Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Matter of Perspective?

(Note: This column has been delayed by a few weeks due to computer problems that persisted throughout December and the Mark McGwire news that required more immediate analysis. I can’t believe it’s been two months since my last post. Oi.)

Here we are in the midst of January 2010. The past month has inundated us with various “of the Decade” lists. Best this, worst that, most memorable etc. I will not bore you dear reader with any long reminiscence of the last ten years. In part because I don’t have a coherent perspective on it all and thus would ramble on even more than usual and in part because the last thing we all need is another damn list. I will say that on new year’s eve 1999/2000 was the first time I kissed the woman I would someday marry and on new year’s eve 2009/2010 I found myself kissing my beautiful wife who is in fact a completely different person than the one in the previous sentence. And that pretty much sums up the ‘00s. Besides, we all know that we’ve all changed in the last ten years. We’ve all had struggles and triumphs. You don’t need me to rehash it here.

Instead I want to focus on something that has been either an unqualified success or a semi-dismal failure depending on how you look at it. I am turning to you oh readers to help me decide which it is. I want us to examine my career in fantasy football. If you don’t know what fantasy football is click here for the full explanation or just know that it is a drawn out form of sports gambling that is tied to individual player performances collected into disparate groupings involving several “owners” trying to win money in a league type format. If you want to see what a league looks like you can click here to view our league from this year. The bottom line is fantasy football, like most forms of sports betting exists to enhance the fun of watching sports. It is not supposed to a viable means to earn money.

The intangible aspects of playing are numerous and rewarding. Tracking “your” players lets you feel involved and excited while watching games that might otherwise be boring due to lack of a rooting interest in the teams involved. For example, as a 49er fan I would be pretty bored watching the woeful Chiefs play the horrific Raiders except that I need the Chiefs’ wideout to score at least one touchdown so I can win my fantasy game this week. Fantasy football also provides camaraderie and fellowship by connecting friends both near and far to get together or make an extra phone call to talk smack to other owners in your league.

My two favorite fantasy football memories both involve games that I lost. The first was a game between me and my wife (the current one) that came down to players we each had on Monday night. The game went back and forth all night both in real life and in our little fantasy game. The missus and I had been running smack all night and in the end it came down to a 50 yard field goal with :01 left on the clock. The field goal was good and I lost, but man it was a fun night. Anything that can get your significant other invested in watching Monday Night Football is a good thing. The second memory also involved my wife. It was the last week of the regular season and it was down to me and her for our division crown and a playoff spot. (The playoffs are where you win money in fantasy football.) Five of our league’s 12 owners got together (including two who drove to DC from New Jersey) and it was on. My wife ran so much good smack while kicking my team’s ass she instantly became a legend among our friends and family.

While the intangible benefits of fantasy football are wide-ranging and immeasurable, the tangible benefits are narrow and ultimately quantifiable. It starts with your buy in. In our league the buy in is $25.00 in a twelve team league for a starting pot of $300.00. Over the course of the season most owners spend between $35.00 and $55.00 additional dollars on transactions like adding players and making trades. In the end the prize pot is usually around $700.00 which is divided among teams that make the playoffs with the champion getting the lion’s share. If you win games you win money. If you win money you get a tangible benefit along with all the fun of playing.

Of course as with all gambling how much you win is offset by how much you spend. So while bored at “work” I decided to see what my tangible return on investment has been. Below is my year-by-year result: money spent -> money won and [initial analysis ROI].

2009 1st: $110.00 -> $400.00 [3.61]
2008 8th: $85.00 -> $50.00 [0.59]*
2007 3rd: $80.00 -> $89.00 [1.11]
2006 6th: $95.00 -> $47.00 [0.50]
200513th: $59.00 -> $0.00 [0.00]*
2004 1st: $65.00 -> $300.00 [4.62]
Total: $494.00 -> $886.00 [1.79]

(* represents non-playoff years)

On the surface it looks pretty good. I spent $494.00 on fantasy football (an average of $82.33/year) and won $886.00 (an average of $147.67/year). Not bad. If I’m reading that right I’ve made 179% more than I’ve spent. You tell me another investment that’s going to return 179%. Go ahead I dare ya!

So I was feeling pretty good about myself until a thought dawned on me. In a way I didn’t really win the money I had invested. It may be a more realistic and grounded analysis to factor out my original investment. It is more instructive to see not how I did when I gambled, but how I did compared to holding my money not having played at all. So lets check that out:

2009 1st: $110.00 -> $290.00 [2.64]
2008 8th: $85.00 -> -$35.00 [-0.41]*
2007 3rd: $80.00 -> $9.00 [0.11]
2006 6th: $95.00 -> -$48.00 [-0.51]
2005 13th: $59.00 -> -$59.00 [-1.00]*
2004 1st: $65.00 -> $235.00 [3.62]
Total: $494.00 -> $392.00 [0.79]

These numbers feel more real to me. Dismal, depressing, but real. It makes sense, if you factor out the money I put in that I would never have lost in the years I lost money I haven’t really made all that much. I paid $494.00 to play fantasy football over the last six years and got only $392.00 back. Which means I only got .79¢ for every dollar which is a negative return right?

“Plus your original investment.”

Huh? Who’s that?

“It’s Other Berto. Dude, you did get your original money back. So all your worry is just worry. No matter how you slice it you’re still up .79¢ on the dollar. Sure the profit margin is slim compared to the gross margin but it’s really the same number. You brought in more than you spent. Period. Get over it.”

Um, OK, I think I believe you Other Berto but I’m still not sure.

“Then let the readers weigh in.”

OK readers help me out. Has fantasy football been a good tangible investment or not?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


So Mark McGwire has finally come out and admitted what many of us already believed, he was a steroid user and he used them during his run at the single season home run record in 1998. Why now? Well McGwire was recently hired as a coach for the St Louis Cardinals and he knew he was going to have to come clean all at once or face questions all season. This was an opportunity for a personal and national catharsis but though McGwire showed emotion he did not give his fans or the public what they needed most from a fallen star, he did not fully reveal himself. Rather than give in fully to the reality of his actions McGwire continued to hide throughout his admission.

McGwire claims that he never discussed steroid use with anyone. Not with other players, not with his family, not with his friends or his agent or anyone else. He says none of the people in his life ever asked. As hard as that is to believe I guess it could be true. However according to former teammate Jose Canseco, and ESPN analyst T.J. Quinn several players have said that McGwire was very open about his use of steroids and human growth hormone. Canseco went as far as to write in his book that he and McGwire would shoot up together in the Oakland clubhouse. McGwire’s claims that no one knew about his steroid use seem dubious at best.

Another of McGwire’s assertions that does not sit well is his claim that his steroid use did not contribute to his ability to hit home runs at a rate never seen in baseball history up to that point. McGwire claims that his production was due to shortening his swing and improving his concentration. During his interview with Bob Costas on MLB Network McGwire mentioned that he had always been a good home run hitter. He claims that his first little league at bat resulted in a home run. He mentions that he led the country in home runs while in college. Then he says something that hasn’t been focused on in much of the commentary I’ve seen so far. He talks about how as a rookie he hit a lot of “wall scrapers,” home runs that just barely get over the fence. As either a testament to his delusion or slip up that exposes his lies he first acknowledges that he hit a lot of homeruns prior to his PED use that were just barely out but then attributes his increase in production to swing adjustments and concentration, not the added strength he got from juicing. While his claim that “There is no pill that can give you the hand eye coordination to hit a baseball” may be correct it falls way short completing the steroid equation. First, if steroid make you stronger and faster and thereby increase your bat speed you are able to wait longer to identify a pitch. A lot of hitting involves being able to wait as long as possible and bat speed and reaction time determine how well a batter sees a pitch. But even if we allow that making contact with the ball relies solely on talent we must continue on and look at the result of that contact. It is insane to deny the possibility that due to steroid use some of those wall scrapers became towering shots, and balls that would have died on the warning track became wall scrapers. For that matter a little velocity can be the difference between a routine ball to second base and a hit that just gets through the infield. Here’s a look at McGwire’s numbers before and after he says his steroid use really picked up.

Year, Average, AB/HR, Slugging%, Most HR in a Season
1986-1993, .249, 14 , .509 , 49,
1994-2001, .277, 8.4 , .674 , 70,

So here’s a guy who by his own admission ramped up his steroid use and added roughly 30 points to his batting average, 70 points to his slugging percentage, doubled his home run rate and hit 20 more home runs than he ever had before (nine more than anyone had ever hit in a single season) but doesn’t acknowledge a connection. The only question here is if he’s really that stupid, or if he thinks we are.

Finally McGwire really lost any sympathy we may have had for him when he refused to take full responsibility for his actions. Yes, he said several times that he had done a stupid thing, a “dumb act” in his words. But he never allowed himself to shoulder his full burden. Instead he says he wishes he hadn’t played in the steroid era. That if he “hadn’t played in that era we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” McGwire also says he wishes there had been testing when he played. The implication seems to be that if there had been testing, or if steroids had been against the rules he wouldn’t have done it. Here’s a news flash Mark, the era didn’t make you do it. You chose to take steroids. You went out and purchased steroids. You injected them. You did it Mark, not the era. You. You are to blame. Besides, you claim you never discussed steroids with anyone else and you have no idea who else, if anyone, was taking steroids. If that’s true then there was no steroid culture, no pressure to perform. If you had no knowledge of any other steroid use then you didn’t play in the steroid era as far as you knew. According to your story you played in a bubble where you were the only one taking PEDs. And in a way that’s even worse.

It also doesn’t matter the rule book didn’t have a specific prohibition against it. You knew it was wrong. You knew you were doing something wrong. Otherwise why would you talk about the burden of keeping this secret? It wasn’t the lack of testing that caused this problem, it was your failings as a person. McGwire was asked, if the steroids didn’t help his performance then why are they banned? His answer, “I don’t know, that’s for the Olympics.” Mark, if they didn’t help you and you don’t know why you’re takning them ten why the cover up? If you don’t even know why you’re apologizing then why are you crying and carrying on? The fact is you know you’re stats are tainted. That’s why you hid it.

As a lifelong A’s fan growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s I was a huge McGwire fan. When they found the andro in his locker in 1998 and the steroid whispers started I was still a fan. As time went the little boy in me clung to the hope that Big Mac was clean. When it became clear that McGwire was a likely PED user I still maintained hope that he’d say or do something to redeem himself. Now that hope is gone also. McGwire admitted to taking steroids but in blaming others for his weakness and refusing to acknowledge their effect on his performance his admission and apology have hurt him more than they have helped him. I don’t care if this is hard for you Mark. I don’t care if you’re sorry. It was one thing to lie, it was one thing to clam up and disappear. But if you can’t be honest with us now when you are claiming to be coming clean and unburdening yourself then this is not an act of contrition, it’s a PR stunt. I am far more disappointed in Mac now than I ever have been. He lied to the fans, he lied to baseball, he lied to nine year old Berto. A part of my childhood was a lie and this guy did it. Maybe I should be more grown up and less hurt but I’m not. Thanks for nothing Mac. You had one final chance to be a stand up guy and you blew it. You’re a joke.