I can faintly remember the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon in which our favorite anthropomorphized lagomorph is challenged to a game of blackjack by the outlaw Blacque Jacque Shellacque. Shellacque explains the rules carefully while he shuffles the deck and begins to deal. No sooner has he delivered the first card to Bugs when our hero calls for a stop to the action while he checks to see what card he has received. After a sneak peek, he asks Shellacque if he can stand on just one card. Being the scoundrel that he is, our dealer has no problem agreeing to the change in procedure and deals himself two cards, which both happen to be the 10 of spades, although Bugs doesn't seem to either notice or mind that little detail. Just as Shellacque is about to claim the pot for himself, Bugs reveals his card -- the 21 of hearts -- and walks away victorious. Shellacque is both flabbergasted and livid.
As a kid, this always made me laugh, but looking back on it now with the eye of a fantasy commissioner, I can't help but cringe for the leagues that have commissioners like Blacque Jacque Shellacque and allow rule changes once the games have gotten under way, and for those playing with fantasy owners who have adopted Bugs Bunny's strategic stylings as their own. In one of my recent chats, Sean from Los Angeles posed the following question to me: "Is it unwise to bench a player, thus leaving a position empty, in a head-to-head league?"
Sean was talking specifically about the Dodgers' Russell Martin. When the question was asked, Martin was hitting a whopping .195 coming out of Week 1. He did have one steal, but because of his low batting average, he probably hurt Sean's team more than he helped it. Sean wondered if he wouldn't have been better off simply leaving the catcher spot in his lineup "blank" until Martin turns it around. I'm sure Andruw Jones and Placido Polanco owners are wondering the same thing. Wouldn't they have been better off simply playing short-handed?
Even though the mathematical answer probably is yes, the fact remains that such a move shouldn't be allowed. And to his credit, Sean realized that such a move was unethical. Let's face the facts, folks. If the rules of your league describe a starting lineup as having X number of players, including a catcher, then starting "X minus 1" players, with no catchers, is illegal. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Illegal lineups should be punished, and if you're in a head-to-head league, the game should be forfeit if such a deliberate action were to be taken. As much as the Cleveland Indians might be down on Jason Michaels, they're not allowed to simply play with eight men in the field or skip his spot in the lineup. As the official Major League Baseball rules clearly state: "A game shall be forfeited to the opposing team when a team is unable or refuses to place nine players on the field." The same type of rule should apply to fantasy leagues.
If an owner made a poor draft pick, opted against selecting a backup for his position, and is left with no other option than starting said inferior player, then he should be required to do so. And you shouldn't limit this to the act of an owner deliberately sitting out a scrub. Starting a player who an owner knows is on the disabled list should also have some sort of punishment attached to it. Certainly, if you have weekly lineup moves and a player like Jimmy Rollins, Jose Reyes or Derek Jeter gets hurt midweek, there's no blame to be placed on an owner for having a just-injured guy in his lineup. And just as surely, if the owner wants to start one of those shortstops next week, hoping he'll be returning to action, he should be allowed to do so without fear of reprisal even if the star player doesn't return. But if an owner had Rocco Baldelli still sitting in his starting lineup this week, simply because he didn't want to waste a roster move on a free-agent pickup, that's a problem. With the message boards overflowing with complaints about dead teams that "still have Alex Rodriguez sitting on their bench," to allow active owners to choose to "play dead" as a legal strategy is ridiculous.
This tactic can go to ludicrous extremes. In one head-to-head league, one owner had several of his nine pitchers on the mound last Monday night. Among them were Mike Mussina, who got a win; Aaron Cook, who pitched seven innings of two-hit ball; and Manny Corpas, who got the save. On Tuesday, Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched into the seventh inning, giving up no runs, and got the win. Brian Bannister and Johnny Cueto also had solid outings, and Joakim Soria picked up a save. Feeling pretty good about things for the week, and not wanting to risk a hit to his ERA or WHIP, this owner decided to bench his entire pitching staff for the rest of the week rather than have a bad outing sometime this weekend come back to bite him. How can this be allowed?
As much as I have previously expressed my dislike for the tactic of streaming, much of that has to do with the way streamers use the waiver wire as part of their roster. I have no problem whatsoever with an owner moving pitchers who are already on his team's bench into his rotation, and vice versa, in a daily-transaction league. However, that's not what is happening here. A starting lineup in this league consists of nine pitchers, and this owner currently has all of his pitchers on his bench. That's just plain cheating. And skirting around the rule by benching Mussina, Cueto and Bannister for Curt Schilling, Carl Pavano and Joel Zumaya isn't any better.
I'm not saying you shouldn't be able to look at your team's fantasy box score Sunday morning, see that you have all your pitching categories locked up and decide to bench a pitcher who is throwing Sunday afternoon in favor of one who threw on Friday, therefore protecting that lead. That's not only an allowable strategy; it's a smart strategy. However, in order to be able to use that strategy, you must have an able-bodied pitcher on your bench to swap into your lineup. Simply declaring your unwanted Sunday starter to be "invisible" isn't going to cut it.
If you're a league commissioner and this is going on in your league, it's up to you to put your foot down and stop it. If your rules clearly state what a legal lineup is, and there are owners who are not complying, you have every right to take action now. If you choose not to, and these shenanigans continue to go on (and trust me, they will), then in the words of my high school chemistry teacher, the infamous Mr. Elihu McMahon, who thought it was funny to write "E =__c2" on the blackboard, throw all the chalk in the trash can and then call on me, Mr. Mass, to complete the equation "Shame on you, baby." You deserve all the "21 of hearts" you get.
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.