It is perhaps the greatest sports innovation of the past 50 years, bigger than the skateboard, bigger than the titanium golf driver and bigger than "Tommy John" surgery.
It is fantasy sports.
According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), more than 30 million play this imaginary game in North America, making it an $800 million industry with leagues in almost any competitive endeavor. Want to own NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin? He can be yours for the right price. Want to have Matt Cassel as your quarterback? He's probably available in the later rounds. Is Paris Hilton a good selection? Definitely if you're in an Us Weekly Fantasy League.
FSTA president Jeff Thomas says his organization traces the origin of fantasy sports back to 1963 and the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League, which made George Blanda the first player taken in its first-ever draft.
But the origins of modern-day fantasy sports, or rotisserie-style scoring, can be pinpointed to 1980.
The members of the Gallos Memorial League remember the history well. They know because they were there from the beginning. In fact, the local group claims to be at least tied as the second-oldest rotisserie-baseball league in history. "Certainly, if the league started in 1981, then it has legitimate claim to being the second-oldest rotisserie-style league," Thomas says. "It's pretty phenomenal that the owners have stayed together this long."
The Gallos Memorial League has stayed the course through marriages, divorces, the birth of children, changes of career, changes of president, interleague play, the cancellation of the World Series — it's been there through the best and worst of the past 28 years.
Dean Kovanes, owner/operator of the Arby's at 2309 W. Broad St., says that four or five of the original members were employed by USF&G, a since-closed insurance company that was then located on Parham Road. "Someone who worked there showed me an Inside Sports magazine that had a story about George Foster and whether he was worth [$36]," Kovanes says.
The essay was written by Dan Okrent, who is credited with the invention of rotisserie-league baseball in 1980. Okrent and his friends met and played the game that year at a New York City restaurant named La Rotisserie Française.
Since Okrent was a member of the media, he shared the game with many colleagues. The New York Times published the first story on rotisserie-league baseball on July 8, 1980, titling it "What George Steinbrenner is to the American League, Lee Eisenberg is to the Rotisserie League."
But it wasn't until March 1981, when Okrent outlined the rules of the game in the pages of Inside Sports that the nation was intrigued.
"Danny [Gallos] showed me the magazine, and I was instantly hooked," says Stel Parthemos, who is now senior assistant Chesterfield County attorney. "The game did seem so obvious. I wondered, ‘Why didn't someone think of this before?' "
Making It Up Along the Way
The original Richmond group of nine met in "one guy's apartment" for their original draft. They brought magazines filled with stats, pencils, paper and absolutely no strategy or idea on how to build a powerhouse team.
Parthemos remembers that the group of 20-somethings was intent on following the rules in the magazine article, with no deviation. Teams were drafted auction-style, according to rotisserie-league rules, with players coming up for bid and owners adhering to a $260 salary cap (and a $1 minimum bid for each player).
After the draft was finished, they weren't exactly sure who would keep score, though, not to mention how to do it over the course of a 162-game season without driving that person insane.
"We had to figure things out as we went along," Parthemos says. "Bruce [Bykowski] and I are the most anal-retentive, so it was decided we should keep the scoring."
Rotisserie scoring is based on four or five hitting and four or five pitching categories. Teams earn points based on their placement in each category. For example, in a nine-team league, the team with the most home runs gains nine points.
Today, most leagues, including Gallos, automate their scoring through online services linked to Yahoo, ESPN, CBS SportsLine or any one of a number of similar providers. But back then, the Gallos Memorial League members, and in particular, Bykowski and Parthemos, had to go to the library and look back at box scores from newspapers. They would calculate, for example, Rickey Henderson's statistics from week one to week two in order to come up with his total. They did this for every player in the league, which took hours.
"I'm a frustrated statistician," says Bykowski, who is now vice president/client executive for Thomas Rutherfoord Inc. "I should be working for the Elias Sports Bureau."
Through the years, Bykowski has kept all the records. For the first 20 years of the league, everything was done on paper. When he entered those numbers into spreadsheets on his computer, it took him every night for an entire year to complete the league's archives.
"My wife thought I was a bit loony," he says.
Bykowski now has about 25 large spreadsheets detailing who finished where and when and how over the years, along with stats for crazy things like average trades per year over a career, which owner Bobby Kristofak leads with an average of 1.96 trades per season. Even in this age of automation, Bykowski still updates the league's stats every year on his spreadsheets.
"I can tell you that Rickey Henderson [at 1,120] has twice as many steals as the next guy, who is Kenny Lofton [at 509]," Bykowski says. "Our leading home-run hitter is Alex Rodriguez, who just passed Rafael Palmeiro."
Bykowski's collection is so complete, it's very possible that nobody else on the planet has such an extensive league archive.
"I'm convinced that it's one of a kind," he says. "I can't imagine anyone who is crazy enough to do what I did."
Bykowski won the inaugural year in dominating fashion, with his team placing in the top three in six of eight categories. Unfortunately, it would be his only league victory in 28 years of participation.
Danny Gallos entered his third season with a pair of fourth-place finishes. He drafted himself a pretty fair team just before opening day in 1983, but then the guy who everybody loved, whom Parthemos grew up with, the one who perhaps loved baseball the most, died tragically in a car accident just a few weeks after the draft.
"Danny, Stel and I were the Greek guys," Kovanes says. "Danny was a baseball fanatic. After he died, we decided that we would make transactions for him. Ironically, he won the league."
The group changed its name to honor their friend.
Research, Research, Research
Besides the dedication needed to compile the standings every week, owners in the early days of the league had trouble getting information about their players.
There would be days when an owner would wake up in the morning, check a box score and see that his best power hitter did not play the previous night.
"We would think maybe he was given a day off or something," Bykowski says.
But if that player was not in the lineup for several more games, discovering the reason why would consume the owner. Remember, back in the '80s, there was no Internet and there was no baseball TV package that featured every game. There was very little one could do to find information.
"We were left there to wonder," Parthemos says.
So the Gallos owners decided to pick up the phone and call the baseball clubs themselves.
"I had Butch Davis on my team," Parthemos says. "He was a rookie for the Kansas City Royals [in 1983]. I noticed he didn't play for like a week, so I called the front office to ask if he had been sent back down to the minors. I'm sure the secretary on the other line was just rolling her eyes."
Parthemos' ingenuity paid off, though. Davis had indeed been sent down, leaving his owner free to make a move to replace him in the lineup with a player who would actually produce. For the record, Davis' career spanned eight seasons, but just 166 games, and he hit seven homers with 50 RBI. But those were the type of players who could make a difference.
FSTA president Jeff Thomas says that there are multiple reasons why people keep coming back to play fantasy sports. However, he adds that "our research shows that most people rank the draft as the No. 1 reason."
That's true with the Gallos Memorial League. This year's draft will be the 20th held at Parthemos' house. He'll celebrate his 22nd wedding anniversary in May. He remembers because the first year of his marriage, he did not hold the draft. And last year, the draft took place somewhere else because of a fire at his home.
"My wife, Kate, is a great sport," Parthemos says. "She thinks we're nuts, but I think she enjoys having the guys over."
As the league enters its 29th year, there are still five original members — Kovanes, Parthemos, Bykowski, Billy Jones and Dave Bristow. Kyle Measell (26 years), Ken Roth (25 years) and Kristofak (24) are the other members with 20-plus years. Mickey West and Steve Anderson are the junior owners, with 19 and 15 years, respectively.
"Our league has lasted this long because we're all good friends; we just didn't go out and grab anyone to play," Measell says. "There are people who start leagues and fold up because they are constantly replacing people. But we haven't had to do that."
As far as the best owner, that title goes to Roth, with seven championships to his credit. Measell is on the other end of the spectrum, with nine last-place finishes.
"The common thread at the beginning was our love of baseball," says Kovanes, who has won the league twice but has finished dead last four times. "Now it's a friendship, a camaraderie."
Take Me Out to the Ballgame
Enjoying the national pastime locally without the R-Braves
When the Braves left Richmond for Gwinnett, Ga., after last season, baseball fans across the region were left feeling more than a little abandoned. Although you'll no longer be able to enjoy the antics of Diamond Duck, there are still plenty of options for watching some competitive hardball this season in the area — we've highlighted a half-dozen. In the words of Yogi Berra, it ain't over till it's over. —Sharon Tully
Virginia Commonwealth University
Field: The Diamond, 3001 N. Boulevard, 827-0586 or vcuathletics.tv/ba.php
Price of hot dog: $2
Price of Admission: $5 for adults, $3 for youths 6-17 and seniors 55 and over. Children 5 and under and VCU students are free.
It's worth noting that despite the Richmond Braves' departure, there is still baseball being played at The Diamond. This season, the Division I Virginia Commonwealth University Rams hope to return to some of their past successes, including back-to-back Colonial Athletic Association titles in 1997 and 1998. Last year, the Rams lost two players — Jared Bolden and Chris Jackson — to the major-league draft after their junior seasons, but they're beginning the 2009 season with six strong returning starters. For the Rams, the contests to watch this season will be a three-game series against James Madison University, the 2008 CAA champs. The Rams will host the Dukes at The Diamond on April 10 at 7 p.m., April 11 at 2 p.m. and April 12 at 1 p.m. You can also expect to find a particularly large crowd on April 21 at 7 p.m. when the University of Virginia Cavaliers, who drew a record 3,000 people to The Diamond for a game against VCU two years ago, come town.
University of Richmond
Field: Pitt Field, 28 Westhampton Way, 289-8363 or richmondspiders.com
Price of Admission: Free
Price of a hot dog: $2.50
For a school with a bit more than 2,700 undergrads, the University of Richmond has produced some major heavyweights in the big leagues — 14 former Spiders to be exact, dating all the way back to 1918, when Tom Miller joined the Boston Braves.
Nearly a century later, the Spiders continue to make baseball history. Other notable alums with a stint in The Show include pitcher Lew Burdette, who led the Milwaukee Braves to a World Series title in 1957 (and nabbed the World Series MVP for himself) against the New York Yankees, the first team he played for in the majors. In more recent Spider history, Sean Casey, nicknamed "The Mayor" throughout the baseball community, had notable stints with the Cincinnati Reds, the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers before his retirement following the 2008 season. (He's now in the studio for the MLB Network; turn to Page 224 for a Q&A with Casey about his new gig.)
To see this season's Spiders in action, head to Pitt Field, located on the UR campus, at 3 p.m. on April 15, when they host crosstown rival VCU. If that doesn't suit, the Division I team has another 53 games for you to choose from this season.
Field: Hugh Stephens Field, 204 Henry St., Ashland, 752-7223 or rmc.edu/athletics/mens/baseball.aspx
Price of Admission: Free
Price of hot dog: no official concessions, but you're welcome to BYOHD
On a team where 27 of the 36 players on the roster are from the greater Richmond area, fans can expect to see a lot of familiar faces out on the field. This season, the Division III Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets will be defending their Old Dominion Athletic Conference title, led by 2008 ODAC coach of the year Ray Hedrick. One game in particular to watch this season will be held on April 11 at 1 p.m, when R-MC hosts rival Washington and Lee, the team that eliminated the Yellow Jackets from the second round of the 2007 ODAC Baseball Championship. Although you won't find many Yellow Jacket alums in the major leagues, the team has still produced some notable players, most recently Travis Beazley, a right-handed pitcher who was drafted by the Boston Red Sox organization in 2006. During his time in a Yellow Jackets uniform, Beazley held a single-season record 108 strikeouts and led the team on the offensive side as well with a .378 batting average.
James River High School
Field: Dave Cottrell Field, 3700 James River Road, Midlothian, 378-2420 or jrhsrapids.net
Price of hot dog: $1
Price of Admission: $5
This season, the James River High School Rapids will be defending their back-to-back titles as AAA state baseball champions in 2007 and 2008. The Rapids return with several veterans from last year's state-championship team, and fans can expect to see a squad that will compete until the very last pitch, says coach Peter Schumacher. A good game in particular to watch will be played on May 14 at 4 p.m. against Manchester, the school that produced Chicago Cubs pitcher Sean Marshall (who's also a VCU alum), and a team that's an early favorite to win it all this year.
J.R. Tucker High School vs. Douglas S. Freeman High School
Fields: J.R Tucker High School, 2910 N. Parham Road, 527-4600 or henrico.k12.va.us/HS/Tucker/Athletics/athletics.html; Douglas S. Freeman High School's Ken Moore Field, 8701 Three Chopt Road, 282-2994 or henrico.k12.va.us/hs/Freeman/sports/sports.html
Price of hot dog: $1.50 (Tucker); $2 (Freeman)
Price of Admission: $5 for adults, children 5 and under are free (Tucker); $5 for adults (Freeman)
The history of the Tucker-Freeman rivalry dates back to the mid-'70s, when players at both Tucker and Freeman started out together at Tuckahoe Middle School. The players grew up playing sports together there until they parted ways to go on to high school. Part of the rivalry this season can be attributed to the coaches of both teams. Freeman's head coach, Tag Montague, graduated from Tucker and was formerly the assistant coach there until last year. Tucker's head coach, John Fletcher, says the two remain good friends and he's looking forward to their meeting on the field. The schools continue to draw a crowd whenever they play each other, and they'll meet twice this season. The first game will be held at Freeman on March 11 at 7 p.m., and the next will be held at Tucker on April 17 at 7 p.m.