Measuring Up to the Rules: Mea Culpa

“A rule is a rule.” –Common Sense

“It’s not a rule if you can’t break it.” –Schoolyard Sense

“Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” –Henry David Thoreau

Fantasy baseball is a game, and games have rules. Rules are the way we limit behavior in the game play, to shape the competition in some foreordained way that makes the game fair. And fun. The funny thing is that not everyone agrees on what the rules mean, or when the rules should be followed, or when common sense says a rule should be ignored. Sorting out these ambiguities can be a pain, but they’re also part of the game. A good constitution can help settle most disputes, but you’ll be surprised how often your rules will be subverted by good intentions and misunderstandings.

Some examples of the rules coming into play from some recent drafts I was involved in.

1. Tout Wars AL

I was running the live blog of the Tout Wars AL auction, which at this point in the story was into the endgame. An owner nominated: “Peacock, ah, $3.” There was a titter.

Almost immediately the nominating owner said: “Oops. I mean Trout. (laughter). Um, 3.”

There was a pause. Somebody asked if he meant Trout, and he confirmed he did. Someone else asked: Are we bidding on Trout or Peacock? Somebody else said, “He meant Trout,” and the bidding continued on Trout.

For all intents and purposes I was the commissioner in that auction. My first instinct was to return the bidding to Peacock, but as the discussion in the room progressed nobody seemed to object. So the nominator’s revision stood.

At first it seemed that no harm had been done. Jeff Erickson raised the opener to $4 and soon owned Trout, but talking about it later it was clear that the nominator should have been forced to stick with Peacock at $3. Not because he was cheating or gaming the system, but because part of the game is what you say. A rule is a rule. Peacock went for $1 later, to a different owner, but that shouldn’t have been an option. The original nominator should have had him for $3. I messed it up.

2. XFL

A few days after the Tout Wars draft, those of us who play in the XFL gathered (virtually) in a chat room to conduct our 17-round reserve draft. (We auction 23 players—excluding up to 15 keepers per team—at the First Pitch Forum at the Arizona Fall League in November.) This is a fast-paced and confusing windshield wiper draft, which usually includes the drafting of a number of high school students and Japanese high school students. Teams are looking to set up their dynastic farm systems and fill the holes in their active roster in order to compete this year.

One such hole for the team Alex Patton and I share was at corner this year, a backup for Aramis Ramirez and David Freeze and Freddie Freeman. One problem all of us were having is that the free agent draft list from the stat service was unreliable, and so some people were nominating players who were already on teams. I started checking the players I wanted off against the stats service’s rosters, to make sure I nominated available players. This seemed to work.

One of those players I wanted was Adam LaRoche. But for some reason when checking him off I also checked on his brother Andy, and it was his page that was up on my screen when my turn to pick came up. For mysterious and boneheaded reasons I typed: Andy LaRoche, clicked send, and then started to set up my next pick. I then glanced at the screen as two other players were quickly selected and realized what I’d done. I decided to ignore it. A screw up is a screw up and better ignored, at least publicly.

But someone else asked: “Did you really mean Andy.”

“No. I meant Adam. Dumb,” I typed, or something like that. What happened next happened quickly and quickly became a blur.

There was some well-deserved mockery and laughter, but also at least one voice arguing that we played a friendly game and clearly I didn’t mean to nominate a guy who had retired, for chrissake! “Let him change it,” he argued.

And at least one other voice said, “But the rules is the rules! And we better stick with them.” A sentiment to which I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I felt I should shut this pointless discussion down, so I typed:

“I should have Adam LaRoche,” hit send and realized I’d done it again! The hell with Dave LaRoche, or his bride.

The rules guy quickly typed out: “Really!!!”

I typed back as quick as I could: “My bad again! My initial pick stands, and I’m not ever typing the words Andy or Adam again!” And we got back to it. But I felt terrible. My faux pas had rent the trust in the game, and that was unfortunate. If you screw up, you have to own it. Wholly.

Until your next pick. At that point I contemplated nominating “Andy LaRoche” again, for sour laughs, but instead simply picked Adam, without comment. If he was good enough for the pick before he was good enough for this round, despite the awfulness of the intervening events.

The fact was that I would have simply let the mistake slide into the past if someone hadn’t raised the issue. A rule is a rule, and when we start making exceptions because it’s a friendly game we introduce unfairness. Not every mistake is caught in time to fix it, even if it’s a friendly game, and inevitably those who have more friends or get luckier get more friendly calls on these sorts of judgments than others, and that’s the opposite of fair. It’s better to let the rules decide.

3. American Dream League

Two Sundays later, on Easter, the ADL auction was held. In addition to the two games in Japan, AL teams had been playing real games since the previous Thursday.

Late in the game, with perhaps 25 pitching slots open in the entire league, I nominated the announced Thursday starter for the Detroit Tigers, rookie Drew Smyly. Smyly is very young and it was one of the spring’s great surprises that he had made the team over another Tigers phenom, Justin Turner, but I had Smyly on my list of guys to get.

Bruce, the fellow just to my left in the room in a restaurant/bar in which we hold our auction every year, said that Smyly was in the minors, which I didn’t think was true, because there had been no transaction. I had checked. Bruce and a couple of other owners argued that Smyly had been sent down because he wasn’t scheduled to pitch until Thursday, and Walter, who is our transaction guy, and I argued that since there was no such transaction, he was eligible. Our rule is that a player must be on the 25-man roster of a team, or the DL, in order to be auctioned on draft day (or he must sell for $10 or more in the auction).

For some reason, I think because it was getting late and we had many more players to auction before we handed over the room to the restaurant so they could set up their dining room for that night, we didn’t look it up. Instead, Walter and my insistence won the day (our rules say that in order for someone to be declared to be in the minors actual proof has to be shown). Someone else bid Two, I countered with Three, and was soon all Smyles.

When I got home later that night and started entering my team into the stat service, I was chagrined to discover that next to Smyly’s name on the stat service’s display, was the word MINORS in red, kind of like the A on Hester Prynne’s frock. I looked at all the transactions lists that mattered (we use and as our sources of record), and couldn’t find a Smyly transaction, however, which seemed to satisfy the letter of our rule, which was good enough for me.

A few days later, after Smyly pitched pretty effectively in his major league debut, I received a note from Bruce. Walter was copied. “We have a problem,” Bruce said.

In the back and forth that ensued, I at first argued that since there was no transaction involving Smyly going down, my purchase was legal. Our league has a rule that says that if you buy a player in our auction, which has traditionally been held before the season starts, and he is sent down to the minors before the season starts, you must move him to your reserve list, and his keeper price will be $10 the next year—rather than whatever you paid for him. But since this was only our second year of drafting after the start of the season, we hadn’t changed that rule to cover what would happen if a team ended up buying someone like Smyly, who clearly wasn’t eligible on draft day (he had pitched, poorly, in Toledo the day before our auction).

You may be wondering what happened to Smyly, eh? Well, it seems that Smyly is so young he hadn’t been added to the Tigers 40 man roster as spring training broke, so they didn’t have to send him down to pitch in Toledo. He already was down. Hence, no transaction until April 12th, when the Tigers designated Clete Thomas for assignment in order to promote Smyly to the major league roster for the first time.

Here’s what happened to me: I offered to give Smyly back, but was told that in the past when a similar situation has occurred, teams have agreed to have the illegal player’s next year price be raised from the super-cheap whatever (in this case, $3) to the reserve list level of $10. I feel funny about that, especially with each super start so far, but I’m told those are the rules. I can live with them, but I wish we’d looked it up at the time.

The bottom line in life, I think, is some combination of Bob Dylan’s observation that “to live outside the law, you have to be honest,” and Henry David Thoreau’s at the top of this piece: “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” But that’s life.

In a game, fairly administered rules are what keep the game going. No matter how well intentioned or hapless the breaking of a rule, finding a way to honor the rules’ intentions is the best way to ensure that the game endures. And makes for great fodder for discussion at the winter rules meeting.