Pain of draft worth pleasure of season


A splendid torment. That's how my buddy Nick described the 11 1/2 hours of our fantasy baseball auction Saturday.

Turns out he cribbed the phrase from Thomas Jefferson, who described the presidency as "splendid misery." But whatever the exact wording, it's apt.

Seven league mates streamed into my basement just before 11 a.m. Two called in from an office in Manhattan and another dropped in via Web cam from California. Scott uses a computer-driven draft plan that we've dubbed "The Sauce," so it seemed only appropriate that he was beamed in like Big Brother.

Just to refresh, we're an 11-team league that draws only from the National League using a budget of 260 fantasy dollars per franchise. I entered as one of the favorites with a roster that already included three good starters in Jake Peavy, Andy Pettitte and John Patterson, a closer in Eric Gagne and two good all-around outfielders in Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran. So I planned to use my remaining $192 to stock my offense with power and speed.

What followed did not go completely according to plan.

Nick threw out the first player, Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez. You never like to see a player you want nominated first, because the market isn't set yet. I had Ramirez's inflated value at about $42, so when bidding reached $48, I let him go.

What I had forgotten - what I always forget - was that the first player is usually a bargain compared with the craziness that follows. This theory held up when Albert Pujols came out next and bidding soared past $50 and then $60. Our league had never paid more than $68 for a player (Randy Johnson in 2002). But the Cardinals first baseman crashed past that, and, all of a sudden, I found myself saying $73!

This is, by most any gaming logic, insane. Pujols is the most valuable property in the NL, sure, but at $73, he would've accounted for 28 percent of my total budget. I still had to acquire 16 more players, including an entire infield. It'd be like the Kansas City Royals signing Alex Rodriguez.

Fortunately, Brenn Jones said $74. I thought fleetingly of saying $75 before letting go of the madness. A few minutes later, I rostered Todd Helton at $57, still too much for one player. And Helton, with his balky back, is a less reliable quantity. A wave of doubt overcame me, and I was unable to bid vigorously for more than an hour.

I rallied to snag Rafael Furcal at shortstop and Marcus Giles at second base just before we broke for lunch.

That pause is a key psychological plateau. It's the first chance for everyone to step back and survey the chaos they've wrought. "Childs still doesn't have any bad players," someone said. So I was feeling good.

But when we started up again, I violated my own rules. I've written about the need to stay among the money leaders through all phases of the auction. If you've accomplished what you should have in one phase, sit back and wait for the next one.

Well, I lost my way in the middle. It started with an $18 buy of Colorado third baseman Garrett Atkins. That was fine, but I should've stopped there and waited for others to drain their budgets. Instead, I bought Greg Maddux at $13. It was a good price, but I didn't need Maddux and I had pushed myself near the bottom of the money pile.

I would never climb all the way back and thus, I lay at the mercy of others during the dreaded end game.

For anyone who hasn't spent a day locked in mortal combat with fellow baseball nuts, it's hard to describe the mental anguish of the last hours. Every team needs seven or eight players but no one can afford to spend more than $7 or $8 on a single one. The best guys on the board are Jose Cruz Jr. and David Bush, names that sane people waste no time contemplating.

There are no sleepers, because every guy in the league knows every player. "No bargains," we repeated in a grim mantra, as bids climbed on even the most mundane talent.

"This is awful," I said over and over.

"It's a day I'll never get back," said veteran owner Reggie Flowers.

And it keeps getting worse. You hit a point where you wish players the quality of Cruz and Bush were still around. Every starter seems like the last scrap of meat in a starved land. I spent $3 to put Scott Hatteberg, an over-the-hill guy who was never that good in the first place, at my corner infield spot. And that put me in "dollar days," the lovely phase in which you can't spend more than $1 on anybody.

When no one said $2 on Milwaukee starter Tomo Ohka, my roster was complete.

Only we do a reserve auction in which we bid on leftovers, non-roster invitees, prospects and possible free agents from the American League. So just when you think you're out, you're back in.

We have a fresh $100 budget for reserves, so buyer's ecstasy sets in. Roger Clemens was the big target. Feeling free and easy, I spent $70 to buy the potential last go-round of the Rocket. It ended for me when I said $8 on Rockies prospect Ian Stewart, who may not see the majors full time until 2008.

The clock said 10:52. We stood in loose circles, our eyes red, our voices flat, empty soda cans and haphazard piles of paper strewn at our feet. Various computer projections had me in contention, so I guess I didall right. But more importantly, the splendid torment - a social exercise my wife deemed among the most disturbing she's ever seen - was over for another year.

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