"I got Rickey Henderson and Roger Clemens."
"And nothing else."
"Rickey and Rocket and nothing in my pocket."
"I've been hearing this since Baltimore, Sweeny."
"What can I do? I'm screwed."
"Trade one of them for three keepers."
"I refuse to trade Rickey or the Rocket. I owe them. They won it for me last year. I'm loyal and honorable, not like the rest of you snakes."
"You're an arrogant, stubborn SOB, Sweeny, that's what you are, and you're in a lot of trouble this year."
"You're right. You better pull over here."
"You wanna run the next couple miles like you did in Virginia?"
"Then why should I stop? We're almost in Florida."
"I have to throw up."
"I told you beer and orange juice don't mix."
"Ah. Ah, ah, arg! Uh oh. Fuck. Too late."
Sweeny loved his lite beer and fresh orange, especially when we got below the Mason-Dixon Line. Said it replenished all his necessary fluids while keeping him hydrated and high. Sweeny knew about hydration, being a world-class long-distance runner, and he know about high because he was a great Empire State Building step-climber. He trained by watching King Kong and focusing on that fact that atop those 1,576 steps was a beautiful blonde waiting for him. He preferred Fay Wray to Jessica Lange. Everything older was better. The Old Testament was better than the New. Pee Wee Reese was better than Pee-wee Herman. And the 1954 Cleveland Indians were better than any team before or since. They were the team of his childhood, not that he was born in Cleveland, or had any rationale for loving the Indians. He just did. And he still knows their stats, their Topps cards' poses, and their current whereabouts.
What Sweeny didn't know was how to approach the draft of 1991. I would call it a fantasy draft except this was no fantasy; this was real and ruthless, and our preparation was hard and honest. Fantasy is for wimps. Rotisserie is for men. (And an occasional woman.) Rotisserie tests your wisdom, cunning, powers of prediction, and how devious you can be in a friendly sort of fashion. Our league, the American Dream League, was the first AL-only league in rotisserie baseball history, an off-shoot of the original NL league in 1980. It remains 4x4 with a $260 fee. We have 12 teams and you better know the second-string catcher for the Royals' Double-A affiliate. During the Ice Age, before the Internet, before Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects, research was done by hand and phone and car. We read newspapers from Kansas City and Detroit. We called friends around the country for inside info. We paid off press agents to spill some beans. We read El Diario for winter league stats and injury reports. And some of us drove to Florida to scout the rooks and geezers at spring training. Sweeny and I went five consecutive years. Most years, we'd have to stop in Virginia so he could run a 10k. Sweeny could run all right—his legs, his mouth, whatever. He talked a line of bullshit that was invariably anti-establishment and counterintuitive and, more often than not, totally right.
So the Sweeney Plan, as it has come to be known (misspelling and all), seemed only natural to him. That it is the most controversial of all plans is equally natural and a delight to Sweeny. In essence, you dump home runs and ribbies, and spend all your money on lead-off hitters who will win steals and batting average, and the rest of your funds go to the best pitching that money can buy in a 4x4 league. If done wisely, you are bound to walk off with some money; if done expertly, you will wear the crown. It is the most hated and most beloved of all strategies. It requires very little research. It perverts the value of every player. And it causes so much tension that leagues have disbanded because of it—it is deemed unethical by some, non-reflective of baseball by others, brilliant by many, and ugly by most. The ADL has instituted a minimum at-bat rule (5,200 ABs) and a minimum innings rule (1,200 innings) to discourage any such shenanigans. No longer can you fill a staff with all relievers or buy just a few rabbits for your offense. Yet, the Sweeney Plan remains viable, as well as a source of deep frictions, 20 years after it was hatched. When the founding fathers gave birth to rotisserie, in 1980, none of them could have imagined the plan or the man who unleashed it upon the game.
The first draft of the American Dream League (ADL) was 1981, and Sweeny wasn't there. We were guided by two creators, Daniel Okrent and Glen Waggoner, and they made us pay actual money for their expertise. (It may have been the last time they figured out how to make a few bucks from their billion-dollar idea.) Had Sweeny been there, with his verbal acuity and parsimony, it would have been different, I am sure, but Sweeny joined us the following year. Did I mention that Sweeny was a lawyer? A prosecutor for Jersey City, a city that needs lots of prosecution? He once described his job pithily: "I put people in jail every day for the same things I do every night."
Needless to say, rotisserie was never the same after Sweeny read our 25-page constitution and started burning the midnight oil and some brain cells. As W.C. Fields said when perusing the Bible on his deathbed, "I'm just looking for the loopholes." And whenever Sweeny didn't find them, he invented them.
Early on, when he realized he was not going to win his first season, Sweeny traded a $22 Bobby Grich for a $2 Julio Franco on the condition that Grich would be returned to him during the off-season and then he'd have both Grich and Franco for the next go-around. It was a loan. It was a sham. Fire sales threaten the foundation of all fantasy leagues and trigger bitter enmities and serious disharmony. So that winter, during the Super Bowl, in protest of the Super Bowl, we had a meeting and added a new rule to the constitution: No traded player can return to his team of origin for a full calendar year. It was the Bobby Grich Rule. (Which could have easily been called the Screw You Sweeny Rule.)
The next year, Sweeny traded all his best players over $30 for productive players under $3, thereby dictating who would win the league and setting himself up with the best eight freezes (or keepers) anyone could imagine. All for the bargain price of $24. A shoo-in for the pennant. That winter, we added another rule: Any traded player with a salary under $15 was instantly $15 when traded.
Sweeny was the Machiavellian force who drove us into democracy. He was the reason the constitution bulged into a tome. For this, he thought we should've been grateful. The customary three-year contracts were reduced to two years across the board: less incentive for scams, lopsided trades and fire sales. Then came the Pyramid Freeze. Nature hates a dynasty. First place and last got only four freezes the following season. We didn't want to celebrate failure or selling out. We punished the losers and winners alike, and rewarded the hard-working stiffs who missed the first division money because of injuries or bad luck, or by virtue of being stupid enough to put their faith in Bobby Thigpen after he saved 290 games in one season. Second and 11th place got five freezes. Third and 10th, six. Fourth and ninth, seven. And the owners who finished fifth to eighth, the middle class, the blue collar guys who fought valiantly, if vainly—they got rewarded with eight freezes and the first reserve picks.
Sweeny would invariably call me at midnight to complain about all the trades that were rejected that day. He would call every team with some scheme, offending wives when they answered, insulting owners when they had work to do, and then getting around to me to bitch and moan and try out some new nutjob-sounding theory that, in the end, was eminently rational; the reason this rotisserie thing is so brilliant is precisely because every imaginable theory could work if properly executed, and blessed with some good fortune, or not cursed with bad luck. The 27-to-30-Year-Old Theory, the All Starters-No Stealers Theory, the All Dominican Theory, the Catchers-and-Infielders Theory, the All Rookie Next Year Theory, the $12 On Every Player Theory, the Best Infield In The World Theory, the Every Other Year Theory, the Oakland A's Pitching Staff Theory. And on and on. The trick is to pick the right season and the right players and size your opponents with the right measuring tools. You can't buy all the closers, accumulate a million saves, and trade them all season long if some other guy is employing exactly the same strategy. Their prices would skyrocket at the draft. But Sweeny had a clever hold on …
Hold on. Wait a second. It dawns on me that I may be giving the impression that Hugh Sweeny—lawyer, runner, softball player, and theorist who considers himself the John Nash of rotisserie—is no longer with us, that he has gone to the great keeper league in the sky, and that I am taking this occasion to eulogize him—in Deadspin, no less! I apologize. No such event has altered the earth's axis. Hugh Sweeny is still among us, making trouble, and competing in two roto leagues. Or should I say dominating two roto leagues? He's had it with coevals, with worthy rivals who take no guff and might show him the door. But I get ahead of myself. More about that anon. In the meantime, he still lives in Jersey City and he's married and has too many cats and he's retired from the district attorney's office and he doesn't run like he used to because, well, I'll let him tell you.
"I blame the American Dream League. Not my old knees, not my creaky hips—the ADL. I joined the ADL and my career went straight to hell. You figure it out. How many teams did we have in the league? 12? I talked to each team at least a half an hour a day. Eleven times 30 minutes is five and half hours. Who had time for running? This was before mobile phones, remember. Then there was research and calling the 900 number for scores every 10 minutes and reading newspapers from Chicago and Boston. Information was scarce in those days, and anything you learned could be spun into roto gold. One time, I asked Greg Harris in Pompano, Florida, what his role was going to be that year and he said, 'I come in the end of the game for three innings or less when we have a lead of three runs or less.' I didn't know what the hell he was talking about at first. Dave Schmidt had been the closer, and now Greg Harris was telling us he was taking over as the closer. No one knew that except me. There was no ESPN, no USA Today, and no Ron Shandler. Just rotisserie. I got Greg Harris for $2. He had 11 saves in 1985 and 20 in 1986. Good thing I'm a theorist and not a stat guy. Everyone knows stats. No one has theories like me. I am the John Nash of Rotisserie. I might win the Nobel Prize some day for the Sweeny Plan—I hope they spell it right in Sweden."
In 1991, on the way to Florida, Sweeny was in trouble and he knew it. He also knew his team would dictate his happiness level for the next six months. "Rocket and Rickey and I gotta be tricky," he muttered as we drove through Georgia, stopping only to see Ty Cobb's home in Royston, and then picking up some souvenirs at the Ty Cobb hospital and healthcare center, which is an appropriate if ironic memorial for Tyrus Raymond Cobb, the man who loved putting people in the hospital almost as much as stealing a base; and if he could do both at the same time, all the better. Guess who's Sweeny's favorite player?
We got to Orlando, and saw the Twins and then drove to Winter Haven to watch the Indians that night and then scooted to Lakeland for the Tigers the next day. Kissimmee by day, Bradenton at night. What else was there to do but drive around around the Everglades between games? We were nomads. A day game in Dunedin, a night game in Sarasota. The motels were cheap. The games were cheap. And Sweeny didn't care about lodging or food. Only peanuts (for the salt), orange juice (for the vitamin C), and beer (for the beer—and because running really hurt). Real food was a concept he never grasped. Sweeny was cheap. And maybe poor. He was, after all, a civil servant. He balked at the vicious cycle of food: no matter what you ate, you always got hungry again. He bought only spaghetti. In a can. Chef Boyardee. When feeling extravagant, he boiled his own spaghetti (not pasta) and topped it off with a can of Campbell's vegetable tomato soup. I showed him how to add hot sauce, basil, Parmesan. He had to admit that it all tasted better, but it was superfluous. He was studying for the draft. He wanted to think about baseball. He was not into instant gratification. He was a long-distance thinker as well as runner.
"You can't compete this season, Sweeny, face it."
"Because you need power and power is expensive."
"Those idiots always pay $40 for Jim Rice and Eddie Murray."
"So?" I said.
"That's wrong. They aren't worth it. If Rickey is worth $42, then Rice is only $30, tops."
"You're bitter because you can't afford home runs."
"I am bitter because I don't have any power," Sweeny said.
"Remember the year I had nine pitchers for $9, waited until everyone was done and then ended up with the last nine pitchers."
"You finished in last place. That was terrible."
"That's why you can't afford power. It would kill your pitching. Not enough money for everything."
"Rickey, Rocket, and a hole in my pocket," lamented Sweeny.
"Why not punt power? There are still six other categories."
"You mean … punt all power?"
A light bulb flicked on above Sweeny's head. A lot of owners had forsaken a single category, usually saves or steals, and usually out of necessity or desperation, but no one ever had the audacity to dump two categories before we even got out of the box. Hell, before entering the starting blocks. That took balls. And near-perfect execution.
"You mean buy all the speedsters?" Sweeny asked.
"And the best pitching staff in the history of the world?"
"And then I'll finish with 72 points and win the league and everyone will be dazzled by my strategic superiority and probably hate me too."
"Rocket, Rickey, and you're a degenerate sicky."
That's how the Sweeney Plan was hatched. By me. To shut him up. To allay his anxieties. To try to enjoy a spring training trip. There is nothing more tranquilizing without drugs than spring training. I would call Sweeny one day and we'd be on the road the next. He was an easygoing guy if he got in his running and his beer. He had no wife, no girlfriend, no pets, no commitments outside his job, and he worked for a municipal government that insisted he take off a couple weeks a year. Sweeny looked forward to taking off more than most. His job brought him heartache and headlines in local newspapers. Like the time a parent brought a case against a football coach who slapped her 12-year-old son upside his head during practice. Abuse, she shouted, assault! When ADA Sweeny got the Pop Warner coach on the stand, he asked if the kid had been wearing a helmet. Yes, said the coach. Was the kid misbehaving? Yes, said the coach. And with that, ADA Sweeny swung around to the kid's mother and said something like, "What's the big deal? It's football. You want your kid to grow up to be a wimp or a real man?" The mother cried. The Jersey City press had a field day.
The Department of Motor Vehicles sent my mother a handicap parking sticker. I don't know why. She never drove a car or owned one. I guess it was for me to chauffeur her around. Sweeny found the handicap sticker one day in the glove box and plastered it on the windshield of my Toyota van. That was a mistake. We pulled into Legends Field that night, which is a miserable and inauthentic place in Tampa that tries to mimic Yankee Stadium. It fails. The parking lot was crowded and the game had begun, so Sweeny suggested I pull into a handicap zone. There were 20 empty spots. We were just about to exit the van when a cop car pulled up right in front of us and just sat there. We waited a couple minutes for the two policemen to move, but no dice. They were talking and laughing and eating round things. Their eyes were glazed.
Sweeny grew impatient and slid open the van door. Without moving a muscle, he tilted his trim body to the right and let gravity do the rest—he fell onto the ground and just lay there motionless. I got to him around the same time the two cops did.
"It's all right officers," Sweeny said. "This happens a lot. My nurse over there is incompetent and lets me fall all the time. I wonder if you officers could help me into the stadium."
Sweeny's team in the ADL was called the WSSACs, an acronymic tribute to the Warren Street Social & Athletic Club, of which Sweeny was a founder and leading light. He would run everywhere. In Florida, I'd drink coffee and read the morning sports pages while Sweeny jogged to the ball park du jour. Around 10 a.m. Sweeny would unzip his running pants, take off his shirt, and sit in the front row, in the sun, in skimpy shorts and nothing else. Not even a coat of suntan lotion. His socks would be drying on the next seat, and he would be reading a Who's Who in Baseball during batting practice or while George Brett took 100 ground balls before a game. The real work of a ballplayer happens before the game, not during; the real work of fantasy owners happens before the draft, not during.
During a lunch break in the city, Sweeny would run 10 miles. Just for fun. He'd run from Jersey City to O'Reilly's Pub near Herald Square in Manhattan for the annual draft and set up shop all sweaty and stinky, as if it were normal. Little about Sweeny qualified as normal. That's why Sports Illustrated sent Franz Lidz, a fine writer, to profile him in 1981.
Hugh Sweeny is an arrow-limbed, javelin-thin Jersey City smart aleck who looks as if he was born in his spinach-green sweat shirt and blue Adidas. He's fond of short jokes, long footraces and Germanic culture: Bach, Beethoven and Anheuser-Busch.
Alone or with his buddies from the Warren Street Social and Athletic Club of Jersey City, the 36-year-old lawyer's cyclonic metabolism uproots everything in his path. On Feb. 12 that path leads from the ground-floor lobby of the world's third-tallest skyscraper to the observatory deck […]
Sweeny will be taking part in the fourth annual Empire State Building Run-Up, the toughest quarter-mile south of the Arctic Circle. It's a wild dash up 86 flights—350 yards, 1,575 steps—which is about as close to most people's idea of chic jogging as hauling 20 tons of coal out of a Harlan County mine […]
Next week will be Sweeny's fourth attempt to get nowhere fast first. He came in second in 13:00, third in 12:59 and fourth in 13:00. He's almost as consistent as the clocks at the Naval Observatory […]
But even when he loses, he gets more press than the winners. His Warren Street club smarts and rigorous legal training enable him to snooker even the most jaded of race writers.
"Generally, the people who beat me ran faster," he explains. "If dollars were involved instead of glory, this event would be a real bloodbath because the stairwells are only 40 inches across and that's not enough room to get an advantage."
That's Sweeny all right. Always cracking wise and aiming for the top, disarming his competitors with a façade of foolishness and mussed hair and sweaty sweatpants and long pauses in places no else pauses. He plays the clown while leaving you in his sawdust. He doesn't hate losing; he doesn't quite understand it. He has been the smartest, hardest-working, most-fit kid in any room since Catholic school. At Princeton for three years. ("Until they caught me with the dean's wife. She wanted running lessons.") At Seton Hall Law. And certainly in the Army in Korea.
"I ate kimchi and drank beer until they put me on duty at the DMZ," he remembers. "It was during those long, cold winter nights, staring across that damn DMZ, lonely and afraid, firing random shots at the enemy, when I dreamed up the Plan. That's what I called it back then, The Plan. Not the Sweeney Plan. Or the Sweeny Plan. I would never attach my name to it. I didn't do that sort of thing. Alex Patton did that in some book he wrote a long time ago. Patton brought me into that league, that American Dream League that ruined my career. Patton was brought in by Buschel.
"I was surprised to see the Sweeney Plan, truth be told, because, well, because of a number of things I'd rather not get into here and now. I'm not saying I wasn't the inventor of the Sweeney Plan, I would never say that, but I have a feeling someone else might crawl out of the woodwork and try to take credit for my invention, some devious, conniving, good-for-nothing rotisserie owner who is lower than a snake in a rut by the side of the road in Louisiana. Watch out for those American Dream owners, the big-deal writers who threw me out of their league because they were afraid of someone from Jersey City, New Jersey, all of them, I heard them, I know they had secret meetings, plotting to get rid of me, all of them, Amaro and Nova and Moose Factory. I won two years and they were afraid of me. Wait a second, I dropped one of my steel balls." Sweeny looks more like Clint Eastwood than Humphrey Bogart, but he does a mean impression of Captain Queeg.
"I won two out of three years and then they threw me out. What conclusions can you come to? They were yellow. Through and through. You don't have to be Shakespeare to figure out their motivations, including my so-called friend, Buschel.
"Et tu, BB?"
Sweeny will go on for another half-hour about the wrong that was done him by the American Dream League. It has been almost 15 years since his dismissal and not a conversation will go by without a reference to two things: being tossed from the ADL and having that ball fly over his head in left field in the ninth inning of that championship game against the Reds in Central Park in 1988. I was on the mound. Sweeny was in left. We were ahead by one run in the bottom of the ninth. 3-2. They had a man on first and third, two outs. We were one out away from glory. A light-hitting infielder was at the plate. He hit a fly ball to left field. A regular fly ball. An out. We all knew the game was over. We were champs. Then, as we turned to watch Sweeny catch the flyball, we saw it sail over his head. Over his head? What the hell? He was playing so shallow that an out was now a game-winning double. He had outsmarted himself.
"Richie Ashburn did it in the 1950 World Series and was a hero," he said then and says now. "I had to throw out the runner at home to preserve the victory. I had to play shallow. If that banjo hitter hit a single, I had to stop the run from scoring, from tying the game. You didn't have to throw that guy a meatball. Look in the mirror, BB. You threw the meatball that got us beat."
Every time there is a play in a Mets or Yankee game that substantiates, or almost substantiates, playing shallow in the outfield, my phone will ring. I don't need caller I.D. I know who it was. A former outfielder living in such pain and guilt that he finds redemption where none exists. Sweeny blew that championship game and he knows it. That was not the Sweeny Plan.
* * *
The Sweeney Plan is simple. And still effective. Buy speedsters with high batting averages—Ichiro, Pierre, Crisp, Austin Jackson—and the best pitching staff in your league. That's what Alex Patton did last season and won the pennant. He called his strategy the Beeney Plan because it mixed the traditional Sweeney Plan with a wrinkle I added a few years ago. My team is the BB Guns. I spent $200 on pitching and forced myself to buy cheapo rookie hitters so that I could win money that year and be the frontrunner next year with eight great keepers. It worked in spades. Modestly, I called it the Two-Year Modified Sweeney Plan. Alex Patton renamed it.
Hugh Sweeny woke us up all right. And we threw him out of the league. He threw himself out, really, but that needs some explaining. We played a competitive but courteous game before he arrived. We would never call someone at dinnertime or on deadline. Then Sweeny started calling us at 8 a.m. and noon and midnight and gave us ultimatums and left long messages, usually from Roberto Alomar's agent or Kirk Gibson's trainer or someone who had seen Robin Yount drunk as a skunk and thought we should dump him pronto. Sweeny brought urgency and dedication to the ADL. He was a lawyer. We were writers, by and large, and loved the beauty of the game and the ability to run a team without leaving our seats.
It may have been the Sweeney Plan that got Sweeny thrown out of the league, but not because he invented the plan—which he didn't—but because he failed at the Sweeney Plan. One year, 1994 perhaps, he drafted a bad team. A terrible team. He was trying to go Sweeney and then halfway through the draft changed horses and ended up with a mess. From the moment he left O'Reilly's, he knew he was dead in the water and didn't make a phone call for that entire season. That was acceptable. Odd, but acceptable. We had grown to expect Sweeny calls and kind of missed them. What got him trouble was not receiving calls. Ironic, huh? Sweeny, the master of the phone, would not return any of our phone calls. He had players we wanted. He had a chance to fight his way back into contention, or at least set up something for the next season.
He made no trades. Exerted no interest or effort to make a trade. Or pluck players from the waiver wire. Or activate players from his reserves. In essence, he didn't play the game. He sulked. We tolerated just about any type of behavior in the ADL—drunkenness, stupidity, boorishness, indecision, poverty, bad writing, even Republicanism—but we could not handle someone who didn't play the game. What was the point? You take up a spot, you have to play. Or take a hike. So we called for a winter meeting on Super Bowl Sunday to address the Sweeny Issue. He said he would attend the meeting. He promised to attend. There, we would decide how to handle the matter, and ask Sweeny about his, well, yes, his plan. For the future. And his involvement level. Did he want to play with us or not?
Sweeny never showed. As he had done all season, he rebuked us. Played us for suckers. It was sad. Even knowing the inevitable result of such an act, he never showed or called or expressed any regrets. Obstinate to the end, he put us in a corner and we had to throw him out. So we threw him out. As we had done, over the years, to three other owners, all for the same infraction. Not playing was a capital crime in our game, punishable by banishment or death, whichever was most convenient.
The ghost of Hugh Sweeny haunts the league still. Not a gathering goes by without someone asking when Sweeny will arrive. Not a draft goes down without someone attempting to Sweeney—yes, it's a verb, it's a noun, a curse, a blessing. It is the mother of all strategies. When one goes online, the Sweeney Plan pockmarks the face of fantasy like an enduring cold sore. On certain levels, he never left the league and is forever in the ADL. The league never left him, either.
"Not a single day goes by," says Sweeny now, "that I don't think about the ADL. It was the best league ever, no doubt. I miss it. I wish they had not been such cowards. I fantasize about the owners every day, and I am killing every one them, including you, BB. I shoot each one of you in the head with a single bullet, one owner at a time, so the others can watch. One bullet per owner. No waste. And no jail time either. If I can get a few roto players on the jury, I am guaranteed to walk. They would understand the damage done to me. The sin that was committed. You don't throw out a man who has won the league two out of three years just because you fear him and he lives in Jersey City. I fantasize every day about killing every one of you dogs. It's my own private Sweeney Plan."
* * *
In the end, Hugh Sweeny's claim to fame will be a plan he neither invented nor perfected, a plan that mangles his name, a plan that is the scourge of decent leagues all over the nation, and yet shall endure as long as fans play fantasy.
I called Sweeny the other day to tell him about this article.
"I have a new plan," he said before I could say hello. "Starters who just switched leagues."
"I'm writing a story about you, Sweeny."
"You're gonna bury me, aren't you?"
"Why do you say that?"
"I wish you good health, but I have an idea for your tombstone."
"Jesus. I can't wait to hear this."
"Here Lies Sweeny. This Was Not His Plan."
"You're burying me already. No way, BB. My headstone will read: Here Lies Sweeny. Exactly As He Planned."
And then he hung up the phone. A rotary phone.
Bruce Buschel is a writer of non-fiction and an Off Broadway musical, Eli's Comin'. He blogs for The New York Times about his restaurant in Bridgehampton, Southfork Kitchen. He has also directed and produced a series of jazz films, Live at the Village Vanguard, and Grover Washington in Concert.