Playing fantasy sports is all about winning.
So when ESPN's fantasy expert Matthew Berry writes a book, you expect to glean some insight from the man they call "The Talented Mr. Roto" that you could parlay into a victory this upcoming football season.
But that isn't what Berry's new book, Fantasy Life, is about.
"I didn't want to write a book about how to win," Berry said during an interview earlier this week. "I wanted this book to be about all the things I love about fantasy sports."
I've long been a proponent of this way of thinking. Sports are taken too seriously as it is, and when you add the word "fantasy" to the equation, there's little doubt that fun should be at the center of it all.
As a former screenwriter - he's worked for George Carlin, been sued by Crocodile Dundee, and even wrote for Married with Children - Berry uses his storytelling abilities to weave a myriad of tall tales together, ones that will draw laughs from any hardcore fantasy player. At the same time, those unfamiliar with playing fake GM will be left questioning their validity - they just seem so preposterous.
Like the one about the soldier in Afghanistan that remained in place while bombs were going off around him because he was in the middle of his draft and didn't want to risk losing his Internet connection. Or the one about the best man who completed a trade during the wedding … from the altar. Or the guy who got called in to work just before his draft, except his job was dressing up as the Red Robin and posing for photos with customers.
How about a league where the loser has to get a tattoo of the winner's choosing - last year it was Justin Beiber's face - or one where the loser dresses like a lion and is hunted down by the rest of the members, armed with paintball guns?
Fantasy Life, however, is more than just a collection of funny stories. It is a celebration of sorts - a look at how far the game has grown, how the perception of it has changed, and how it has crossed into mainstream culture.
Last fall, Berry appeared on FX's The League, a show that revolves around a comical group of friends that play in a fantasy football league. Berry played himself in the episode, and is hounded for free advice from one of the characters, Kevin (played by Steve Rannazzisi), after meeting him at a bar. When asked how true this scenario was to real life, Berry was quick to respond.
"That episode was based on real stories of mine," he admitted. "I get it a lot more [since being on the show]. But I'm always flattered, and happy to engage."
As he points out in his book, though, fantasy players are crazy, and sometimes have trouble with boundaries.
"The strangest example was one time when I was at a concert, and a guy came up to me in the restroom like, 'Which running back do you like this week?'"
Berry plays in a league called the "War Room" with Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter, Trent Dilfer, Ed Werder, and other ESPN analysts and you basically wouldn't stand a chance - no matter how good you think you are.
For example, Mortensen oddly picked up Knowshon Moreno after Willis McGahee went down with a knee injury.
"Everybody was picking up Ronnie Hillman," Berry recalled. "But Mort went in and picked up Knowshon, who got the start."
But Mort isn't the only one using his inside information to get a leg up on the competition.
"Schefter reached for [Redskins running back] Alfred Morris last year. Something like the 10th or 12th round. He was undrafted in most leagues, but Schefter took him. We were all shocked," Berry said. "By Week 3, he was their starter."
Sounds like someone knew something the rest of the league didn't.
It gets better, though…
Berry and Dilfer were working on a trade that involved a wide receiver, and it seemed like a done deal.
"At the last minute, [Dilfer] cancelled the trade," Berry remembered. "When I asked him why, he said, 'I texted the QB and he told me he didn't really like the receiver.' Can you imagine that?"
After reading his book, I can believe it. People will do anything to win, and fantasy is no different.
Here's a selection from Fantasy Life that touches on just that:
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 ...
The stories are great, and the message is simple: Fantasy players are crazy competitive and multiplying by the day.
And your favorite athletes and celebrities are among them.
Jay-Z is the best celebrity, according to Berry, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the best among athletes, although Maurice Jones Drew may have something to say about that. MJD - who hosts his own fantasy football show on Sirius/XM - once argued with Berry about his preseason ranking during a panel discussion on fantasy sports.
From members of the Clinton administration holding their draft in the White House's situation room to a group of friends accidentally holding their's in an all-male strip club, the stories never end.
You may not believe them all, but unlike the title of the book, they only appear to be fantasy.
They're real, and they're spectacular.
* * * * *
There are certainly stories that had to be cut from Fantasy Life, but you're in luck.
Berry will be meeting with fans and signing copies of the book on Thursday night from 6-8 p.m. at Dave and Buster's on Columbus Boulevard.