpetually haunted by memories of near-misses, my thumbs and forefingers still scarred from baseballs glancing off them time and again. 

As I tell of my most recent failed attempt at snagging a ball, I am hoping he absolves me of my feelings of shame.  “Most people are just passive about catching balls,” he says.  “I think most people would love to catch a ball.  Very few people make it happen.”   

I feel a little better at my success rate.  After all, Zack’s the expert.  He is a hawk and can spot other hawks at the ballpark easily.  “I can tell pretty quickly who has a clue of what they’re doing, just by the way they’re standing, how he looks, what they’re wearing. . .”

He’s just very good at it.  By the time he was in college, he’d snagged his first thousand.

Growing up as someone who wanted to play the game, this gives him the feeling he’s part of it, a way of connecting to the sport he loves.  “It makes me feel like I’m part of the game.” 

The hobby leaves him a bit misunderstood which he seeks to correct.  “I think a lot of people assume I don’t appreciate the sport, that I’m just interested in catching balls and if I can’t do that, I don’t really care about the game, but that’s far from the truth.”  He doesn’t participate in fantasy baseball, but still reads every box score.

A lot of the time, he’ll go to games alone because he’s not interested in the typical leisurely passive viewing habits of the average fan.  There are not many companions that fit his criteria.  “The few times that I tried to take people, they either bitched about moving around from seat to seat or they were competing with me for baseballs.” 

Now, when he attends with friends, Zack explains, “I don’t ask them, ‘Is this okay with you?’  I just say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’  But they’re my friends and they know how it goes, so they want to come and witness what I do, willing to switch their seats over the course of the game.” 

He’s experienced the glory of catching a home run ball held seconds earlier by the pitcher and inspected by the ump.  But he’s had his share of injuries as well.  “I was on crutches this season for three weeks because I sprained an ankle at a game.  I’ve cracked a rib in the past at a game, broke my nose slightly.”  Ah, the dreaded BDL (ballhawk disabled list). 

This last one is a sore subject.  “It’s not that I can’t catch.  If I’m camped underneath a homerun ball and some idiot comes flying out of nowhere and deflects a ball, sending it off course by an inch just over the tip of my glove into my face. . .  I’ve learned my lesson.”

The pursuit has spawned a philanthropic effort as well as he is dedicated to a charity called “Pitch in for Baseball” that provides baseball and softball equipment for underprivileged kids all over the world.  “I’m getting people to pledge money for every ball that I catch.”  Since he started in 2009, he’s raised over $20,000.  “It’s my way of giving back to the baseball world and not being a doofus in the process, running around and catching balls.” 

And as the season goes into hibernation, while those obsessed with baseball will go through withdrawal symptoms, you can be sure Zack will experience a much different sensation as he will no doubt marvel at the spoils of this year’s hard work.  (He collected 1110 balls during the regular season, continuing with nine at Philadelphia’s Citzens Bank Park, for Game One of the NLDS.)

Perhaps this is a good time to dump out a barrel and do some rolling.

[If you would like to donate to “Pitch in for Baseball,” please go to www.zackhample.com.]

Legendary Athletes Come Together for a Cause

Imagine a political conference with all the great leaders of the world.  Now imagine that very same gathering with a selection of record-setting athletes and Hall of Famers.  Where politics has the G8 summit, sports has the Harold Pump Foundation Dinner.

The 11th star-studded event took place inCentury City,California this past week and featured the very demographic, along with stars of entertainment, the world of business, and politics.  Going into this year, twins Dana and David Pump have raised $4.6 million to help fight cancer, the disease to which their father lost his fight in 1999.  Each year, they honor inspirational people and their accomplishments.

This year was no different as Marcus Allen, Jerry West, and Oscar de la Hoya received Lifetime Achievement Awards, along with current Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn.

Being on the red carpet and interacting with these all-time greats is a fun and educational experience.  Just getting to take a moment to slip inside the minds of these legends and see what makes them tick.  Plus, you never know who is going to show up at this particular gala.

Larry, in Los Angeles, you’re on with Wasif’s World, hello.”

Larry King, ambles down, suspenders and all, with his wife, Shawn.  He’s been almost as visible in retirement as he was when he was hosting CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

What has he been up to?  “I do Conan a lot,” says Larry, leading his wife to chime in, “Are you kidding me?!”  She’s turns to her husband, with the mind of a public relations rep, “What are getting ready to do?”  Then she turns back to me.  “He’s getting ready to make a huge announcement.  He’s been very busy.”

Larry then adds the outlet that may be involved before his wife scolds him not to reveal anything.  I promise to keep it in the vault and simply clarify, “You’re getting ready to not be as. . . leisurely?”

“Correct,” he says succinctly.  So we can expect more from him soon.

Seeing talk’s elder statesman is impressive, but nothing compared to a sighting of former president of Mexico Vicente Fox y Marta, su esposa hermosa.  Señor Presidente, you are connected with the Foundation?

“I’ll be supporting and coming anytime “double D,” Dana and David, call me and they will be coming toMexico.  We’re also developing this kind of programs inMexicofor the Fox Center of Studies, which is the presidential library of which I am president.”

From news to politics to entertainment, we see 30-year show biz Alfonso Ribiero.  Best known as Carlton Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” now you can see him as host of GSN’s “Catch-21” and he currently directs episodes of TBS’s “Are We There Yet?”

He has a little athlete in him as well.  “I played a lot of baseball as a kid.  I loved the sport.  I was too short for basketball.  And football was a little rough for me.

For me now, golf is really my sport.  I’m a 2-handicap; it’s one of those things that I can kind of get it done.”

But it’s the professional athletes that mainly draw the fans hovering around the carpet.  Ozzie Smith is the first.  You almost expect him to do a backflip as if leading the other guests out of the dugout.

There have been better shortstops, but no one more unique.  “I wasn’t blessed with size and stuff,” the Wizard of Oz begins, “but the things that I was blessed with, I never took for granted.  I continued to work hard and strive to be the very best that I could be over a nineteen-year period that allowed me to stand here and say I made it to the Hall of Fame.”

Oh, great and powerful Wizard, why have you honored us with your presence here this evening?

“They need you to use your name to bring awareness to certain causes.  I feel very fortunate that I get the opportunity to walk the red carpet and things like that,” says the current educational ambassador to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Gale Sayers mirrors the sentiment on how he can continue to use his celebrity for good.  “I had the funds to go out there and give some money to charities and people who play athletics, many of them have the funds to do that as well.”  He says he tries to spend as much time as he can with his charity, the Gale Sayers Foundation that helps underprivileged kids.  “And my wife has more charities that I spend time with.”

The string of memorable retired players doesn’t slow up from there.  One-of-a-kind NBA player Jamaal Wilkes came next.  How did he come up with that unorthodox shot?  “My start and ending were very fundamental.  I don’t really know how I started shooting that way.  I didn’t realize I was shooting any different until I got to college.”

And why stick with it?  “Survival.  It was a technique to survive.  Playing as a young boy with older men.”

He certainly wasn’t the only retired hoopster.  Eulogizing Shaq upon his recent retirement frequently referred to him as the most athletic center to ever play the game.  Those people seem to be forgetting about Ralph Sampson.  He’s one of only two players to ever win the Naismith Award three consecutive times as the nation’s best college player.  [Who is the other? Answer below.]  Talking to Ralph is like watching a movie from the front row of the movie theatre.

Ralph responds to that particular praise for Shaq with a smile.  “Take a look at the video tapes.  Look at Sports Illustrated.  How many covers did it say, ‘He can dribble, he can shoot, he can bring the ball up the court’?”

At 51, could the former Houston Rocket star still dribble and shoot and take the ball up the court?  “If I was in great shape, I could probably do it about ten minutes a game.  I’d have to be in awesome shape though.”  He moves on, giving my neck and posture a chance to readjust.

Perhaps new head coach Brian Shaw would take a chance on him.  He’s just happy he’s “being reacquainted with my old teammate Larry Bird, now that I’m heading toIndiana. Indiana’s a hot bed of basketball; the fans are very knowledgeable of the game there.  So I’m looking forward to it.”

With the NBA the latest professional league to endure a lockout, when that day will come is anyone’s guess.  Mike Dunleavy has some thoughts about it.  “It’ll probably get to about September before anyone does anything in real earnest.  Maybe there’ll be a surprise.”

So when the NBA does reconvene, what does the talented hyphenate – coach/general manager/broadcaster – see in his future?  “Y’know, it depends.  I’m interested in all of the above.  Right now, I’m getting ready to coach the USA Team, a high school team, the Adidas nations, a team where they bring in high school kids all over the world to play in LA, so I’m looking forward to that. It should be a lot of fun.”

There’s a wave of celebrities on the carpet at this point.  I’m busy talking to some and miss out on others.  Eddie Murray, Jeremy Piven, and Mike Tyson, for instance, walk by.  “Iron Mike” is accompanied by Jim Gray.  I’m not sure of the connection, though I wonder if this is by design as Pete Rose makes his way down the carpet a few minutes later.

In a tweet to Sports Illustrated writer Phil Taylor, he responded, “Gray’s lucky.  Even at 70, I think Pete could crush him.”

Speaking of Pete Rose, his name comes up in a conversation with Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rollie Fingers.  I ask him to talk about the time he was asked to shave his moustache.

“It wasCincinnatiin 1986.  Pete Rose asked me to come to spring training and I said fine.  I talked to the general manager who welcomed me to come to spring training.  He said, ‘There’s only one thing you have to do, shave your moustache.’  I said now what difference does it make?  He said, ‘Well that’s our rule.’  I told the general manager to tell Marge Schott to shave her Saint Bernard and I’d shave my moustache. So I quit.”  Rollie shrugs, “At that point, I’d had it for 17 years.  I wasn’t going to shave it off for her, so I just decided to stop playing ball.”

Yes, youngsters, before “Fear the Beard,” there was “wax the ‘stache.”  (At least, there should have been in deference to the handlebar masterpiece.)  And Fingers still has the best piece of facial furniture out there, though El Presidente Fox sported an impressive one as well.

Throughout the evening, you notice that the fans aren’t the only ones who are clamoring to speak with the athletes.  Other athletes admire them as well, such as Wilkes talking to Celtics and Lakers legend Bill Sharman.  There is a mutual respect.

One of the evening’s honorees, Marcus Allen, summed it up nicely.  “To grow up, to have ambition and to admire guys, then to meet those guys, to become friends with those guys – all the guys that walk the red carpet, you know personally – and have those guys be the fabric of your success regardless of what sport they play, that’s an amazing thing.”

Then he smiles and gets a glint in his eyes as he says, “But at the risk of sounding crazy, I knew it was going to happen though.”

Julius Erving, Dr. J to many, agrees.  “We’re here on the red carpet; some people are treating us differently than if we’re on the other side.  You need to go on the other side to have some sanity.”

I offer to switch places with him.  “Yeah, I could start asking you the questions,” he says.

Without following through on that, he continues, “Y’know the celebrity hat is sort of a byproduct of whatever I was able to do on the basketball court and maybe what I’m able to do to inspire other people.  But more importantly is to have meaningful relationships and to have a meaningful mission in life.  I want to be the best person that I can possibly be.”  Spoken like a true non-medical doctor.  He then commiserates with his friend, former NBA star Marques Johnson.

Recent addition to the NFL Hall of Fame Marshall Faulk stands at the end of the carpet waiting to talk to Jim Brown.  After a brief discussion and some photographs, Jim turns to a fellow Syracuse Orangeman, though one with considerably fewer varsity letters than the former lacrosse, football, and track star.  Of course, we talk acting as he had an even more prolificHollywoodcareer than he did as an athlete.

“Acting is a wonderful profession, it’s an art and if you get into it, you can truly enjoy it.  It’s totally different than sports.  In acting, you have a director, a cutting room, and a cutting room floor.  Your best scenes can be cut out of the movie.  But I enjoyed acting because I had a chance to be exposed to a lot of great actors.  Al Pacino was a wonderful teacher and friend so I’m just happy to enjoy all of these things.”

Jim left the gridiron for a new career, opening himself up to a new set of fans.  Jerry Rice, of “Dancing with the Stars” fame, has just realized that for himself.  Regarding the reality show, he says, “It gave me a chance to reach a whole new demographic of people and it’s like, people might not know me from football, but they know me from the show.”

Just don’t remind the ultra-competitive all-time great that he came in second place.  He bristles, “Well thank you so much for reminding me of that bad memory and I get this all the time from Nick Lachey.  He rubs it in my face, now you’re doing the same thing.  But that’s okay.”  (It’s not every day, I am compared to the former 98 degrees member.)  Jerry smiles to show me he’s okay with it.  Knowing him, he’s going to work harder and win a dance off in the future.

Author Ingrid Katal describes to me how we can take our own goals and dreams to the next level by discussing her book, “What is Your Honor Code: The Missing Link to Managing Your Mind.”  She says, “I believe that we need to have policies and boundaries for ourselves and anyone else in our lives.  There isn’t any reason to get angry, frustrated, or stressed out and we actually let in a lot more stuff that doesn’t need to be added in.”

This motivational advice could help us learn some of the habits that brings success to these athletes, such as Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker, who explains her practice.  “I try to add 25% each year, try to add something new to my game each year.”

To her, it’s not just about scoring.  “It’s getting your teammates involved, knocking down your free throws – what percentage are you shooting from the three point line? – things like that, that aren’t necessarily evident on the stat sheet, but they’re proving that you’re improving your game.”

And Rosie Grier, former formidable Fearsome Foursome lineman of the Los Angeles Rams, now a minister, preaches that we all have to play our role, to fulfill our missions since we’re only around for a short time.

Their involvement is best summed up in Marcus Allen’s acceptance speech later that night.  He said, “We are rich by what we give and poor by what we keep.”

And though the undertones were serious, the festivities were hosted by comedian Cedric the Entertainer. However, he was not the funniest one there.  That distinction went to former Dodger skipper (and “Dugout Wizard” to fans of the 80’s tv show “The Baseball Bunch”), Tommy Lasorda.  Alluding to the length of the ceremony, when it became his turn to speak, he said, “I’m glad I got up here.  I thought I was going to miss tomorrow night’s game.  I want to congratulate all of you for sticking around.  It takes a lot of heart.”

All in all, it was a great night for a great cause.  No, Bill Walton, the only other person to ever collect three consecutive Naismith trophies, was not there, but Magic Johnson was, among still more legends.  To find out more about the cause and the even, go to www.doublepump.com.  Maybe you can join in the fight and inspire others like these athletes inspire you.