With a passion for baseball in his heart, $2.60 in his pocket and "nothing better to do" with his time, Rich Bentel, at 17 years old, began a relationship that now is older than his marriage, older than his career and among the longest-running of its kind in the world.
Now a 47-year-old financial adviser with an office in Lisle and a wife and kids in Aurora, Bentel is the commissioner of the Cub Fan Club League rotisserie baseball organization that he and buddy David Mahlan started in 1984 during their senior year at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
"We were in the same study hall, and I saw him doing something baseball," Bentel says in recalling the day they met freshman year. Both teens played board games that used dice to determine outcomes based on prior statistics of actual Major League Baseball players. Their lives changed when Mahlan heard about a new kind of fantasy league -- one that used current statistics from real big league baseball games.
"We walked into Kroch's and Brentano's bookstore and found this book," Bentel says, holding up a 30-year-old, dog-eared copy of "Rotisserie League Baseball," the bible that emphasized statistics and launched the sports fantasy league craze. The book explained the rules that author Daniel Okrent created for fantasy baseball during lunch with some friends at a now-defunct New York restaurant called La Rotisserie Franšaise.
"It was kind of a perfect storm," Bentel says. "This came out, and then Bill James came in with all his stats, and then all the geeks just took off with it."
According to the book's rules, rotisserie owners were to spend $260 buying players for their fantasy teams.
"We were in high school. We didn't have 260 bucks, so we moved the decimal," Bentel says, remembering how he spent 44 cents of his $2.60 budget on standout catcher Gary Carter and finished last in the six-team league. While Bentel's Dem Rebs have won two championships in 30 years, Mahlan's David Copperfields won 11 in 27 years before he left the league.
"He's the Yankees," Bentel says of Mahlan.
Bentel still has the yellowed sheets with draft prices and statistics from the early years of the league, when they had to compile stats from USA Today and the only way to find out about up-and-coming players was through the annual Bill Mazeroski's Baseball publication.
"Back in 1984, there was no Internet, so we did everything by hand. This is all typewritten because there weren't computers," Bentel says. "We had nothing but time. We sure as hell didn't have girls to distract us."
Mahlan, now a father of three teenagers, remembers compiling the statistics from the newspaper a week after a game, typing up the results, photocopying them and mailing copies to owners who would see the stats two weeks after a game.
"These days your player gets a single and you see that recorded in the standings," says Mahlan, who admits that instant access to all sorts of baseball information takes away the advantage he once had. "I was always just a little ahead of the curve. I was into stats and sabermetrics before everybody got into that."
The Cub Fan Club League has added and lost teams and boasted 44 owners during its history, but it has lasted eight times longer than most jobs and is twice as old as the Chicago-based Fantasy Sports Trade Association, which serves the more than 35 million Americans who play fantasy sports.
This year, the CFCL's 10 owners, including those who are coming in from California and North Carolina, will convene March 29 in the conference room of Bentel's office in Lisle for the annual draft of new players.
"In our world, Christmas comes on draft day in March and on Dec. 25," Bentel says. "And if you don't have kids, the first Christmas is better."
Having played in a fantasy baseball league during college, Chicago firefighter Matt Grage, 55, is in his 15th year with the CFCL.
"When I first started in the league, I'd go to spring training and scout," Grage says.
Now doing most of his scouting online, Grage and his Graging Bulls won the championship for the first time last season. He also had a championship season in one of the fantasy football leagues he plays.
The CFCL's lengthy constitution has been modified during the years, and most disagreements are handled peacefully. "This is, first and foremost, a gentlemen's league," Bentel says.
In his 21st year as an owner, Naperville's Matt Bentel (the co-founder's cousin) says he has more time for the league now that his daughter and twin sons have graduated from college.
"I love baseball, and being a Cubs fan, there isn't much to cheer about some years," says the 55-year-old elevator-installer. "So I can cheer for my own team."
Even if the results are the same.
"I've never won," he says. "I'm the Cubs of this league."
His son, Mike, 24, is working on his doctoral degree in chemical engineering but will fly in from California for the draft, which is such a fun time that the group records it and posts videos on its website so members can relive highlights from past years.
"You want to talk about paint drying," Rich Bentel says. "But for us, it is hilarious."
Keeping the league going as everyone evolves through college, jobs, marriage and parenthood hasn't been easy. The group now farms out the statistic-keeping to a service.
"We do have jobs and families," Rich Bentel says. "Our wives may not understand, but they tolerate what we do."
Rich Bentel's wife of 21 years, Kim, was a Mets fan when they met. He knew he would propose to her (in a small plane flying over Wrigley Field on game day) after she gave him a card reading, "My love for you is deeper than the Mets' starting rotation."
Daughters Katelyn, 16, Ally, 14, and Kristi, 12, and son Cooper, 6, all tolerate their father's obsession. Kristi (pronounced the same as baseball great Christy Mathewson) got her middle name (Grace) from former Cubs first-baseman Mark Grace. Cooper's first name is a tribute to Cooperstown, home of the baseball Hall of Fame, and his middle name is Wrigley.
Everybody pays a $100 fee to play and the winner takes home $500, the runner-up pockets $300 and the third-place finisher gets $200.
"You can keep the money," says Rich Bentel, clutching the trophy he hasn't won since 1996. "This is the thing I want because it's so darn cool."
The league is one of maybe a handful nationwide that has hosted a season continuously since 1984. Having fun with the 30 years of standings, memories and friendships, Rich Bentel doesn't even ponder retirement.
"The league's unofficial motto is 'We're Not Even Halfway There,'" he says. "I envision us at 75 or 80, playing with the new generation."