With Opening Day to the 2023 Major League Baseball season upon us, it’s time to blend a little baseball with fantasy football. Yes, the two mix together very well. Sometimes, hilariously well.
Longtime MLB pitcher and current Arizona Diamondbacks radio announcer Tom Candiotti — The Candi Man, as he was known in his playing days, mostly with the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers — is an avid fantasy football player to this day (as are many pro baseball players). And he has some stories to share.
Starting pitchers in Major League Baseball would appear to have a lot of time on their hands. Yes, on their start day, it’s all laser focus and complete attention directed at the lineup of hitters they’ll be facing. That starts from the time they wake up through when they hit the postgame shower. The other four or five days, there are bullpen sessions, plenty of running, and weight work to be done, plus studying hitters for the next start. But let’s just say that they have a little more time to “relax” than their teammates who are everyday players.
Candiotti — the knuckleballer who pitched in the Major Leagues for 16 years, won 10-plus games eight times and on nine occasions surpassed 200 innings pitched — became a master of finding different ways to pass the time between starts throwing his famed tumbler. One of his favorite pastimes was and remains fantasy football.
Nearly 30 years ago, when playing for the Dodgers, Candiotti was approached with the idea of starting a fantasy football league by teammate Chris Gwynn — younger brother of Tony Gwynn, the eight-time batting champion and eventual Hall of Famer. The Candi Man was happy to join.
He was a 49ers fan, and grew up loving the NFL. He even got to hang out with Joe Montana after one of the 49ers’ Super Bowl victories. Back to his start in fantasy football, little did Candiotti know what was beginning.
“We did a draft, it was a blast. I had so much fun,” Candiotti recalled. “It was in the locker room at Dodger Stadium. We had no idea, we’re a bunch of baseball players thinking we knew football at that time. No one’s doing your homework for you. You couldn’t get information. You didn’t even have computers really then, and all the scoring was done off the USA Today. Whatever the stats showed, we did it by hand.”
Those prehistoric days for the fantasy football that we know today would bring on an obsession for Candiotti and teammates to keep them connected long after their seasons completed in October. The competitive drive for hyper-competitive people was pushed to the limits. Also, the camaraderie built through playing this fake game only solidified the bonds that are built among teammates who go to spring training right after Valentine’s Day and are together until almost Halloween.
And that competitive drive came through all the time. Even resulting in rookie “hazing.” Candiotti talked about a time when a rookie, Ben Grieve with the Oakland A’s, was complaining about his fantasy team. It seems that Grieve, who was named AL Rookie of the Year in 1998, was frustrated with the production of a certain future Hall of Fame running back.
“Ben Grieve is a very, very competitive guy,” Candiotti said. “One of the top guys on his team was Jerome Bettis, and he’s with the Steelers. [Grieve] is just complaining about it because there was probably a couple weeks’ stretch where Jerome just wasn’t maybe getting the numbers that Ben wanted, and so he was underperforming in his eyes. He was just bashing him. I’m going, ‘This guy’s really good, man, give him a break.’ He goes, ‘I’m dropping this guy, he’s so bad.’”
Candiotti said, on a whim, he then called the Pittsburgh Steelers and got in touch with a PR man… who relayed the story to Bettis. Candiotti asked The Bus if he’d want to get in touch with Grieve.
“Sure enough, the clubhouse manager gets the call, and he calls Ben. ‘Hey Ben, you got a phone call.’ He’s just on the phone and we’re all watching him and his eyes are like, he can’t even say a word,” Candiotti said. “He goes, ‘Jerome Bettis, he was yelling at me: Hold on to me. I’m gonna be better. How did he know I have him?’ Well, of course we’re all just dying. Just a rookie that just had no idea. Oh my God, it was a little dirty … probably more on the mean side by me doing that to a young kid. But hey, rookie, you know, that’s what happens.”
Hall of Famers weren’t only calling into the clubhouse for pranks. They were also very much participating in the fantasy fun. Candiotti recounted a particular September game when Eddie Murray — he of 3255 hits, 504 home runs and 2003 induction into Cooperstown — was engaged in a lively discussion with a young player on the bench. And it wasn’t about baseball.
“With the Dodgers, when you’re not pitching you get to go in the day before you pitch and you sit in the video room, and there you can watch the different camera angles. You get a better view instead of sitting in the dugout,” Candiotti said. “You get a better feel of the game and who you’re going to pitch against the next day, what they’re looking at, all their tendencies and stuff.”
“So I’m in there and I’m listening to Vin Scully, who’s doing the game on TV. Eddie Murray is there along with Wayne Kirby and they’re talking back and forth,” Candiotti said. “I know they’re making a trade. One of them’s trying to get Marshall Faulk, and so I know they’re trying to swing a trade right there on the bench… They’re talking like crazy, like back and forth.
“And I hear Vin Scully, he’s going, ‘Now this is the perfect example of a veteran player with all these statistics and all this [experience] trying to teach a young kid, Wayne Kirby, the finer points of baseball.’ And I just lost it. I’m cracking up. I go, ‘Vin, they’re trying to make a fantasy football trade!’”
If possible, Candiotti has become even more passionate about fantasy football since his baseball playing days ended. He was an early subscriber to John Hansen’s Fantasy Guru content, and the two have become friends. Candiotti even visited Hansen and Joe Dolan on an East Coast swing with the Diamondbacks — the knuckleballer has been calling DBacks games since 2006. He has continued as a Fantasy Points subscriber to this day.
Candiotti is a renowned trader in his leagues, and prides himself on being forward-thinking in how he throws out trade offers to his leaguemates – including Jason Kidd, Hall of Fame bowler Chris Barnes, and President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Josh Rawitch.
He remembers all the deals he’s made, too.
One of the Candi Man’s more shrewd moves was offering Jonathan Taylor for Christian McCaffrey in Week 2 of this past season. JT and CMC were the 1.01 and 1.02, respectively, in their league, like in so many others. Only Candiotti saw that Taylor’s bye was during Week 14, the first week of their league’s playoffs. So he made the deal, which eventually made the Candi Man’s 49ers fandom very happy. It turned out to be prescient because of the polar-opposite seasons that the two running backs would have.
But they can’t all be winners. Candiotti turned A.J. Brown and Curtis Samuel into Cooper Kupp … which looked like a landslide victory until Kupp was lost for the season after Week 10. But CMC carried Candiotti’s team to the finals, where he delivered 153 total yards and a pair of TDs. It wasn’t enough, though, going against a team that had Mike Evans in that monster Week 17 game with 10/207/3.
Candiotti weighed in on an interesting comp that some fantasy analysts, including Fantasy Points’ own Graham Barfield and FantasyPros’ Pat Fitzmaurice, have made in recent years — bellcow running backs to workhorse starting pitchers. Having been a pitcher who was the picture of durability and made 30+ starts 10 times in his career, Candiotti would know.
“You can’t win without them,” Candiotti said. “Not that they’re gonna hit every week at all and just like a starting pitcher, they’re not going to be dominant every single week. I think even [Clayton] Kershaw is going to get hit. But for the most part he’s going to go out there and he’s going to give you tremendous stats every time he takes the mound. Whereas a running back [in fantasy], you know he’s going to get somewhere around 125 combined yards, at least. You can throw a touchdown in there. He’s going to get you, like in our scoring, somewhere between 20 and 25 points. That’s a big start.”
Candiotti recalled the 2016 season, when he had David Johnson (RB1) and Le’Veon Bell (RB4) on the same team as he steamrolled opponents weekly. “I had those two guys and so you know once the games started on Sunday, I just looked at the computer: click, click, click, click. Points are just rolling like a Rolodex.”
That said, Candiotti’s drafting philosophy has changed with the times.
“I used to be like running back-heavy like all the time, first three picks: boom, boom, boom, I’m having running backs,” he said. “But right now it seems to me like receivers score more than running backs.”
He also learned an important rule for trading from the Fantasy Guru that he adheres to readily: “I keep trying to acquire the better player all the time, and John taught me that a long time ago.”
It’s a long time – three decades – since those USA Today days, drafting players in the Dodger clubhouse and pranking rookies in Oakland. Fantasy football has mushroomed, and so have the number of big leaguers who are avid players.
The next time you see two baseball players chatting in the dugout during a broadcast, don’t assume they’re discussing hitting philosophies — imagine the dynasty trades that are taking place. Candiotti’s seen it first hand.
“There’s so much down time during a baseball game that, you know, it keeps things kind of lively,” Candiotti smiled.