Q and A with Matthew Berry: Why it’s not what players you pick in your fantasy league, but the players you pick to play with

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How bad do you want to lose in your fantasy league?

I can get you from the first pick to last place faster than a Mark Sanchez butt fumble.

It was in everyone’s best interest that two decades ago I swore off playing in rotisserie-style anything of any kind – football, baseball, golf, Little League T-ball. I continue to enjoy this cleansing of the soul, maintaining a purified outlook at just how messed up a fantasy league can be to the psyche and checkbook.

So, with that, I’ve checked out this new book by Matthew Berry.

Fantasy Life COVER (1)In “Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who’s Lived It” (Riverhead Books, $27.95, 338 pages), I hesitate to say that fantasy looks real again.

Before I take that leap of fret again, I needed to track down Berry, who once lived in Sherman Oaks during his TV sit-com writing days but has since moved to Connecticut (perhaps a requirement of a witness protection program):

(And little did I already know: He’ll be signing books and doing a fantasy Q and A at Barnes & Noble at the Grove near Farmer’s Market on Fairfax on Monday at 7 p.m.)

Q: I’ve sworn off fantasy leagues. I  just took up too much of my time and energy from my family – and I was losing to guys who picked players with as much research as they would in making a $2 bet on a thoroughbred at Santa Anita. If I’m back on the fence about reinvesting my resources again into all this, can you convince me one way or another which way to go?
SMALLMatthew Berry credit ESPN (1)A: Unless you’re anti-fun, and I don’t get that sense, why would you not want to do it? You get to have a rooting interest in games you’d normally not care about. And if you’re not a sports fan, you have a reason to watch. Now that you’re older, you probably would have a little better perspective of all that.

Q: The perspective I have is feeling that sports fantasy leagues are too mercenary. It feels like it forces you at times to invest a rooting interest in a player for one team which could be at the expensive of rooting against a team you’ve already been emotionally tied to for many years. Is there a way to rectify that psychological hurdle?
A: It goes to your fandom. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with rooting for individual players over your ‘real life’ team. It really sounds more like you have some guilt issues, to be perfectly honest. So who cares? I get questions a lot, from those especially who are ant-fantasy, who say, ‘That makes you root for players instead of teams.’ I’m like: ‘Who are you to legislate how I enjoy sports?’ There are different ways to enjoy everything in life. People may like sports for the social aspect – the tailgating, hanging out with friends at a Super Bowl party, they don’t really care that much about the game. There are people who root for a team to bond with a family member. My dad loves the Yankees, so I always watch Yankees games with him. There are people who like sports for a specific team. And there are people who like sports because of fantasy leagues. Whether I’m rooting for the group of players I’ve selected on a fantasy team, or you’re rooting for another group of players that a general manager has selected, we’re still rooting for groups of players. As long as we’re both enjoying sports, who cares how we’re doing it?
Q: I guess I’ve felt I had conflicted rooting interests.
A: Got it. In that case, maybe pick your teams a little better. If you want to win, it’s not necessarily the best strategy to pick your favorite players, but I don’t have an issue with that because in the end, fantasy is supposed to be fun. That’s what this book is supposed to show. It’s not a book about how to win your fantasy league and crush your opponents. It’s a book that celebrates all the things I love about fantasy sports. All the trash talking. The punishments for losing your league. The trophies. The creative ways people have tried to cheat. 120208_rick_santorum_roars_ap_328There’s a story from Senator Rick Santorum about how he had to do a fantasy draft on the day he dropped out of the presidential race. What’s lost in there is he plays in an American League-only fantasy baseball league. The reason he does it is because he was from Pennsylvania, where he has the Pirates and Phillies as National League teams, and he didn’t want to have to root against either of those teams. That was the idea.

Q: That makes sense. In reading the book, I get the sense you’ve become used to being a ‘fantasy shrink,’ where people can confess their issues and problems and cheating and you’d be the one guy who’d understand where they were coming from. How did that evolve?
A:  There is the saying that the most interesting conversation in the world is all about your fantasy team. And the most boring conversation in the world is anyone else’s fantasy team.  Right? It’s the new golf story, or vacation pictures. No one cares about your team other than you. Except me. That’s my job. I like to hear it. I want to hear it. And I’m amazed what people admit to me. I’ve been playing almost 30 years and there were many stories were I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard that one.’
When I started the book, I thought I’d get a lot of stories about guys who drafted while their wives were giving birth, those kinds of things. I was shocked by the majority of the stories I got – a league that forced the loser to get a tattoo. A guy who continues drafting through a bombing while he was in Afghanistan. A league that forced its loser to dress like a lion while the other owners hunted him down with paintball guns. There’s the league where a guy and his wife are owners, and the wife passes away, so the husband starts making these trades with the dead wife . . .
Q: You’ve also tapped into a stories about a priest, a rabbi or and a minister in a league . . . and all hell breaks loose?
A: Sounds like a bad joke, but it’s actually three different leagues. Cheating pastors! I couldn’t believe that happens, but it has. In a league filled with other pastors at his church.

Q: A line that resonates with me in your book, you justify again that the best part of fantasy leagues today is that  it “gives people who normally would not have a reason to interact an excuse to talk . . . from the CEO and mailroom guys to your long lost cousins and everyone in between. Fantasy brings them together and it keeps them tight.” So what if  I wanted to be in a fantasy league and not talk to anyone? Does that defeat the purpose?
A: Not at all. Go to ESPN.com and sign up for an anonymous league. You don’t have to talk or meet anyone. But now I’m sensing some conflict, more guilt, some anti-social behavior. . . . I think you’ve got more issues to work through here.
Q: Maybe I felt I just neglected my kids too much while I was immersed in fantasy play before. I wanted to win so much, I studied and studied and worked trades and all that, and it didn’t amount to anything but an occasional third-place finish.
A
: I was surprised in the book at how many stories I got of husbands and wives and families and kids – doing a league together. Maybe pull in some cousins. Then it gives you an excuse to talk. My wife and I and my step-kids are in a league with friends and parents, and that first year, he’s 13 years old on Facebook and Instagram and I was like, ‘Hey we’ve got to pick our players. We’ve got to set our lineup.’ It gave us an excuse to interact and spend time together, which is great with kids that age. That’s one of the nice things that fantasy does.
bodenheimersc2I’ll tell that you that when I got to ESPN I was incredibly lucky in that one of the first things I was asked to do was be the auctioneer for a private fantasy league that involved ESPN CEO George Bodenheimer. One of the most powerful guys in sports, running all of ESPN and ABC Sports, and I got three hours with him and as a result, I forged a nice relationship with him. He’s beloved at ESPN already and gives time to every employee, but he took a special interest in me and gave me advice – that’s not possible without fantasy leagues. I had a relationship with the guy who ran my company.
Q: And he had you has fantasy team special adviser.
A: Right, but it gave us an excuse to talk. He could shoot me an email: What do you think of these two guys. And I could talk to him where I could ask him for advice and council about my career and I was comfortable doing that. Without fantasy sports, it would never occur to me to reach out to the CEO and hang out for a half hour to talk about things.

Q: What other fantasy leagues that you do – anything outside of football, baseball and basketball?
TheLoneRanger2013PosterA: I do a fantasy summer movie league with all my buddies who are screen writers and directors. There’s about 30 of us, we threw up a website called summermovieleague.com to keep track of it – anyone can play if they want – and you just pick 10 movies you think will make the most money for the summer. You have a fantasy studio. And how much they make in real life is how much they make for your fantasy studio. I do pretty well, but I think this year “The Lone Ranger” is going to keep me from winning the title.
Q: That darn Adam Sandler.
A:
I know, and I didn’t even pick “Grown Ups 2.”
Q: I could have told you to take that one.
A:
Maybe this is a league for you then.

Q: Was it tougher for you to live the life of a TV sit-com writer after coming to L.A. from Syracuse, or was there more drama involved in playing fantasy sports?
A: Fantasy was an escape for me from the Hollywood drama. I just wasn’t happy for a long time doing the sit-coms and movies. I was never an A-list screenwriter, but I was working on some good projects with big-name people — and I was miserable at 35 years old. My marriage was breaking up and I realized that all I cared about were these two little (fantasy) websites that I had started. I’d go to bed at night and wake up thinking: How can I improve these websites? So I have no way to support myself outside of screenwriting, and I said: I don’t care, I just want to be happy. I quit showbusiness. My wife and I had an amicable divorce, and there I was starting over at 35 and I just wanted to chase happiness. By doing that, money and everything else ended up following. That was my lesson. I hope people find some inspiration from that tale in the book as well,

Q: Fantasy karma seems to be very underrated. Your book points out incidents where no matter how much you think you get away with cheating, it comes back to bite you. Are there lessons to be learned from fantasy karma?
A:
Tons of lessons. It’s real. You may not think it’s not but go against the fantasy gods and you’ll see. There’s the story of the girlfriend who seduced her boyfriend in throwing a game against her so she could make the playoffs. The boyfriend by succumbing to this made the playoffs, but was a lower seed and had he not done this, he would have won the whole league but he lost in the first round of the playoffs, because of a sexual favor. There’s the story of a guy who invited his rival’s bitter ex-wife to the league, and she ended up smoking the competition and he lost.

Q: What’s been the prevailing comments about the book now that it’s been out there this week?
osergesA:
When I originally had the idea, I said I wanted a book that I could take on “The View” and talk about.  They thought it would only be for those who played fantasy sports. I said, no, no, no, because for me, it’s about people. Fantasy sports players will love the book. I was on CBS’ morning show, and Gayle King said that she wasn’t a fantasy player, but she was very kind and said she enjoyed the book. You don’t have to be a fantasy player to enjoy a story about a guy who loses his league and has to get a tattoo of Justin Bieber. Or know of a guy who had the draft while he was at work at Red Robin – while dressed as the Red Robin mascot. People can relate and get the humor and behavior of it even if they didn’t play fantasy sports.
Q: I’m not getting a tattoo if I lose again.
A:
Just make sure that’s clear when you find the right people to get into a league with.

== More:
== Matthew Berry on Twitter
== The Hollywood Reporter’s Q and A with Berry
== His ESPN bio and Wikipedia page

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