It’s that time of year, when executives are checking the waiver wires and looking to make moves to improve their teams. But in this case, the front-office gurus in question are baseball players themselves and their teams consist of football players.
For many baseball players, fantasy football is their offseason vice — that and a round of golf. In both cases, the players come for the trash talk and stay for the competition.
“We’re so competitive by nature,” free-agent pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “We’ll compete on who can eat their cereal the fastest. Fantasy football has provided baseball players with a fun outlet. It brings clubhouses together. Trades, trash talking, checking scores — and it keeps players close in the offseason.”
Through his charitable foundation Big League Impact, Wainwright took things to another level this fall. He commissioned a “Players Only League” that benefits not only his own foundation but 31 other charities. Each participant, 32 MLB players in all, played for the charity of his choice. The league, which conducted drafts every week with teams having $50,000 to spend on players, had two-week running matchups and is down to the final four: Wainwright is taking on Cincinnati Reds pitcher Sonny Gray in one semifinal, while former big leaguer Matt Holliday faces off against Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed in the other.
And while the competition has been fierce, the passion comes in earning money for charitable causes. Each round resulted in more money for the winning players’ charity of choice. High point totals and a “second chance” bracket provided extra ways to earn.
“That’s one of the coolest parts about it,” Gray said. “And if you’re out early, there are still ways to make money for your charity.”
Gray has raised about $15,000 so far for Project One Four, a charity created by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price to help youth organizations. Golf tournaments, celebrity cook-offs, black-tie affairs and many other fundraisers have been canceled by the pandemic, so creativity has been needed to raise money for worthy causes. Enter Wainwright and Big League Impact, which matched each player’s $5,000 entry fee in contributing to the pool for the charities.
“We’re starting to catch some notoriety among the players,” Wainwright said. “They know we’re going to have fun and do some cool things to help out their charities. That’s my goal. To empower players around the league, who have huge platforms but don’t know how to use those platforms just yet.”
It’s the perfect mix of passions for Wainwright, who might have a fantasy football “addiction,” according to those who know him. They were only half-kidding, as Wainwright is in five leagues this year.
“Let’s see, there’s my Triple-A team from 2005,” he said. “My home league with my best friends. The clubhouse league with the Cardinals. That’s A-1 priority because you’re looking at those guys in the face every day.”
“He’s always been more concerned with his fantasy football teams than just about anything else,” Holliday, a former teammate, said of Wainwright. “He’s Mr. Tough Guy on game days [when he’s pitching], not talking to anyone, but if you have a good trade, you can talk to him about fantasy football.”
Holliday is playing for his own foundation, Homers for Health, which has raised nearly $3 million for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.
You might think Wainwright, as a free agent, would be more concerned with where he’ll play baseball next season after spending the last 15 years with the Cardinals. But a recent 40-minute phone call produced very little baseball talk. His interest, besides fantasy football, is in helping people. After hanging up, he texted back, not about who he’s starting at quarterback this week, but to emphasize the best part of the whole tournament.
“The coolest thing about everything we do is knowing that there are people around the globe who have clean water that didn’t,” Wainwright wrote. “That have a feeding program that were hungry. That have access to doctors and medicine that had no hope of help before. That have a roof over their head for the first time. And that are free from the bondage of trafficking. All because of a bunch of baseball players working together to make a difference.”
That same sentiment was echoed by the other final four participants. The baseball players have a passion for helping, while at the same time enjoying some competition against each other. The combination wasn’t lost on Holliday, a good friend of Wainwright’s, who is hopeful they meet in the final. Holliday also openly wondered how the commissioner of the league made it to the semifinals.
“I question it,” Holliday said with a laugh. “He’s in charge of this deal, but he always finds his way into the finals. If I didn’t know him so well, and his character, I would question some of the shadiness.”
That’s just a taste of the trash talking that goes hand-in-hand with fantasy football. Wainwright beat Washington Nationals star Max Scherzer in the previous round and made sure to let him know about it.
“Max is a great trash talker,” Wainwright said. “No doubt about it. We’ve had battles on the baseball field, pre- and postgame. This was big for me. It’s not as important as baseball, but it’s pretty close as far as bragging rights go.
“He’s really ticked off about it. I won a side bet off of him, too.”
While Wainwright, Gray and Holliday are talking some trash, Ahmed, the fourth semifinalist, wants to be known as the “quiet assassin,” though he did question why he was the 30th seed going into the tournament. Ahmed has raised $12,000 so far for Compassion International, which sponsors children in the world’s poorest countries.
“I have to take that up with Waino,” Ahmed said of being the 30th seed. “What’s that all about?”
The Diamondbacks star might feel like he’s playing with house money after beating Clayton Kershaw in the last round.
“[Kershaw] has beaten me so many times on the field, it’s hard to count them so it feels good to get that little revenge,” Ahmed said. “I didn’t know the format at first. First couple of weeks, I went over budget every time. I had to re-edit and adjust my lineup.”
Texas Rangers pitcher Kyle Gibson was eliminated from the main bracket in Round 1, losing to former teammate Jason Castro. Gibson has continued on in the second-chance bracket as he’s making a difference for his charitable organization, Help One Now, which is building a high school in the Haitian village of Ferrier.
“It’s really cool to see the charities impacted,” Gibson said.
Asked who the best trash talker is, Gibson picked another player eliminated in Round 1.
“Lance Lynn likes to talk,” Gibson said. “When he wins, he definitely lets you hear about it. He’s not doing very well in the Rangers’ league either, so it’ll be a little quieter in the clubhouse.”
So who does he like in to win it all and make $50,000 for his charity? (The charity of the runner-up gets $25,000.)
“[Wainwright] took out Scherzer,” Gibson said. “He was on fire all year. Waino has found his groove. I’ll go with my guy. He set [the league] up and had a big year.”
Several players kidded about the issue of Commissioner Wainwright making it to the semifinals.
“Man, it’s always a little sketchy when the host makes a deep run,” Gray said, enjoying the chance to sting his semifinal opponent. “This is the best thing to be able to trash talk about. Baseball is your career, everyone is doing their own thing and competing. But this is a different level.”
Wainwright had plenty to say on the subject of winning his own tournament, suggesting his dedication to the competition, rather than his being commissioner, has been the key.
“I don’t know how good it looks to win your own event, but I’m going to try to do it,” he said. “I don’t care about the optics because it will help our charities do a lot of great things in this world. … I won our clubhouse league last year and that’s what everyone said. ‘Oh, he sets his own rules. He does whatever he wants to win.'”
Mentioning the Cardinals’ clubhouse league gave Wainwright an opening for a shot across the bow there, too.
“I’m all over [teammate] Tommy Edman right now because he has one good player, Patrick Mahomes,” Wainwright said. “Everyone else is the worst player times eight.”
Wainwright’s secret is simple. He’ll bother you until he gets what he wants.
“I’m relentless on trades,” he explained. “If I want a player and the guy says, ‘No, I’m not trading him,’ by the fourth week in a row of asking, I might wear him down.”
Players find the trash talk comes much easier in fantasy football than in baseball, where livelihoods are at stake. Wainwright said there have been many times when he has faced a hitter on the same Sunday he was playing him in fantasy football, and the fantasy matchup gets much more attention. Gray loves it because nothing is off limits.
“Oh, for sure,” he said. “Everything comes up when you’re running around out there. It’ll be talked about. This is a big matchup.”
It also gives the players a bit of an understanding what baseball fans go through when they play fantasy baseball.
“I don’t take any offense to it,” Gray said. “A lot of times, baseball fantasy owners are very accurate in their statements.”
Trash talking while earning money for charity is about as good as it gets for these players. The back and forth could go on and on, but the semifinals are underway. Two weeks from now, the players-only league will be down to just two.
“This is just a great way to raise awareness and money,” Ahmed said.
And what of that 30th seed?
“It’s giving me a little added motivation to win the whole thing,” he said with a laugh. “We miss that competitive outlet in the offseason, so this is good. I’m enjoying it and want to do it for years to come.”
And that’s Wainwright’s goal as well, to grow the league and earn as much money as possible, not just for his own charity but for many around baseball. If he wins his own tournament, so be it.
“It’s happened a lot over the years,” he said. “I have five leagues I play in.”
And beating Wainwright will make it that much more special for his competitors.
“That’s why you play, to beat the host, right?” Gray said. “He has the home-field advantage. And I already know it’s all over his mind, so that makes it even more fun. I’ll sit back and watch Project One Four fantasy points roll up. He knows he’s going to have to bring it.”