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How Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi built a dynasty — in fantasy football

One day last December, Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi composed a text message to a select number of his players. The 16th week of the NFL season had come to a close, and Zaidi intended to gloat. Only kings understand each other, so Zaidi sent the group the iconic image of Michael Jordan holding three fingers aloft, a fitting symbol for a different sort of three-peat.

"The telling of the story of this dynasty," Zaidi said recently, as he reclined in the desk chair of his office overlooking Camelback Ranch, "is long overdue."

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For three consecutive seasons, the Dodgers have permitted Zaidi to enter their fantasy football league. He has captured the title each year. His performance invites shaking heads, grumbling praise and begrudging respect. He frustrates some. He awes others. "The Bill Belichick of fantasy football," outfielder Joc Pederson called him.

The players appear unsure how to unseat Zaidi. They have changed the draft rules to thwart his tactics. They have accused him of partnering with his similarly gifted brother. Pederson has begged him to retire.

His boss, Andrew Friedman, suggested Zaidi should spend more time on his actual profession. His ace, Clayton Kershaw, insisted they cannot boot Zaidi from the league until he had been dethroned. Another offered a more proactive solution.

"I'm not trying to kick him out," third baseman Justin Turner said. "I'm trying to figure out a way to steal his laptop, so I can have his program."

The proliferation of fantasy sports extended into baseball clubhouses long ago. The intra-team leagues are ubiquitous, with players vying for cash and clout, and the participants can be as intense as the average consumer. Some sneak out of the dugout on Sundays to check their phones for updates. One Dodger negotiated a trade during batting practice before Game 5 of the National League Division Series.

Zaidi rules his organization's league like the henhouse fox. He laughed off the gripes of his foes. He denied the allegations of collusion or reliance on artificial intelligence. He characterized any exploitation as a continuation of the philosophy he applies to the Dodgers: "optimize within the confines of the rules." And he rejected the suggestion that his academic background — a degree from MIT and a doctorate from UC Berkeley — provides an unfair advantage.

"Look, you don't need a doctorate to pick up Alvin Kamara off waivers," Zaidi said. "I think all of that stuff is totally moot. I'm just a good talent evaluator."

He is also a polymath with a background unlike that of any other general manager in baseball. He grew up in the Philippines and fell in love with the sport on trips to visit relatives in Canada. He did not play beyond high school. His former boss, Oakland vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane, thought he was more likely to lose Zaidi to Apple or Google than another baseball team.

Zaidi studied economics as an undergraduate and in his PhD program. After graduating from MIT, he worked for a fantasy sports outfit in New York. As an executive with Oakland, he founded a league for the organization's front office where "he was the commissioner and the defending champion more often than not," Oakland general manager David Forst said. Zaidi worried about the ethical complications of competing against his own players — although that did not stop him from once blitzing a collection of A's in a poker tournament.

His dynasty in Los Angeles formed by coincidence. As the NFL season approached in 2015, video coordinator John Pratt told Zaidi that Friedman was joining the players' league. Pratt invited Zaidi to come aboard because they needed another entrant. Zaidi was skeptical about the conflicts of interest. "Three years later," Zaidi said, "I assume our players wished I had acted more professionally."

When Zaidi learned the league's buy-in, "I almost had a heart attack," he said. Zaidi would not reveal how much it costs to enter the league, but did say he was scared to tell his wife.

"He was the one complaining about the entry fee," Kershaw said. "He didn't want to pay. And then he wins three years in a row."

After capturing the title in his debut season, Zaidi sparked controversy the next year. He located an inefficiency in the scoring system. As the group gathered for the draft, Zaidi refused to select a kicker or a defense "as any self-respecting fantasy football owner would do, until rules dictate otherwise," he said.

The strategy offended his competitors. Turner, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and a few others formed a rogue, secondary league in protest. A year later, after Zaidi repeated as champion, the players rewrote their charter to foil him. They made it mandatory to draft a kicker and a defense.

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Then the group re-discovered why Kershaw refers to Zaidi as a "big loophole guy."

"As soon as the draft was done, he dropped his defense and his kicker, and picked up position players," pitcher Alex Wood said.

Zaidi breezed to a third title. Wood described this group as "the best he's ever had." Zaidi selected Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell with his first choice. He rode Rams quarterback Jared Goff. He benefited from a breakout by Chiefs wideout Tyreek Hill. Late in the draft, he unearthed a gem in Eagles tight end Zach Ertz.

Zaidi never stops tweaking his roster. He burns through his waiver-wire funds early in the season, panning for gold, then churns through the margins throughout the season. A year after nabbing wide receiver Terrelle Prior on waivers, Zaidi pounced early on Alvin Kamara, a dynamic rookie for New Orleans.

"He just always finds that guy," Turner said. Standing by his locker, he caught the eye of clubhouse manager Alex Torres. "Farhan. Fantasy."

"He knows what he's doing," Torres confirmed.

"My whole team was stacked," catcher Austin Barnes said. "And Farhan is over there, mixing and matching, and destroying everybody. It was frustrating."

Success breeds jealousy. A dynasty breeds conspiracy theories. The players have pondered plenty. "It might be his brother who might be the silent partner who is running the operation," said one Dodger, a ginger-haired third baseman who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about his boss.

Zaidi is one of four children. His older brother Zeeshan graduated from Harvard Business School and his sister Noor earned a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. But the players have identified Jaffer, the youngest boy in the family and a business development executive at Google, as a possible source of fantasy football knowledge.

The evidence pointing toward Jaffer's involvement is circumstantial. Pederson once overheard the Zaidi brothers discussing strategy on the team bus. Zaidi admitted he sometimes asks Jaffer for advice. A more damning clue arises from the user listed as the owner of the team on the ESPN Fantasy Football platform: "Jaffer Zaidi." Farhan Zaidi countered this was only because he uses his younger brother's Insider account.

Zaidi insisted Jaffer has no financial stake in the team. The allegations offended him.

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"That is an outrageous claim," Zaidi said. "It's sad to hear this from the competition."

Not every member of the league will admit to envy. Friedman maintained he felt no embarrassment about losing to his chief deputy. "Whatever he is channeling into football, I'd like him to use that bandwidth on baseball, and help the Dodgers," Friedman cracked.

Zaidi cackled when informed of these comments. He swiveled his desktop to show the standings as a retort: Friedman finished in last place.

Forst suggested the Dodgers find a way for Zaidi to take pity on them. Zaidi plays in an NBA fantasy league with Forst's son as "The LaFar Ball-Erz" and was currently "getting his ass handed to him," Forst said. "Maybe when he comes to playing against 7-year-olds, he shows a little mercy."

Michael Jordan retired after both of his three-peats. Zaidi harbors no interest in ceding the stage. He delights in trouncing the competition and tweaking them afterward. He sported a Rams cap at Camelback Ranch to commemorate Goff's performance. "It gives me great pleasure to know our players are irritated as hell," he said.

Zaidi applies the same strategies to the Dodgers that he does to fantasy football: He searches for minimal advantages that can pay maximal results. He never feels content with the composition of his roster, and believes in the necessity of flexibility. His philosophy played a crucial role in the organization's 104-win campaign in 2017.

For the players, the bitterness of defeat obscures any silver lining.

"The fact that he's won it three years in a row, it gives him a little credibility for the whole 'numbers' thing," Kershaw said. "For me, anyway, I guess there's some truth to this sabermetric stuff they're talking about."

Zaidi may be his ally in baseball. That provides only so much comfort.

"I find little solace," Kershaw said, "in any of this."

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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