Sports

MLB’s Deliciously Petty Fantasy Football Drama Should Not Be This Captivating

No one ever cares about someone else’s league, but in this case, we need to know everything.

Left: Cincinnati Reds player Tommy pham in a batting helmet looking down into the middle distance and frowning slightly open-mouthed. Right: San Francisco Giants player Joc Pederson in a batting helmet looking right at the camera and smiling slightly
Two fantasy football team managers. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Adam Hagy / Stringer/Getty Images and Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.

The first rule of your fantasy football league is that nobody who isn’t in it cares about what you’re doing. Historically, this has been a policy with limited exceptions, no matter how tempting a given plot point in one’s league might look. Millions of people enjoy watching others play video games and simulation games, but almost nobody cares to learn about the happenings in your fantasy league. (They may want your advice, but that is much different than a recap.)

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I’ve won fantasy games by a quarter-point. I’ve lost them by a quarter-point. I’ve been a bottom-feeder, and I’ve won my league. In fact, I won it just this past ye—wait, you do not care, because you live in a world inundated by the fantasy football industrial complex. You have maybe even considered quitting your own league, and you have stayed the course because it provides a link to friends you don’t see as much as you wish. You are flatly tired of all of this, even if you found enjoyment in the wonderful FX sitcom The League, which parodied-but-not-really’d a hypercompetitive fantasy league among friends from 2009 to 2015.

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That backdrop is what makes the last week’s events between a couple of Major League Baseball players so compelling. During batting practice before the Cincinnati Reds hosted the San Francisco Giants on Friday, Reds outfielder Tommy Pham approached the Giants’ Joc Pederson and slapped him in the face. As both would later explain, the slap stemmed from a beef over their fantasy league.

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The Giants held Pham out of the game at the Reds’ request, and then MLB suspended him for three more. In the annals of memorable slaps to the face, this one is unlikely to sniff the top 10. The setting of “batting practice before a May game between the Giants and the worst team in baseball” will limit its long-term status in the pantheon of notable smacks. But in the history of fantasy football disputes, the Pham-Pederson affair is an all-timer for one simple reason: It shatters the glass ceiling that always sits above a fantasy football league. For the first time in recorded history, a large swath of society, present company included, is not only eager to learn more about some dudes’ fantasy league, but is voracious in its desire to find out more about the league that led one MLB player to slap another on the field. And thankfully for the rest of us, the players involved have not hesitated to fill in the details.

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Here is what we know: Some time more than a year ago, according to Pederson on Friday night, Pham accused Pederson of unfairly using the league’s injured-reserve rules to stash a player on his roster. Pederson looked up the league’s rules, which said that if a player was out with an injury, he could be placed on the IR. Pederson sent a screenshot of the rules to the league’s group text. Maybe Pham was being hypocritical: Pederson noted that Pham had a player on his roster (San Francisco 49ers running back Jeff Wilson Jr.) whom Pham had placed on the IR due to their ESPN league classifying Wilson as “out.” (Pederson speculated that Wilson’s listed status might have been different in another of Pham’s leagues. “Maybe that was a confusion.”) Pham said there had been “a lot of money involved” in the league. Pederson also at one point made fun of the San Diego Padres, the team Pham played for in 2021, which bothered Pham. Pederson said that was “basically all of it” and that the two had no further contact outside of their fantasy group chat, until Pham approached him at batting practice, asked if he remembered the drama, and slapped him across the left cheek.

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How do we have such specific detail? Pham was open from the start about the fantasy football–induced reasoning for the slap. On Saturday, the day after the slap, he told a whole crowd of reporters about Pederson’s text, the disrespect of the Padres, and the financial implications: He made no effort to conceal the issue. “I slapped Joc. He said some shit I don’t condone,” Pham said. “I had to address it.”

Reporters asked Pederson about all of it, and the Giant was even more forthright. During a second media session of his own, he elaborated on the situation as if he’d just been subpoenaed and was suddenly under oath to answer every question in maximal detail with complete seriousness. Pederson confirmed that he had made fun of the Padres and that Pham had not liked it. “Joc, I don’t know you well enough to make any jokes like this,” Pham texted to the group chat, according to Pederson’s word-for-word recitation in front of reporters. Pederson told him, “No hard feelings. Sorry if you took it that way.” (It is not clear how any of these texts were punctuated.) Pham left the league a few weeks later.

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“It is true, Pederson said. “I did send a GIF making fun of the Padres. And if I hurt anyone’s feelings, I apologize for that.” A reporter asked Pederson what the GIF was, and he showed the media his phone to reveal a GIF of a weightlifter with a Padres logo above him struggling to catch a heavy ball that he’d tossed in the air, while lifters with Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers logos had much more success, mirroring the results in the 2021 National League West standings:

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There have been witnesses in criminal prosecutions who have taken their testimony less seriously than Pederson took the opportunity to describe this situation. He spoke like exactly what he was: a man who had a principled belief that he’d been in the right in some argument about fantasy football, and who knew that he had the rarest of opportunities to explain his point of view to a captive audience. If this was all a big joke to Pederson, he did not break kayfabe at any point in his explanation of the league’s history.

Some questions remain unanswered. We know Pham had Wilson on the IR, but which player on Pederson’s injured reserve led to the initial conflict? Exactly how much money was involved? Did Pham forfeit his entry fee when he left the league? Did he go because of the Pederson issue or something else? Who were the other players in the league? Who won? It would at least mildly improve my week to learn all of these answers, and I can’t say the same for any other fantasy league that has ever existed.

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Maybe that cuts to the core of why this story has had legs for the better part of a week. Pham and Pederson are relatable, because everyone who has played fantasy football for any period of time has seen one league member get enormously hot and bothered about league protocols while others ask some version of “you mad, bro?” And yet the ballplayers are not relatable, because the issues between them have somehow managed to be of interest to a crowd of more than 10 other people.

The ordeal teaches us two lessons. The first is that the way to make outsiders care about your fantasy league is to have multiple famous athletes in the league and for their disagreement to cross the rubicon between group chat hostilities and physical confrontation. The second is that, in order to keep tempers cool, it is probably best if your fantasy league has at most a $100 buy-in and the only other stakes are that the last-place finisher has to roll around town with a “student driver” sticker on their bumper.

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