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Dan Druff

How the Colorado Rockies almost cost me over $1,000,000 in the year 2000

Rating: 8 votes, 4.50 average.
The date was July 24, 2000.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were facing the Colorado Rockies, in what seemed to be a routine mid-summer game. However, Gary Sheffield was having a night that was anything but routine. He came to the plate in the 7th inning with a double, triple, and home run -- just a single short of being the first Dodger to hit for the cycle since 1970.

Even more unusual was the night of big Dodgers fan, Todd Witteles. While any Dodgers fan would be excited to see one of their team's players hit for the cycle, especially after a 30-year dry spell, it was especially meaningful to Todd.

If Sheffield singled in this at-bat, Todd Witteles would win $1,000,000 plus a new house from Los Angeles radio station KXTA.

This was no longer a longshot. Sheffield was red-hot, he was playing in hitter-friendly Colorado, and with the Dodgers up 4-0, he would clearly stop at first base to claim the cycle, even if his hit would have otherwise allowed for a double or triple. By Todd's estimation, he had about a 40% chance of claiming that mammoth prize.

Todd was sweating and jittery, likely far more than the man at the plate who needed to do the job. An ordinary software engineer living in an apartment in Redondo Beach, California, Todd was ready for the life-changing money.

"And Gary Sheffield has been hit by the pitch!", blared announcer Ross Porter on the radio. "Unless Sheffield can make it back up to bat one more time, the Colorado Rockies have stolen his opportunity to be the first Dodger to hit for the cycle since Wes Parker did it in 1970."

"This is even more heartbreaking for our contestant, Todd Witteles of Redondo Beach, who has come so close to cashing in for a million dollars and a new house from KB Homes!"

Sheffield did come back up to bat in the 9th, but the Rockies pitched around him, throwing nothing even remotely in the strike zone, and he walked.

Todd turned off the radio, with his head hung low. This seemed like a plot out of a sitcom, where the main character almost wins a huge sum of money, but a weird, last-minute circumstance ruins it, keeping everything at the status quo. Except this wasn't a sitcom story attempting to avoid major plot shifts in the series. This was real life, and Todd realized that the Rockies had just cost him over a million bucks, all due to a poor-sportsmanlike decision to intentionally rob Sheffield the chance of hitting for the cycle.

So did this really happen?

Sort of.

Indeed, Dodgers then-flagship radio station KXTA ran a contest during the 2000 season where one listener each game qualified for the ability to win $1,000,000 and a new (albeit likely cheap) home, if they could correctly predict the Dodgers player to hit for the cycle that day. Given that it hadn't happened for the Dodgers in 30 years, KXTA was likely able to get some reasonably-priced insurance policy on the contest, thus creating a lot of hype and costing themselves little money.

Dating back to the 1970s, I had a fascination with telephones. I wanted to know everything about how they worked, and even joined the 1980s phone/computer hacker culture for some years during my youth. I was also a big fan of the Dodgers, and radio in general.

One area where I had little success, though, was radio contests. I lived in an area that was at a large disadvantage in radio contests due to the setup of the Los Angeles-area telephones switching systems, so I rarely won anything, despite a good deal of trying.

I did read about the exploits of legendary hacker Kevin Poulsen, who manipulated the phone system in the 1980s to win a porsche from KIIS-FM, as well as the much more law-abiding Tom Sedivy, a man who raked in $50,000 per year finding creative ways to win radio contests.

While Poulsen's story was fascinating, I more admired Sedivy, who worked within the parameters of the law and station rules to win a lot more than one human being ever should. Simply put, Sedivy was really, really good at radio contests.

The million dollar Dodgers "cycle" contest on KXTA caused me to channel my inner Tom Sedivy. This was the perfect contest to learn how to beat for two reasons:

1) If I won, the payoff would be huge.

2) The competition would not be fierce, because the million dollars was far from guaranteed, and in fact unlikely to be awarded to anyone.

Unless you were to cheat like Poulsen, it is extremely difficult to win a super-high-profile radio contest, even using legal tactics employed by people like Sedivy. That's because you're still competing with many thousands of people jamming the lines at once, and short of illegally manipulating the phone switching system, your chances of getting through are always tiny.

I knew that this contest would not involve many thousands of contestants, because it was neither hyped in the media nor presented as something likely to win. Sure, a million dollars and a house was exciting, but you had to luck into something happening which hadn't occurred since the first Nixon administration, and you also had to guess the player to do it! Therefore, I deemed it to be a contest I could beat if I figured out all of the legal and allowable edges.

Fortunately, I had the right tools for the job. Each day, during the Dodgers pregame show, they would announce that the 11th caller would be that day's contestant. The pregame show typically took place between 3:30pm and 7:00pm, depending upon the time of that day's Dodgers game. During those times, I was usually (but not always) in a location with a lot of phone lines and equipment I could rig to dial quickly. I also learned exactly how KXTA operated -- that they did not take listener calls during the pregame show, so they let their phone lines ring out. Furthermore, I figured out the signs that the contest was about to be opened. At a certain predictable point in the show, KXTA would go to commercial, come back, and play a recorded opening about the contest. That was my signal the contest was actually starting.

I had another advantage in that the contest took place during the pre-game show, which had MUCH lower listenership than the actual game.

My algorithm to beat the contest was as follows:

1) When the commercial break prior to the contest announcement took place, I would use the numerous phone lines to simultaneously call all KXTA lines, which would ring out. This would essentially make them all busy for a few minutes. This would not directly affect the contest, as it had not started yet, and the lines would be cleared prior to the contest. This was simply to get a read on when the contest was actually starting.

2) The KXTA staff would clear out all the lines, one by one, moments before the actual start of the contest.

3) Due to the fact that land lines do not typically instantly disconnect when hung up, I was still briefly connected to the KXTA lines after they were cleared. This would last for maybe 5 seconds.

4) I would drop the line on my end at the exact moment another line was dialing back into KXTA, thus greatly increasing my probability to get through.

5) I would simultaneously monitor the various ringing lines during the contest. They would answer and tell me my caller number. Typically I managed to be about 7 of the 11 callers when I had this technique perfectly refined.

6) Rinse and repeat. I did the above to become the contestant several days per week. In fact, I decided to limit myself to 3 per week, not wanting KXTA to change their rules to thwart me.

Before you get bent out of shape that I was cheating this contest, it's important to understand that, by all the laws and KXTA contest rules of 2000, I wasn't.

You were allowed to use multiple phone lines to call into radio contests, both by law and by KXTA contest rules.

You were allowed to use telephone autodialers, both by law and by KXTA contest rules, provided that you were not manipulating telephone switching equipment or engaging in any other form of telephone hacking.

You were allowed to call contest lines before any contest started and let them ring out, if you so desired, both by law and KXTA contest rules.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while KXTA did not allow the same person to win a contest more than every 30 days, their rules DID allow for you to be a non-winning contestant as much as you wanted!

This allowed me to repeatedly be their million dollar contestant, and not become subject to the once-per-30-days rule referenced above.

I should also point out that KXTA knew exactly what I was doing, though they probably didn't understand how I was accomplishing it. I had to provide my name and address as the contestant, so they were very aware that the same guy seemed to be their contestant about half the time. Shockingly, while they could have modified the rules to prevent this, they didn't. The call screener got so used to me that he actually stopped reading the contest rules to me, simply asking, "Do you remember the rules from before? They're still the same."

Clearly KXTA knew that I wasn't lucking into single-handedly being 50% of their contestants. Their willingness to let me continue this for months made me feel confident that I was not committing any kind of ethical breach. I was playing by KXTA's own rules, and simply doing it better than everyone else.

Still, I realized that my chance to win anything was quite small. I was 28 years old, and the Dodgers had never hit for the cycle in my lifetime. For me to win, not only did the Dodgers have to hit for the cycle, but I had to be the contestant that day, as well as pick the correct player.

The player to pick was a no-brainer. Gary Sheffield hit for average, power, and also possessed speed. Much of this was aided by steroids, but that's not really important here. The bottom line was that he was by far the most likely player to hit for the cycle, as he had the batting average to get the hits, the power to get the home run, and the speed to get that elusive triple (the hardest part to accomplish).

I was also quite aware of the effect of the high altitude in Denver. The thin air made the hits a lot easier to come by, so I knew my chances would be even higher when the Dodgers played in Colorado. I resolved to make sure to be the contestant every single day during Dodgers/Rockies games in Colorado.

Unfortunately, I scheduled a Las Vegas trip with my then-girlfriend, lasting from July 21 to 24, 2000. I realized only too late that the Dodgers would be at Colorado starting on July 24. Without my multiple phone lines and fast dialers, I would not be able to compete realistically in that contest. Furthermore, I wouldn't have access to listen to KXTA while in the Las Vegas area. I almost called my girlfriend and told her the trip was off -- or at least delayed -- but she had put out some effort to get Monday off at work, so I didn't want to change things. It just seemed ridiculous.

"We need to stay home so I can be the contestant on KXTA, just in case someone hits for the cycle on Monday, for the first time since 1970."

Yeah, if I told her that, she probably would have dumped me then-and-there. Besides, I reasoned to myself that I would still be home for the other three games of the series, and could be the contestant for all of those.

We went on the Vegas trip, as planned. We were driving home on Monday night, and I turned on the Dodgers game in the 6th inning. It was just in time to hear the bad news about Sheffield. He was just a measly single away from the cycle, and due up in the 7th.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. My worst fears were coming true. I could have been the damn contestant. I was about to listen to someone else win the million dollars and the home that I had worked so hard to put myself in the position to acquire.

"If you're wondering about our million dollar contest," explained Ross Porter, "That isn't a factor here. Tonight's contestant picked Shawn Green."

That didn't make me feel any better. I wouldn't have picked Shawn Green.

I almost felt like I had to pull over. I thought that perhaps it wouldn't be safe for me to be behind the wheel if Gary Sheffield indeed blooped that single to complete the cycle.

Then, all of sudden, the unexpected happened. They plunked Sheffield. It was definitely on purpose. Down 4-0 in the 7th, the Rockies were willing to give him first base in order to prevent him from making that historic cycle on their home turf. While I knew there was some chance he might come back up to bat in the 9th, I knew the Rockies would not give him a chance to hit. Bad sportsmanship, for sure, but I was extremely relieved.

It was at that moment when I realized how lucky I really was.

If I had been home, the odds were high that I would have been the contestant.

I would have been taken to the very closest possible point of winning that million dollars and KB Home, only to watch the Rockies unfairly rob me of the opportunity. It would be one thing to watch Sheffield simply make an out. It would have been another to watch the Rockies literally snatch that golden opportunity right out of my hands, simply as a result of their own bitterness. I would have hated them for life, and this probably would have caused some psychological damage to me, as well.

Instead, I had a moment of "it shoulda been me", followed by relief that it wasn't me.

So, in an alternate universe, the Rockies did indeed cost me over $1,000,000.

Fortunately, in this one, it's just a fascinating footnote in my life.
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  1. RadioContestWinner's Avatar
    First I have to say today is the first day I came Upon this by searching google and my Name. Tom Sedivy is still alive and well and just wanted to tell you what a Great story this was; I was glad to see my name mentioned in such a postive way since the radio gods in the end decided my fate. I recently was in LA and called KEARTH and the dj was so surprised that I was alive as the rumor had it I had passed away and thats why no one heard from me again. Really my oldest brother passed away in 1996 and since I already figured the radio stations were no longer playing by there own rules it was time for me to move on. I really enjoyed that article and it was fun to see someone else playing by the rules and wish he would have won the money......I will always be the King of Radio contest and learned so many things I wish I would have written the Book.........Take care tom