Book Review: "Fantasyland"
by Matt Sandler
Every year, millions of (mostly) men give up a perfectly good Saturday or Sunday cramped in an office conference room or apartment living room, engaging in an activity that is the epitome of baseball fandom (or nerdiness, depending on your perspective)—a fantasy baseball draft. Fantasyland (2006), written by Wall Street Journal sports columnist Sam Walker, tells the story of his one season in an expert auction league, Tout Wars. Although there are some interesting anecdotes told in the book, it ultimately makes for an underwhelming read. It just proves that it’s a lot more fun to play fantasy baseball than to read about someone else playing it.
Walker had always considered fantasy baseball the realm of Dungeons and Dragons-playing geeks, but first got a glimpse of the influence it held on baseball in a post-game interview with Mo Vaughn in one of his awful Met years. Walker writes, "Up in the stands that day, the hecklers had been merciless: 'I didn’t know Mo Vaughn was pregnant!'" But it was his buddies who had drafted him on their fantasy teams that gave him the hardest time. As Walker sees how this eats at Vaughn, he reconsiders his stance; nothing this important to a player should be so easily dismissed by a sportswriter. He also realizes that while he—and other scribes—have to focus more than ever on non-game-related issues like ballpark financing and steroids, all fantasy players care about is what happens between the lines. (Barry Bonds is on my team, so I have to root for him.)
Walker is invited to join the Tout Wars AL-only league in 2004. Tout Wars’ participants are fantasy baseball experts from organizations such as STATS, Inc., Baseball Prospectus, and RotoWire. (The name comes from the fact that these fantasy experts "tout" certain players for their readers to pick up for their teams.) At the beginning, Walker is not that much of a Moneyball aficionado. He is more on the scouting side of the aisle than the statistical side. In addition, he thinks his press pass will provide a special degree of access that will give him an advantage in the competition. He writes, "I could pick up the phone and talk to a scout or a general manager and get the real story."
However, he recognizes that he needs at least somewhat of a statistical approach, and he hires a NASA mathematician named Sigurd "Sig" Mejdal as his quantitative advisor. But he does not shortchange his front office on the qualitative side, and hires Ferdinando "Nando" Di Fino as his traditional scout. Between Sig’s statistical package (dubbed Zoladex after a drug) and Hunchmaster, a more subjective player evaluation tool created by Nando, he feels he has the tools he needs to succeed at the draft. He undertakes trips to the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues to get some inside information, and here reveals some questionable judgments. For instance, he seems to think that Bill Mueller is a great player simply because they share a beer together. It is in this part of the book that he comes off very much as an old-time sportswriter, the type who revels in clichés about “being a gamer” and other such nonsense, belying his relative youth.
From there it is on to the draft. One of the funniest parts of the book is when he gets a beautiful woman friend of his to attend the draft to distract the other players. He executes his REMA (Really Expensive Mound Aces) strategy very much to his satisfaction, landing Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling, and Javier Vazquez with the first three players taken. Then the season begins, and the book becomes somewhat of a slog. Walker makes some questionable trades, suffers from a rash of injuries to his team, and (spoiler alert) winds up in eighth place. (The league is won by the league’s "resident intellectual" Trace Wood, who has a full-time non-baseball job, but contributes to Rotisserie sites.)
In the end, the book is no substitute for the real thing. There are minor quibbles—one is that Nando calls my favorite baseball writer, Rob Neyer, "a cocky prick." Another is Walker’s writing style; he has too much fondness for forced analogies. After consulting a self-described "baseball astrologer" on a whim for advice, Walker is afraid to admit to the numbers-oriented Sig that he’s impressed with her work because he knows Sig will “spend the entire ride home pounding me like doughnut batter.” But ultimately what sinks the book is best expressed by the inventor of modern fantasy baseball, Daniel Okrent. In The Numbers Game, an account of the history of baseball statistics that is better written and more interesting than Fantasyland, Okrent laments that fantasy players feel the need to accost him to tell him about their teams. He says something that we should all take into account as social advice, and that Walker should have considered before writing this book: "There’s nothing more interesting than your own Rotisserie team, and nothing less interesting than somebody else’s."
Matt Sandler's column "The Critical Fan" appears alternate Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.