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Inside Oscar Gamble’s Afro

How a fantasy baseball league of pioneering indie rock heroes is just like yours.

Oscar Gamble’s Afro, perhaps indie rock’s most venerable fantasy baseball league, was born in 2008. It almost never existed.

Mike Mills, bassist of celebrated rock group R.E.M., had tried and failed for years to coax members like The Minus 5 and former touring R.E.M. guitarist Scott McCaughey into a league. McCaughey remembers being cajoled when the two were on the road together in 2003.

“I had always avoided joining fantasy leagues because I knew I’d devote way too much time to it,” McCaughey says. “When we were on tour with R.E.M., he was always doing his fantasy sports thing and he was going, ‘Yeah, you should get in a baseball league with me! It doesn’t take that much time!’ I’m like, ‘I see you backstage three hours a day on your fucking computer.’”

In 2007, the two joined with Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate), and Linda Pitmon (Filthy Friends, The Minus 5) to form The Baseball Project, an indie rock supergroup that writes songs about the most interesting characters of America’s pastime. Steve Gardner, formerly the director of promotion and publicity for their label, Yep Roc Records, came up with the idea to start a fantasy baseball league to promote their 2008 debut, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails.

The resulting league, called Oscar Gamble’s Afro — or The OGA as its members commonly refer to it — is still thriving today, with legendary musicians and friends of The Baseball Project’s members like Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), and Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) filling out its 12-team setup.

“‘It’d be kind of fun if we put together a league of musicians and people in the music business,’” perennial league winner McCaughey says, recalling the conversations that birthed The OGA. The league also includes former Wilco manager Tony Margherita, M. Ward and The Decemberists’ producer Adam Selzer, and current and former employees of Yep Roc and Redeye Worldwide. “When they came up with this idea, I was like, ‘I kind of have to do it now because it’s for the record, for the band or whatever.’ I went into it and it’s been exactly what I thought it would be: it’s a huge time waster and it’s super, super fun.”

A mutual infatuation with fantasy baseball gives these regularly touring artists respite from reality — a counter to the boredom of endless driving, soundchecks, and fast foodand an easy way to follow a sport they love. When members of The OGA are on the road together, they become especially competitive.

“You’ve got all of us there together in the same van competing against each other and it gets pretty intense,” Wynn says. He runs team Reggie Jackson Heights, a play on his Queens neighborhood. “It gets nasty! Here’s why Scott’s the champion: we’ll have long nights and I’ll wake up the next day and see that Scott was making moves until five-in-the-morning. Man, he’s committed.”

“You might see somebody in the backseat — you see on your computer someone just get drafted or get snagged up as a free agent and you go, ‘Oh you fucker, McCaughey! I was just going to pick him up!’” McCaughey says. “Sometimes it is a problem when someone has to drive, but luckily, often we have a tour manager who can do it.”

Stephen Malkmus, the former lead singer of ‘90s indie heroes Pavement (he is also in an ESPN league with David Chang of Momofuku fame and various Rotoworld writers), won the league in his first year in 2010, thanks in no small part to Ubaldo Jiminez’s breakout 19-8 season in Colorado. His fortunes since have gone in a downward spiral that led to a bottoming out in 2018, due to Willson Contreras’ woeful season and injuries to Kris Bryant. He’s been burned by Giancarlo Stanton several times — “He’s like a fucking pain in the ass every year and then he goes off!” Malkmus says. “Fucking pisses you off!”

Unsurprisingly, to those who know his legendarily sarcastic lyrics, Malkmus has the most purposefully-cringeworthy team name in the league. “Mine is called The Axe Body Sprays,” he says. “I try to make a name that repulses you and makes you disgusted by my team in a certain way. I want that teen pheromone disco vibe all over you when my team beats you — ‘Ugh, Axe Body Sprays are winning!’”

As with many fantasy leagues, the draft is the most fun part of the OGA season. The league is a Yahoo 5x5 points league that includes categories for OBP instead of batting average, quality starts rather than wins, and incorporates holds into the saves column. Most participants hold off on drafting pitchers early. Each player has their personal targets.

“I want Mookie Betts on every team, but who doesn’t?” says Mills, a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer whose team name is Ruthian Blast. “I do like FIP for pitchers; I think that’s a really revealing stat. The BABIP is a great stat, but it changes so much year to year that it’s hard to [rely on]. Just because a guy had a really lousy one last year, you’d expect a little regression to the mean the next year, but there’s no guarantee of that.”

Like everyone, rock stars struggle to schedule a time when everyone can be present for the draft. In The OGA, each member could be anywhere in the world at any given time, possibly drafting from the green room backstage before or after a show. Many of the league’s members are gearing up to release new albums this year — Malkmus’ new solo album, Groove Denied, came out on March 15, and The Dream Syndidate will release These Times on May 3, the same day McCaughey and Pitmon’s Filthy Friends also drop Emerald Valley. Yo La Tengo is still playing shows in support of last year’s critically acclaimed There’s a Riot Going On.

Scott McCaughey is a founding member of The Baseball Project and Oscar Gamble’s Afro. “We all are literally sitting in the van online snagging players,” McCaughey says. “You see on your computer someone just get drafted or get snagged up as a free agent and you go, ‘Oh you fucker McCaughey! I was just going to pick him up!’”
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“I’ll be playing London the next day after our draft,” Wynn says ahead of the OGA’s fantasy draft, which took place on March 24. “It’s going to be one in the morning, I might have had a few beers, but now I won’t have too many because I don’t want to make any dumb moves. I’m definitely not going to go out that night. I’m going to sit in my hotel room and bone up for the draft. London, Schmondon.”

Setting a lineup and checking the waiver wire on a daily basis is daunting while on the road. For Kaplan, who doesn’t own a smartphone, it’s next to impossible. He had been getting some assistance last season, his first in The OGA, but he won’t have any this year.

“I tried to do it every day, but there would be days I would forget,” Kaplan, a devoted Mets fan, says, reminiscing on his second-to-last place finish. “Our tour manager in Yo La Tengo belongs not to this league but two other leagues, so I was getting a lot of help from him. Not coincidentally, early in the season when we were touring a lot, he was helping me a lot and I was doing much better. When we went off the road briefly, my fortunes nose-dived.”

Wynn learned a lesson about making trades on the road in 2015 when he traded away Bryce Harper early in his NL MVP campaign for closer Jeurys Familia. “That was the worst moment of my life,” Wynn remembers. “The Baseball Project was playing at Rough Trade [in New York City] and we were backstage about to go on. I was riding high in first place and the one thing I was missing was a closer. That was the year [Harper] had his incredible year but he had a slow start. I just figured, ‘I don’t need Bryce Harper, I have so many good outfielders. I’ll trade him away.’ Man, did I get dogged for that.”

Yet as tough as maintaining a fantasy baseball team over the course of a six-month season can be — especially when at work on a new record — The OGA has persisted for much longer than anyone in the league expected, owing in large part to the musicians’ love for the sport itself. If anything, fantasy baseball has heightened their obsession with baseball, especially when touring with The Baseball Project, which catches games between soundcheck and their gigs.

Occasionally they get asked to sing the national anthem or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at minor and Major League games. Once, they played at the AAA All-Star Game, which doubled as a scouting trip for Wynn’s team.

Kyle Hendricks came in to pitch — I had never heard of him before as he’d been in the minors — he was lights out,” Wynn says. “I said, ‘I’ve got my eye on this guy.’ I was waiting for him. I grabbed him like a week later when he came to the Cubs and he had a great finish to the season.”

Also like a lot of fantasy leagues, one of the most important functions of The OGA is keeping longtime friends in touch, especially when they’re busy with their careers. Even when not playing shows, the league’s participants live all over the United States, from Portland to Atlanta, New York to Los Angeles.

“One of my oldest leagues is a bunch of friends from Georgia who all used to live in either Athens or Atlanta and then sort of dispersed around the Southeast,” says Mills, who lucked out last year with JD Martinez in the second round, but not with Cody Bellinger in the third. “Guys don’t usually pick up the phone and call each other. Sometimes we do, but this is an easy way to stay in contact and that’s very much the case with The OGA.”

True to form, Malkmus has a more sardonic take on the league’s bonding component.

“That’s what you tell your wife I guess,” Malkmus says. “I used to be really into fantasy football in the early 2000s when I first discovered it. I’d spend a lot of time on a Sunday looking at my phone and shit like that. That’d be my excuse — ‘These are my friends! This is how men keep in touch in this modern day and age! We don’t like to get too personal and we find this objective thing that’s in between us — sports — and then talk about it!’”

The love of baseball, particularly fantasy baseball, is more widespread in the music community than one might think. Many of The OGA’s participants are in leagues with other influential artists. Wynn is in a big group chat centered on baseball with Jason Isbell, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, and Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s (alongside Rangers broadcaster Eric Nadel and other “baseball people”). McCaughey was in a short-lived ESPN head-to-head league a few years back run by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard.

“It was a little bit of a stigma being a sports fan because so many jocks were the assholes you hated in high school,” Mills says. “They were the ones who looked down on the weirdos because they were the super popular jocks. And of course, they’re now selling insurance somewhere and we’re having fun playing music — not that there’s anything wrong about selling insurance. But now, things have loosened up and we’re all out of the closet, as you were.”

The OGA illustrates how fantasy baseball and indie rock are perhaps a natural pairing. Both are terribly inscrutable at times, although baseball’s array of statistics make, perhaps, slightly more sense than Malkmus’ cryptic lyrics. And the process of discovering overlooked players on the waiver wire speaks to artists who often have spent their careers grinding to make a living out of something they love.

“I think baseball is the kind of sport where you can be a sensitive songwriting counterculture misfit hipster — whatever you want to be — and still like it,” Wynn says. “We could write about stats and box scores too, but we write about when somebody was a flash in a pan and their life didn’t work out the way they thought it would, or somebody who surprises all of the naysayers and succeeds.

”All of the things that motivate good songs.”

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