Twelve years ago, at my first AFL First Pitch, I met Jason Grey and Todd Zola and Trace Wood--among others--for the first time.
It was all good fun, in fact we still all note back to that time when we (along with John Mosey and Rob Leibowitz) usurped Ron Shandler's Arizona Challenge. Ron had a lot to do running the conclave, so he actually asked us to act as Auctioneers. The twist was we got to nominate players in the auction which allowed participants the chance to bid against one another and see who could assemble the best roto roster.
Well, I cannot stress the fun we had, jerking around the contestants with runs of players at positions and teams, teasing and occsionally tossing out a nugget, but at the same time holding out the likes of Frank Thomas, who if memory serves went for $5 at the end when wallets had been exhasuted.
Six months later, I was invited to join the American League Tout Wars competition, and my flight from San Francisco to Allentown (for back then we drafted in Steve Moyer's basement in Bath, Pennsylvania) had a layover in Chicago.
As I boarded the plane I ran into Jim Callis, whom I knew from SABR, and Jason as well, and the three of us babbled on and on about baseball and fantasy and drafts while the flight shot by.
I remember bits and pieces of the first Tout auction. In particular, giddily selecting Derek Lowe and Keith Foulke for under $50 as my first two purchases (I had thought they would cost around $62), closing the deal on Miguel Tejada for $25, and hearing crickets when I got stuck with a third catcher--Chris Widger--at DH.
I also drafted against Jason for the first time. along with my good friend by then Tony Blengino, among others.
Now, I need to say now that Jason and Tony are the best fantasy baseball players I know. Period.
And, to show how strong their baseball acumen is, a couple of years later Tony left Tout because he had been hired as a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers (he is now Asst. to the G.M. for the Mariners). And, during the 2011 off-season, Jason followed, being hired on as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Meaning this was the first time I have not drafted against Jason in Tout, nor in LABR (where I played for my sixth year this March).
And I missed him. Actually, I think we all did, as his name was invoked a number of times, particularly when Howard Kendrick was nominated.
Jason always sat on one side of me or the other, with Jeff Erickson occupying north of Jason were I south, east were I west, and so on.
The thing is it often felt like Jason and I were having our own private draft, sometimes against one another, and sometimes against the rest of the league, and sometimes both.
Because we both tend to approach the auction similarly, throwing out names and while not avoiding bargains in the early rounds, saving our money for the middle when we could load up on less expensive everyday players and crap shoots.
I cannot count the number of times during the auctions when one of us would elbow the other two-thirds of the way through noting we had each drafted the same number of players, and both spent exactly the same amount of money.
Knowing what a fine player Jason was, this was always reassuring to me: that even if I did follow my own Zen path (and it was Jason indeed who dubbed me the Zen Master after I took that 2001 crown with Tejada and Widger on my roster), that I was onto something if such a good player was essentially approaching the game the same way (actually, between us, we had five of the AL Tout Wars titles over a ten-year spread).
Jason could also egg me on, however, unlike anyone else has ever been able to. In 2002 when I defended my Tout crown, I remember him bidding me up on Jose Valentin, noting Jose was the only real third baseman of value left so I bought him for something like $17. And, then Jason turned around and got Robin Ventura for $11.
I remember him bidding me up on Casey Kotchman, back when Kotchman was a viable prospect such that I got so into it against Jas that I forgot I really wanted this Red Sox up-and-comer, Kevin Youkilis. Even last year, somehow I wound up with Hank Conger and Justin Morneau because Jason got his bid hooks in me (don't ask me how, for this is incredibly unconscious for someone deemed the Zen Master).
Well, Jason was gone this year. In LABR, I moved to the National League, and in Tout, Chris Liss--himself a formidable opponent, and one who also seems to view the draft with the same skewed success as Jason and I--took Jason's spot. And, well, I like Chris a lot and I like playing against him (and sharing restaurant ideas, which oddly we both do with Jason as well).
But, without Jason there I did find that middle draft a lot easier, and felt a lot less gullible.
But, the truth is, I missed him. I missed pointing at the dollar values with him. Or him putting on noise cancelling head phones during the Austin Kearns bidding so as not to suck in. Finally.
I missed the Tout banter and two or three pretty good one-liners building, with Jason putting in that coup de grace final line that stopped the clock and put us all in paroxysms.
Still, life goes on and change is inevitable. And people come and people go.
But, friends are indeed forever. Fortunately, that does include both Jas and Tony in my universe.