Gambling at the Hall of Fame: Part Three
In the last of this three-part series on gambling at the Hall of Fame (please read the first two parts if you haven’t already), it’s time to talk about gambling that goes on AT the museum every day of the year. I’m referring to fantasy sports, and if your reflex response is “gee, that’s no big deal,” I ask you this: if it’s so harmless, why did Jeff Idelson, the President of the Hall of Fame, caution Hall of Fame employees not to disclose the fact that he was participating in one of the leagues?
The first baseball season I worked at the Hall of Fame was 2003, and it quickly became clear that many of my colleagues were obsessed with fantasy sports. Nothing since then has changed that first impression. During the season there were daily discussions on how everybody’s team was shaping up, trade proposals, and plenty of razzing of anybody whose team was tanking. Naturally, I asked if I could be part of the league in 2004. Erik Strohl, the commissioner of the “big” league that involved about a dozen HOF employees, told me I’d have to wait until someone dropped out, since they didn’t plan to expand the league.
In 2006, Strohl decided to expand the league to 16 teams, and I was brought into the brotherhood. The fee was $40. Part of that, I learned, was spent on a memorial for a friend of Strohl’s (a non-HOF person and league member who had passed away), and the rest went to prize money. First place was around $200, second place was worth about $125, and the third-place finisher got his $40 back. An additional $40 went to the team that improved the most after the All-Star break (to give managers of second-division teams a reason to stay involved). That prize money has remained the same, as has the allocation for the memorial.
Few events on the HOF’s annual calendar are as eagerly anticipated as Draft Day. It occurs on a weekday in mid-March, in the early evening. For various reasons, some of the managers choose to conduct the draft from their offices at the Hall. I did so that first year because I had a very slow dial-up internet service at home, and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the rapid-fire draft. There were four of us in the museum after 6pm that evening, and it was fun to make a pick and zip around the other offices to compare notes with and harass the other managers.
I stayed in that league four years, winning it in 2007, for which I got the prize money plus a cute little bobble-head doll from Yahoo, the website on which the league was conducted. Like most of the managers, I spent a fair amount of time at work on league activities. I usually got to my office 10-15 minutes before my official workday began, and I’d check my fantasy teams before doing anything else. I’d monitor standings, see how everyone did the night before, make roster changes, lineup changes, and so on. If this spilled over into the start of my work-day, so be it. During the day, there were all those discussions with other managers, all those trades to consider, occasional visits to Yahoo to make roster changes, and all that razzing. Lots and lots of razzing. It was a blast. The majority of the managers were from the Curatorial and Research departments, but there were managers from the business part of the operation as well. Many of us participated in more than one fantasy baseball league, but the only important concern centered around how you were doing in the “big” league.
That’s the league that Jeff Idelson joined in 2009. He said he had never participated in a fantasy league and wanted to find out what it was all about, so he ponied up his $40, drafted a team, and spent the season comfortably in the middle of the pack. But in August 2009, something happened. The HOF was having a problem with bandwidth and decided to do something about it. The employees were kept in the dark about the issues, but of course we heard things, and had to react to a change in policy which restricted internet access on HOF computers. We heard that the problem was too many people listening to game broadcasts; that some Visitor Services people were caught playing video games during work hours; that the HOF was too broke or too cheap to buy the extra bandwidth needed to conduct routine business; and so on.
What they did tell employees was that in order to use the HOF’s bandwidth capacity more efficiently, our computer usage would be monitored. The upshot was that, for the first time, the HOF adopted a filtering service that prevented access to certain websites. The Barracuda program that they installed mainly targeted sites designated as involving gambling or pornography. Some of those designations proved absurd, as anyone knows who has dealt with such programs. Remember the words of the U.S. Senator whose committee was investigating pornography: “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it”? Well, the strangely endowed Barricuda program had a liberal definition of forbidden territory and was capable of barring a website like this one right here simply because the word “pornography” appears on it.
What bothered the HOF fantasy league managers was that Barricuda barred access to the Yahoo fantasy league pages. We could no longer access our league or manage our teams on our work computers, even during non-work hours. Some guys got around the Barricuda censorship by bringing their laptops to work to access forbidden sites. Some of us tried instead to get an exception made to the policy. You could get exceptions made by going to the powers-that-be (chiefly the head of the Information Services department or Senior Vice President Bill Haase), and I succeeded one time with some innocuous site which contained a biography of some long-ago historical figure I needed to read for a fact-checking project. I was allowed access to the site but had to tell them the minute I was done so that Barracuda could flag the next person who tried to access it.
A couple of people made official requests to have access to Yahoo restored, but to no avail. The strange thing was that a half-dozen of us were also in a league on espn.com, and the commissioner of that league successfully made the case that full-time access should be granted–on the same basis which was advanced on behalf of the Yahoo league! The rationale was that these sites have up-to-the-minute information (biographical and statistical) which is important to people whose job involves daily discussions with the public about who is doing what, and who have to base their writing/research/museum exhibits on thorough and accurate data. For some reason, it was deemed that it was okay to use espn.com, but not yahoo.com. You might think that this argument was nonsense, but the fact is that everything that happens in baseball, everything that other people write and say about the game, past and present, is relevant to the work that goes on in the HOF library. With an estimated 50,000 questions directed to the Research department every year, the people who work there have to know what is being posted and where.
I went to see Jeff Idelson in late August, to discuss the new censorship policy in general and its effect on the “big” league in particular. He listened but said there was nothing he could do to change the policy. He also told me that he was totally screwed in the league because not only couldn’t he access Yahoo at work any more, but he couldn’t access it at home either. I wanted to ask him how that was possible (had the HOF installed Barricuda on his home computer?), but didn’t because I figured the answer would just make me feel sad.
That was that. The rest of the season bore out my worst fears as a manager. I now had to set my lineups at home before going to work, which was certainly possible. But it meant that if one of my starters wound up not starting a day game, I had no chance to adjust my lineup. I counted four times when this cost me strong performances by players I would have substituted, and that was enough to cost me third-place money. So I quit all my fantasy leagues in 2010. I didn’t see how it could be worth all that time and effort if Barracuda’s bias against one website could flush it all down the toilet. I wasn’t the only manager who quit the league over that policy. At least two others did, including Jeff Idelson.
But here’s the catch. Baseball isn’t the only sport that has captured the fantasy enthusiasts at the HOF. They’ve had fantasy football and hockey there for as long as I worked there. Every Monday during football season brought a rehashing of Sunday’s action, and I lost count of the number of times that Erik Strohl strolled past my desk to discuss hot goaltenders with the person I shared the office with, Bill Francis (otherwise known as “Bartleby the Researcher”). So there is fantasy action every day of the year at the HOF.
This next thing is what truly befuddles me. The hockey and football leagues are also conducted on Yahoo–and HOF employees are allowed access to those leagues on their work computers! But they’re still not allowed to access their baseball league at work. Isn’t that the screwiest logic? We’ve got people who are involved in baseball as their work, but let’s not give them access to a site with a ton of baseball information. Instead, let’s make it easy for them to monitor their football and hockey leagues at work.
When managers were being recruited for a new Yahoo baseball league starting this year, I was one of three HOF people (the other two still work there) who signed up. I did so as a favor to the commissioner, and of course because I now work out of my home and can access Yahoo any time I damn well please. But right after the season started, one of the HOF managers refused to pay his league fee. He hadn’t realized it was a Yahoo league, and he explained, “I do all of my fantasy leagues at work.” So he hasn’t made a single roster change all season–and his team has been in the top three all season. I know. That doesn’t say much for the rest of us.
But it does say a lot about the waste of time and resources at the HOF. I know fantasy baseball isn’t illegal, but it is gambling (make no mistake–if there were no money at stake, these leagues wouldn’t exist), which the HOF should be more sensitive about than other institutions. [Can you say “Pete Rose”?] That is, the HOF is sensitive about gambling when other people are doing it. It must be okay if a member of its Senior Staff, Senior Director of Exhibits and Collections, Erik Strohl, is still the commissioner of the big league. Then again, if it’s nothing but harmless fun, why didn’t Jeff Idelson want anybody to know that he was part of it?