Jeff Ralabate had a problem. As the commissioner of The League, a 10-team fantasy baseball league in the Buffalo area, he was used to problems. But this was a new one. And to make matters worse, he didn't have a lot of time to solve it.
The problem was Joe Bozek. Specifically, Joe Bozek's job. More specifically, the fact that Joe had been called in at the last minute to work said job. Two hours before the draft.
Jeff tried a bunch of different solutions, but they kept coming back to two main issues: One, this was the only time everyone in the league could get together for the foreseeable future. Two, the baseball season started the next day.
They say desperate times call for desperate measures, and this certainly qualified. So, Joe suggested, why not keep the draft time the same and switch the location?
To Joe's workplace.
Which was the chain restaurant Red Robin.
Where Joe would be dressed as the Red Robin.
Yep. They were running a promotion, and Joe had to wear the Red Robin suit, hand out fliers and shake hands.
They let the Robin draft 10th so he would have plenty of time between picks. "Every few minutes," Jeff remembers, "he would waddle over to our table to see what pick we were on and who had been selected."
Joe explains that it wasn't easy. "Turns out, a cheat sheet taped inside my beak was not ideal. Nor was making picks quietly enough so children at nearby tables couldn't hear. It was, however, a fun and memorable experience." Jeff agrees. "It ended up being the most fun we've ever had at a draft."
I have no doubt. Is there any draft, anywhere, that wouldn't be improved by the addition of someone wearing a giant bird head? I was in a fantasy NBA league for a few years where a guy would come to every draft dressed in a head-to-toe Wookiee outfit. (Team name? The Wookiees, of course.) It was always funny. Always.
If you think about it -- and by "think about it" I mean if you think about it with the goal of trying to make a flimsy connection between "real life" and "fantasy life" -- draft day is the official start of your fantasy season, just like your first job out of college is really the official start of your professional life. Now, I never had to dress as a large bird, but dealing with kids? That I totally get.
After graduating from Syracuse with a degree in writing for electronic media and having done the prestigious (as far as you know) student sitcom "Uncle Bobo's World of Fun!" I wanted to be a sitcom writer. So with my college writing partner (another big fantasy player named Eric Abrams), I moved to Los Angeles to try to break into television.
Which I accomplished, of course, by getting my first job at FAO Schwarz, the famed toy store. Sigh. A successful sitcom writer had told me to get a retail job. "Assistants in show business work long hours, rarely leaving time for writing. So with some nine-to-five retail job you can just concentrate on writing."
Which is very true. The problem is that once you're done writing, all you can really do is show your sample scripts to other toy store guys. You never meet anyone. Well, that's not true. I did get to wait on stars, including Arnold Schwarzenegger (at the height of Terminator fame), Denzel Washington and many other celebrities. But none of them were looking for scripts from the guy wearing a hat made of Legos.
The job was no big red bird, but it was close. Since we had demos of every toy out, parents would just leave kids in the store to play. I couldn't believe it. Who just leaves kids unattended? And unattended kids do, well, what attended kids do, just more of it and with reckless abandon. Throwing things, breaking things, peeing everywhere. Seriously. I cleaned a lot of pee that first year. Hmmm. Maybe I would have been better off in a robin outfit.
I worked with lots of nice people, but I hated the job. My writing partner and I kept cranking out sample scripts, and eventually I left FAO to get a job as a production assistant (read: gofer) on "The George Carlin Show." I loved working for George, and a year later he wrote a recommendation letter for my writing partner and me to get into the highly regarded Warner Brothers' Writing Workshop. Through that I got my first sitcom-writing job on a show called "Kirk," starring former teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron. I'm sure you're a big fan.
We were super-excited to officially be TV writers, but overall, it wasn't fun. We were two newbie kids with a "Gosh, it's so awesome just to be here" attitude, which did not play well with grizzled, bitter comedy writers, especially on a show most of them didn't want to work on. Very tough year for a first gig. Anytime we'd try to be positive (or even pitch a joke), we were told to shut up.
But there were some positives. One writer on the show, Nancy Steen, was great, and I learned a lot from her. We managed to get an agent and kept writing scripts. And after that first year, the Parents Television Council declared "Kirk" to be the safest, most family-friendly show on TV. That's why I was so proud our next job was on the show they called the worst: "Married... With Children."
Now, that show was a blast. I worked on 28 episodes, co-writing four, including the 250th episode and the last original episode to air (but not what's considered the "final episode").
It was 1996, and while I was writing on "Married... With Children," I met and started dating a woman seriously. And when I wasn't spending time with her or working, I was becoming obsessed with fantasy sports. In addition to the Fat Dogs, the Lone Star League and the Doug Logan League, I had joined a fantasy hoops league plus four more football and baseball leagues with some other LA-based Syracuse grads.
I remember being in the writers' room at work and putting possible lineups on the back of my scripts. During breaks, while everyone else was making calls, I was online, looking at stats and scrolling through player updates. I was winning a lot more leagues than not, and more important, I was not alone in my growing obsession.
Fantasy football was just starting to become semipopular. Fantasy would occasionally be mentioned in the mainstream media. Usually by an ex-athlete analyst who clearly didn't play. (Typical advice: "Hey, pick up rookie Karim Abdul-Jabbar!" Dude, it's Week 15. He's been owned all season!) But at least it was a start.
There was actually a nationally syndicated fantasy football TV show back then that was on at odd hours (shout out to Brady Tinker!), plus a few segments on radio. The big websites like ESPN and Yahoo! had just started offering fantasy sports columns, and Bill Simmons, the most popular sports columnist in the country, would occasionally write about fantasy. In fact, I believe Bill was the first, and only, mainstream national sports columnist to admit to playing fantasy in those days. But information was generally hard to find. And when you met someone else who played, it was thrilling, as if you two shared a secret life that most people hadn't heard about, let alone understood. It was like when you're a fan of an obscure band and you meet a fellow fan and you talk excitedly at them. "I know! I love their second album too!" "Did you see them at the Wiltern?" "I have the acoustic bootleg where they do a Jane's Addiction cover!"
Fantasy sports wasn't just invading my work life, it was also at home. While my girlfriend was watching TV, I was reading everything I could get my hands on. As my girlfriend waited for me so we could go out, I'd be on the phone with a league-mate, trying to pull a deal. While my girlfriend slept, I stayed up late studying free agents in my leagues like they were the Zapruder film. I was in double-digit fantasy leagues by that time, and my obsession was growing to the point that every single time I had a draft day I actually started to hide it from my girlfriend.
Just like Jacob Karp, whose "In It to Win It" fantasy football league draft got scheduled when he'd be on a romantic trip in Europe. "My girlfriend is a cool chick, but she wasn't going to be pumped on me spending time in Santorini drafting a fantasy football team," remembers Jacob.
But what initially seemed bad turned into a plus: the draft was scheduled for the middle of the night there. So what does Jacob do? Takes the girlfriend out to a nice dinner, orders bottles and bottles of wine, and gets her totally hammered. That's right. Jacob became the first man in history to get a girl drunk to not sleep with her.
Back at the villa, she passed out cold. Jacob quietly escaped to draft a fantasy team. He says, "The next morning my girlfriend awoke with a headache and, more importantly, zero suspicions. Boom."
Boom indeed. As any fantasy owner worth his salt will tell you, you can't miss draft day. Because it's not just the best day of the year, if you want to compete that year -- it's the only day of the year. That simple. Come hell or high water, you draft.
No matter where you are.
Even if you are in temple for the Jewish High Holidays? Even if you are in temple for the Jewish High Holidays.
It was Yom Kippur, the holiest of the Jewish High Holidays, and Michael Gottlieb's Syracuse, N.Y.–based fantasy hockey draft was happening with or without him. He couldn't miss services, and since cellphones are not permitted in the sanctuary, he had to get creative.
"I positioned myself at the end of the aisle near the back of the synagogue. During each round, my buddy would stand outside and talk to the league. I told him to write each pick on a small piece of paper no bigger than his palm."
When it was Michael's turn, his buddy would walk into the synagogue, Michael would read over the names picked, and then whisper his pick to him. His family, Michael tells me, never knew. "I did, however, overhear someone say they thought someone was having explosive diarrhea because he was constantly leaving the service."
You see that, folks? People would rather be seen as having explosive diarrhea than reveal that they're drafting a fantasy sports team. We've come so far.
Michael continues: "I am proud to say that my team, Forsberg's Spleen, won that league convincingly."
There is one thing I definitely learned doing this book. No matter what you believe in religiously, there's someone who is happy to violate it for fantasy sports. In 2009, Matthew Mahn's church youth group went to a church in Tulsa, Okla., to do a special youth service on his draft day.
So Matthew skipped out of church, snuck into the pastor's office, got on the pastor's computer, and quietly drafted a team. Remember, he's visiting this church and doesn't know anyone. But draft day went off without a hitch and no one was the wiser. Even better? Matthew won the league that year, his first title ever. He adds, "I've been in plenty of leagues since, and to this day, the team I drafted in a church is the only one to ever win a title."
Huh. Both Michael and Matthew drafted their teams in houses of worship, and both won their leagues. Maybe the rest of us are doing it wrong by drafting at people's houses, at bars, at ... the White House Situation Room?
Check out this passage from Michael K. Bohn's book "Nerve Center": "Clinton's national security advisers, Tony Lake, Sandy Berger [both avid baseball fans] and others used [the Situation Room] to conduct their Rotisserie League draft during Clinton's first term." Tony Lake recalled their hobby: "We held our player drafts in the Situation Room, each of us chipping in $23 to build a pot that went to the winning team at the end of the season."
Hard to top the room where national security decisions are made for a unique and crazy place to draft, but thanks to Wi-Fi and mobile technology, it doesn't mean people haven't tried.
Brandon Bruce drafted from Disneyland while his wife and kids were on rides. Jeremy Harshey drafted while at an outdoor Ted Nugent concert, and Alex Timmons drafted during a USC football game, sitting in the stands at the LA Coliseum. Matt Hediger drafted from his phone while sitting in court, as he was a witness in a robbery and got summoned to appear on his draft day. "Your honor, I saw the defendant ... Dammit, he took Harvin!"
When Arthur Lenk was named Israel's ambassador to Azerbaijan, it meant he had to draft from Baku, Azerbaijan, with the rest of his league in Israel. After some technology issues, the only way he could do the draft was by phone, and a lengthy call from Azerbaijan to Israel cost much more than any prize money he could have won in the league. He still made the call.
In August of 2000, Dr. Satch of the Long Island, New York–based Wiley Football League was doing his residency as an orthopedic surgeon. League-mate Jonathan Stulberg tells it like this: "Kid comes into the emergency room with a displaced fracture in his arm. Doc gives the kid a Novocain shot to numb the area. Doc's just about to reset the kid's arm when his cellphone buzzes. Doc says, 'Excuse me,' walks to the corner and answers.
"'Give me Derrick Alexander.'
"He calmly shuts the phone and walks over to the couple. 'Sorry, very important call. Novocain should be working now.' Mom is still somewhat astonished, while Dad looks at him. 'Nice pick, doc.' "
Yes, when it comes to drafting, fantasy sports becomes more important than any medical procedure. In the hospital, in the emergency room, or in the case of Jason Stack, on the way to your child being born.
Jason had his Alcohol All-Stars league draft scheduled on the same day his wife Bekki needed to be induced, so he left his draft early to take her to the hospital and planned to finish the draft from his cell. He picked up his wife, and as they were driving, Bekki's contractions start. Suddenly, Jason's phone rang.
"You're up." Jason explains he's not even past the house where they are drafting, let alone at the hospital yet. What happened to them waiting? "So just stop on your way and make your pick!" And in the background Jason hears other owners yelling, "C'mon, Stack! You're holding us up!"
Which is when Jason hears the little voice in his head. Hmm, the draft is on the way to the hospital.
So with his pregnant wife in the car starting to have contractions and about to give birth, Jason stops at the draft to make a pick. That's right. He delayed the birth of his child for fantasy.
Only by about 10 minutes and her contractions were still fairly far apart, but still. I repeat. He delayed the birth of his child for fantasy.
But did it stop him from drafting? Of course not. If you've learned anything from this chapter it's that it doesn't matter where you are. If it's draft day, you draft. Period. Whether you are in a Red Robin outfit, whether you are at a male strip club, or even if you are overseas fighting in a war...
You heard me.
I cohost a daily fantasy football podcast for ESPN called Fantasy Focus, and we have a very popular 16-team "Man's League" where listeners play in a league against our producer, Jay Soderberg, aka "Podvader." In 2011 Chase Magann was among the 15 people selected to play in it.
Unlike the 14 others, however, his day job was fighting a war. "My buddy Jake Rettig and I were stationed in northern Iraq at FOB Warrior, just outside the city of Kirkuk. We work as a scout weapons team. Our main mission was to protect the base from rocket attacks, paired with a ground patrol inside the city of Kirkuk." The guys were excited to be selected for the league, but to put it mildly, it would not be easy.
"Iraq was eight hours ahead of the eastern United States in time. And we were concerned that we would have to fly mission during the actual draft. So we devised a plan: we'd wake up around 4 a.m., fly the mission, and be back in time to draft. The entire schedule was worked out for our day to revolve around this auction."
So they took off just as the sun rose, but it didn't matter. It was still crazy hot. "September in Iraq is not fall. Sitting in the Kiowa Warrior with no doors on and all our body armor and gear made it even hotter.
We flew like that for seven hours. As we did our mission, Jake and I discussed who we liked for the upcoming draft. Jake liked Matthew Stafford; I wanted to avoid Peyton Hillis. We war-gamed how much we were willing to spend on each position and sleepers we thought we could get cheap." They landed back on the base just before the draft. (Think about that. They had to do their entire prep for this draft while flying over hostile territory during wartime in Iraq.)
So now Chase and Jake go to the computer room that was designed for soldiers to use to keep in touch with their families. The auction was going along fine for a while, Chase recalls, until disaster struck. "I was about to hit pass on Peyton Hillis [in his last year with the Browns] when the Internet froze. We couldn't do anything. Instantly we decided to go back to my room for the draft, where the Internet wasn't as reliable but was run by a different server."
Annoying but reasonable, right? Except the computer room they were in was in a hangar, Chase tells me, that "was surrounded by giant concrete barriers and baskets filled with dirt and sand. They are all designed to protect from rocket attacks that happened on the base."
That's right. Rocket attacks. You have the same concerns where you draft, right? Unfortunately for Chase, "the fastest way to our living quarters was through this maze of barriers. But we had no choice. So I took off running. I hadn't had time to change out of my uniform from earlier, so I had on my ACU patterned flight suit, combat boots, and my 9mm pistol strapped to the side of my hip as I jumped on the side of barriers trying to get to our living areas."
Personally, I get tired from repeated trips to the fridge in shorts and a T-shirt, but for Chase and Jake? "It took about two minutes to run at a full sprint back to our rooms about a quarter-mile away. Once I got there, I flipped up my computer and saw that at that time I was missing money and had filled a roster spot. That roster spot was now filled . . . with running back Peyton Hillis. He was auto-auctioned onto our team at a much higher price than we could afford."
These guys woke up at 4 a.m., flew all day over Iraq, ran through concrete barriers that were open to potential rocket attacks, completely risked their lives serving our country, and what was their reward?
Just 10 games played, three touchdowns, 717 total yards. Peyton Freakin' Hillis. Remember when Hillis couldn't play one week that year because he got a cold? Jake and Chase were flying over Iraq in 100-degree heat. I'm glad it's Chase and Jake protecting our country, not Peyton Hillis. Just saying.
Jake, Chase, Dick Shayne Fossett, and everyone in the military (special shout-out to those who play fantasy), I thank you for your service, and I'm thrilled that fantasy sports allow you guys a bit of much-deserved distraction and fun. Even if your draft story is crazy.
Of course, crazy doesn't mean surprising. Because this is not a surprising story. As you're about to see, it's not just a weird or inconvenient location, there is nothing -- and I mean nothing -- that will stop people from drafting.