Having a Catch: Justin Mattingly, Baseball and the Rise of Fantasy Sports

Justin Mattingly had never sweat this much.

Eight men stared him down, their heads crammed onto the tiny screens of a Skype conference call interface. The intensity and seriousness both intimidated and exhilarated Justin. These men approached the game with intensity he admired.

He thought back a few weeks to mid-summer 2013 when a player in one of Justin’s leagues approaches him about joining another of his fantasy baseball leagues, called Fair Ball. But first, he said, Justin would have to apply and interview, just like a job.

“I may be a student and have other stuff going on,” Justin said. “But this league is their whole life.”

His application required links to past successful teams so the league could affirm his dedication. Last season, Justin won a third of his leagues, about 20 champions.

Professional ballplayers interest Justin, but nothing compares to those who consider themselves fantasy baseball professionals.

Justin passed the interviews and was accepted into the rotisserie league so intense it drafts high school kids who haven’t even been drafted by actual MLB teams yet. The league, according to its commissioner, is the 13th-toughest league in the world as ranked by RotoWorld. The league is the culmination of his life learning in baseball.

The game has brought him through a childhood trauma, into a generation of sports fans unlike any other and strengthened his relationship with his father. As Opening Day draws nearer – April 5 – Justin prepares to delve back in.

Nearly two years after joining the league, Justin cannot verify the validity of that 13th-toughest league ranking because he’s never seen this list, but he can believe it.

“I hope it’s false,” he said. “I pray to God there aren’t 12 tougher leagues.”

***

Justin grew up around baseball, inheriting the love for a ballpark, score card and crackerjack box from his dad, Wayne, who learned how to love the game from his father. Baseball fandom is something you’re born into in the Mattingly family.

Wayne and Connie Mattingly, Justin’s parents, took the family to see every Major League park. They’ve been to all 30 current MLB stadiums, plus old Yankee Stadium and Olympic Stadium of the since-moved Montreal Expos.

It was on one of these trips – he thinks it may have been 2000 – when Justin went to the ballpark and saw Albert Pujols playing for the Peoria Chiefs, St. Louis’ Class-A affiliate. It took young Justin one game for the sweet-swinging righty to become his favorite player.

Suddenly, Justin bled Redbird red. He lived with wins, died with losses, blogged daily about the Cardinals and took up the harmonica in homage to Stan Musial.

Wayne understood. Justin emulated him in that sense. The Big Red Machine era of the Cincinnati Reds, particularly Johnny Bench, drew in Wayne when he watched NBC’s Game of the Week during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Wayne played in high school too. Justin’s older brother Jarrod played college ball at Clarkson University in New York.

“Justin was a good player and enjoyed it when he was young,” Wayne says. “But he wasn’t as passionate about being a baseball player as much as he was being a baseball fan.

“If (Justin) was worried about disappointing me, he shouldn’t have been,” Wayne said. “It’s his life and he has to do what he wants.”

***

Justin started playing at 7-years-old on a Sports Illustrated for Kids site.

He established a “Fathers-Sons” league with four friends, their dads, and Wayne. Justin has never won that league.

By the time he was in high school, he thought, “Why should I mock draft? It’d be fun to just make this draft another league.” As he drafted, his list of teams grew longer and longer. He didn’t know when to stop. It struck him one day while he watched March Madness on the television. A 64-team tournament…hm, why not run that many teams?

Prime drafting time for fantasy baseball leagues is February and March. Combined, those two months have 59 days. Justin drafts at least once per day for those two months, plus he still mocks to hone strategy.

None of his leagues involve money. The rewards are glory, happiness and an excuse to watch more baseball.

Justin sets alerts on his phone for when certain players come to the plate so he can open up his premium MLB streaming subscription and watch. He studies each player’s swing. Justin discusses the swing of Carlos Gonzalez in hushed tones with a sense of wonder like a kid at a magic show. He often mimes the swing while describing it.

Where Justin’s love for fantasy sports is concerned, he is just another face in the masses.

The number of Americans playing fantasy sports has more than tripled in the last decade, up to a record 41.5 million this year, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. This means roughly 13 percent of Americans play fantasy sports. A 2013 Forbes article estimated that fantasy was an industry worth upwards of $70 billion – and that’s just the football sector.

The growth of fantasy sports stunted in its infancy because of the perception of it as a geeky game as well as the difficulty of collecting box score statistics. But with the Internet, keeping stats became easier. The games slowly gained traction beginning when the Internet was fully commercialized in 1995 – the same year Justin was born.

Justin’s generation is one of the first to come of age in the era of fantasy sports popularity an age in which the way to show your love for the game is changing. It’s a new way to connect, by digitally interacting with the player rather than catching the game of the week on national TV or purchasing packs of baseball cards.

Fans now arguably spend more time with sports than ever before as they manage their teams – Justin spend 60 to 90 minutes per day lineup tinkering. The common fan knows more about professional sports as a whole rather than knowledge of just their hometown club. With increased player exposure, the concept of hometown teams has also lessened, just a little. After all, how did a New Yorker end up with incurable Redbird fever?

To control his empire, Justin runs most squads through the usual suspects – Yahoo!, CBS and ESPN – but one league operates through Facebook Messenger. Each team drafts on the message board. Then, by hand, they each keep their own stats, transactions and points scored.

From the beginnings on SI Kids, his love for baseball has grown into what several people, from his father to his best friend, have called ‘obsession.’

“An ex-girlfriend said that once,” Justin says. He smiles, “Which is really funny because she’s an ex-girlfriend.”

***

To fully understand Justin, you need to take into account what he calls the worst day of his life.

December 8, 2011: Sitting in 11th-grade English, he checks his phone – something he’s done every five minutes for countless days. And it finally happens. Justin’s nightmare is reality.

Albert Pujols is leaving the Cardinals.

Justin is a devout Christian. He anticipates drinking a Budweiser while watching a baseball game with his friends – but not before his 21st birthday. In everyday conversation, Justin forgoes profanity for expressions like, “Aw, shucks!”

But he is not that boy this day. He drops an F-bomb loudly and runs from class without asking the teacher.

Devastated in the bathroom, he called his mom, pleading to be picked up. But she said no because she doesn’t want him to be alone in this moment. He spends the rest of the day lying prone, motionless on the floor of a sympathetic teacher’s classroom.

Once home, he looked at the wall above his bed, plastered with cut-outs of Pujols. In the bedroom of his Philadelphia, N.Y. home, Justin sat on the floor, staring up at his hero. His mom came in.

They cry together, Justin for Pujols and Connie for her son.

***

Justin had a dilemma.

The drafts of his two most important leagues – one of them being Fair Ball – fell on the same day he was scheduled to fly back to Syracuse from Florida where he spent spring break in Florida with his grandparents attended spring training games.

As a lone flyer on a Saturday morning, Justin was offered a bump by the airline to a later flight, plus $500 airline credit. The next flight didn’t depart until Sunday morning, but money outweighed delay. Plus, it didn’t matter where he drafted from as long as he had his computer.

“No matter what people say, whether it’s your mom’s birthday, or Christmas,” Justin said. “Nothing is as important as auction day.”

He crafts a gigantic spreadsheet including player rankings from over 30 sources for auction values. Those sources are plugged into the spreadsheet and then he goes to work taking averages. However, if any conflict arises, Justin goes with Shandler’s judgment.

“Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster is my bible,” Justin said.

Though he wasn’t comfortable, he hunkered down in an airport seat bunker in a corner of Ronald Reagan national airport. He drafted from two in the afternoon until eleven at night.

Soon after, he fell asleep. Around 3 a.m., security guards forced him to move to a different section of the airport. Despite all the hassle he remembers the day with a smile.

As he talks, it becomes clearer that he’s talking about more than just the plane ticket. That night in the airport was worth it because of fantasy baseball, not just the money.

In the “Fathers-Sons” league, his dad holds the bragging rights for his titles – won by defeating Justin no less. But winning is not the true meaning of a parent and child playing together. Justin describes fantasy baseball as “The Great American Game” because, for him, fantasy is tangible. He compares the league to the quintessential scene in Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner says, “Dad, wanna have a catch?”

Fantasy baseball is that catch. Spending time together, with a common love for the game…that’s the point. That’s the point to all of this; Justin’s father overcame apprehension about fantasy baseball to interact with his son, just to be there with him as any good parent would do for their child.

Justin later said he’s considered cutting back this season because it’s too taxing to manage so many teams. But the number of teams doesn’t matter, because he won’t change. Whether he manages 64 teams or just one, whether he’s in the toughest league in the world or just the one with his dad: Justin will love the game the same.

Justin pauses toward the conclusion of his overnight airport story. His narrative had started in the airport, but taken off and flown higher until he looked out of the window. Dispersed throughout the landscape of crop fields and city buildings are baseball fields.

Baseball fields are, after all, easy to identify from an airplane seat.

As he spoke of the night spent drafting in the airport, his words may have held greater meaning.

“I think I would do it again,” he said. “Because it all – I mean, everything – comes back to baseball.”

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York as a freshman at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and using the word “wicked” as an adjective. He’s not a fan of purposefully misspelt business names (“Kathy’s Kut & Kurl”) or grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

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