Friday, April 21, 2006

Book Review: "Fantasyland"

"The Critical Fan"
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 mjsandler@gmail.com.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Comeback Giambino

by Scott Silversten

New York Yankees radio announcer John Sterling refers to him as “The Giambino,” while Daily News media columnist Bob Raissman has played off that moniker with the nickname “The Giambalco.”

The references to Babe Ruth and the BALCO steroids scandal are obvious. But the joke will be on the rest of baseball this winter, when Jason Giambi is named the 2006 American League Most Valuable Player. And when this moment occurs, it will mark one of the most unbelievable individual turnarounds in baseball history.

The Yankees were in Seattle in the middle of May last year amid discussions about what to do with Giambi, whose body appeared broken down just five years after winning the 2000 MVP award with Oakland. The team wanted to send him to Triple-A Columbus, while the first baseman hoped to work out his troubles in the batting cages at the major league level.

Talk show lines lit up with fans that wanted Giambi dumped. Others called him selfish for not accepting the demotion while many tried to figure out a legal loophole that might somehow get the Yankees out of his mega-contract. Oh, how times have changed.

Ultimately, Giambi remained with the Yankees and began his shocking transformation from a player on the verge of being discarded to one of the most dominant hitters in the game. He reached his nadir after hitting just .195 with three homers and six RBI over the first 27 games, but then exploded and finished the season with a .271 batting average, 32 homers and 87 RBIs after being virtually non-existent for the season’s first two months. He ranked first in the AL with a .440 on-base percentage.

Splitting time between first base and designated hitter, Giambi was named the American League Player of the Month for July, batting .355 with 24 RBI while leading the league with 14 homers, a .974 slugging percentage, a .524 OBP and 74 total bases.

The 14 homers in July were the most in a month by a Yankee since Mickey Mantle hit 14 in July 1961.

This year, Giambi has picked up right where he left off. He won the AL Player of the Week Award on Monday – the highlight statistic was a staggering .700 OBP -- and is currently hitting .316 with 5 homers, 12 RBI, a .519 OBP and a .763 slugging percentage.

The bizarre press conference of last spring, in which Giambi repeatedly apologized without specifying what he was apologizing for, is a distant memory for most Yankee supporters and opens up an interesting question – How would Barry Bonds be treated today if he had just admitted the steroid crimes for which he has been accused?

Quite simply, Giambi has earned his good graces through two avenues. First, he has always been considered a nice guy and a good teammate. Aside from the admission, that is essentially what differentiates him from Bonds. Secondly, his performance has exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Of course, getting cheered by hometown fans for tremendous offensive production is one thing. For most of last year, Giambi was forced to deal with catcalls on the road.

It remains to be seen what happens during the New York’s first trip to a city like Boston, but with series in Oakland, Anaheim, Minnesota and Toronto already completed, there seems to be no lingering negative aspect surrounding Giambi.

While there were probably a few boos, it’s a good bet they didn’t reach the levels of those directed at Derek Jeter by the Metrodome faithful. When Giambi gets booed now, it is happening not because of his past misdeeds, but because he is as scary an offensive force as just about anyone in baseball.

Here is a test: Even if you are a non-believer who does not think Giambi can win the MVP award, start listing the best offensive players in baseball and see how quickly you get to him. That will be proof enough of how far he has come in one year.



Scott Silversten's column appears every Thursday

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

My New Boyfriend

This week on Wild-Card Wednesdays, the Fanatic’s Wife discusses her heartbreak...

This winter was a little rough for me because my boyfriend cheated on me and left me for another. No, I am not having an affair on my dear, fanatical husband. The man who betrayed me (and millions of others—we weren’t exactly exclusive) is no other than Johnny Damon.

I had a tremendous amount of faith in him to stay true to the Red Sox. Others might be tempted by money, but never Johnny. He made a cameo in Fever Pitch for Christ’s sake! He wrote a book on being an Idiot! So when the rumors started circulating that my man might go to the Yankees (oh, please, Johnny...any team but the Yankees!) I just refused to believe it. Just like in high school when the cute, laid back guy dumps his girlfriend to date the popular, bimbo cheerleader to improve his own status, so Damon left all his fans for the enemy.

The kicker? He cut his beard. What a damn shame. He looked so cute all hairy and everything. Now I can barely even recognize him when he steps to the plate which makes it very difficult to boo and yell “traitor!” at the TV.

Now my Damon t-shirt is nothing more than a memento of our relationship. Maybe I’ll take it out every once in a while and think about what once was. Or maybe I’ll write “...is a sellout” on some paper, pin it to my shirt and wear it to a game. I think of Johnny like I think of any man who I have had a bad breakup with…what a schmuck.

I am so over it, though. I have found myself a new man and (to quote “Clueless”) makes Johnny look like a loser. The Mets' wonder boy David Wright: my new boyfriend. On the rebound, you say? Nope...this is the real thing. Sarah & D. Wright 4-eva.

Wild Card Wednesdays appear every Wednesday

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Mets Fans: Get Excited!

by Alan Eliot

Question: What do the Mets, Tigers, Royals and Brewers have in common?


(Go ahead, ponder for a second. Yankees fans, insert joke here.)

Answer: Counting teams that were around in 1988, they are the only teams in major league baseball not to finish in first place at least once since that year.

That's right. The Mets last finished in first in 1988. Of the 26 teams that played out the 1988 season, 22 of them have finished on top of the standings since then (I am counting the 1994 strike-shortened season where the Expos ended up in first). In fact, every one of those teams finished in first at least twice with the exception of the Orioles, Phillies and the Expos/Nationals.

Of course, the thrill of the division chase has waned in recent years in light of the wild-card era. Ending up in first doesn't quite have the allure it once did- your ticket to the postseason no longer needs to be accompanied with a first-place finish. In fact, 3 of the last 4 World Series winners could not win their division.

But still. Place the brash, cocky, arrogant, toast-of-NY Mets of the mid-to-late 80's in front of a crystal ball, and show them that the Mets would be well into the new millenium without winning a division title, and you'd get more than a few stares of disbelief. Try to explain to them that in spite of having one of the highest payrolls in the majors year in and year out, the Amazin's would be in very exclusively bad company with a few woefully-underfunded teams in the Brewers, the Tigers and the Royals- and see if Hojo, Lenny, Gary, Darryl and Doc don't laugh you right out of the room.

1988. It couldn't be. It couldn't be that long since the Mets were not only the kings of New York, but baseball itself (Dodger World Championship notwithstanding). Could it?

Slowly, the Mets watched every team that wished they were the Mets in 1988 join the first-place party over the course of 18 years- leaving the Mets, and its fans, with a mixture of sadness and pessimism about next year. Fans learned that sometimes, it hurts to get too excited.

And to add insult to injury, only two teams in major league baseball have made the playoffs every year since 1995 (that's eleven seasons in a row)- the NY Yankees and the Atlanta Braves. Both were the two finalists for "team of the 1990's". And the Mets have had to play through unprecedented eras of domination of both their division rivals, and crosstown rivals. How apropos that in the two years the Mets actually made the playoffs, they were knocked out in 1999 by the former, and then in 2000 by the latter. Clearly, it has not been easy being a Met fan.

So thank you Juan Samuel and Frank Viola. John Franco and Daryl Boston; Vince Coleman and Brett Saberhagen, Eddie Murray, Bobby Bonilla (twice) and Jeff Kent. Thank you Jose Vizcaino, Rico Brogna, Carl Everett, Lance Johnson and Bernard Gilkey. Thank you Carlos Baerga and John Olerud, Al Leiter and Mike Piazza. Arigato Hideo Nomo. Thank you Robin Ventura and Rickey Henderson, Orel Hershheiser and Armando Benitez, Todd Zeile, Mike Hampton and Matt Lawton. Thank you Robbie Alomar, Shawn Estes and Mo Vaughn. Thank you Mike Cameron and Doug Mientkiewicz, and a final thanks to Kris Benson- yes, we all know it was an awful trade. We wish you well in your newly-single life in Baltimore.

Thanks to all of you, a sampling of the many Mets brought in as "that final piece" from 1989-2005, funded by a seemingly unlimited blue-and-orange bankroll- and each of whom played no small part in fueling the hopes and dreams of Mets fans that "maybe next year" would be their year.

On your backs we imagined mammoth home runs, and career years; we pictured our first no-hitter, dreamed of how you and the rest of our ace-filled staff would dominate the league come April. We knew that with you, our time would finally come, where we would rule our division, as well as our city.

And yet that time never materialized. You came and left, and we were still looking up in the standings at another team.

Thanks for nothin'.

But times change.

And the Mets are dominating. The Mets are off to their best start ever, at 10-2. Top of the espn.com power rankings for the first time ever. The Mets are the only team in the history of baseball to be 5 games ahead in the standings after 12 games. First place.

It's a place unfamiliar to both the Mets and their fans- the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, all the pieces from last season and the offseason would come together and produce wins, just like they used to.

So for the time being, hold back on your pleas that it's too early in the season to say anything. Don't tell me about how Victor Zambrano and Brian Bannister always seem one pitch away from total destruction. I don't want to hear about Cliff Floyd's strained ribcage or Beltran's pulled quad. Shut your face about young Anderson Hernandez and his difficulty staying above the Mendoza line. And please, please no discussion about how it won't last.

I don't want to hear about it. Tell me about how far Delgado hit his last shot, how his presence changes the entire Mets lineup, and now his eleven-game hitting streak. Let's discuss how young Wright is batting over .400, setting records with RBI's in consecutive games, and is the envy of every other team's respective GM's and fans. Let's ponder how Jose Reyes is learning how to lay off the bad pitches, and imagine 75 steals and 120 runs. Come discuss Xavier Nady's 3 homers in the last 4 games. How Pedro just won number 200, and who can still pitch. Our truly dominant closer in Billy Wagner. Among the tops in the leagues in all offensive and pitching statistics. And realize, that for perhaps the first time in eighteen long years, the Mets have all cylinders clicking, and are playing up to their own lofty expectations.

Enjoy it Mets fans. Picture great things for your team. You've earned it.

Besides, reports you've heard regarding the Braves' domination are not completely true. It has been said that if you say something enough times, you'll believe it. Fourteen straight division titles, they say. Don't buy the hype. The first three of those were in another division, Mets fans. They don't apply to you. The strike-shortened season, 1994, is conveniently dropped. And while eleven-straight division titles is nothing to sneeze at, it will be a lot of fun keeping the Braves from making it a dirty dozen in the NL East.

So thank you David Wright and Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran, Xavier Nady and Paul Lo Duca. Thank you Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine, Billy Wagner and Aaron Heilman.

Back in business. Best team in baseball. Ya gotta believe.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, April 17, 2006

How I Almost Got Bobby Valentine Fired

by Doug Silversten

Every baseball fan knows the feeling. You’re watching your favorite team, and the manager does something that infuriates you. Whether it’s taking out your best hitter late in a tie game for “defensive purposes,” leaving in a pitcher too long when the whole stadium knows he is done, or inexcusably batting your worst hitter leadoff, you scream at the TV and wish you could do something. Don’t you wish sometimes you had the power to get a manager fired?

I once had that power. Well, sort of. I didn’t want to get anyone fired, although by asking an innocent question, I almost got the manager of my favorite team canned.

I was reminded about the incident a few weeks ago when reading a random article on the web about baseball and technology. In the midst of a section about "User Created Media," I came across this paragraph:

Internet messageboards also represented the first Petri dish for user-created media. This sentiment is best exemplified by a scandal that occurred at the beginning of the 2000 season. Bobby Valentine, then the New York Mets manager, gave a lecture at the Wharton School of Business -- an "off-the-record" talk. But "off-the-record" is only a term relevant to journalists. While the Daily Pennsylvanian (Penn's school newspaper) gave a perfunctory mention to the speech, one student-attendee went much further. Brad Rosenberg, using the username brad34, logged onto a Mets message board and claimed that Bobby V blasted some players and management. The mainstream media ran with it; then-general manager Steve Phillips hopped on a plane to Pittsburgh to pow-wow with Valentine; and minor scandal was in the works.

Unless you’re a Met fan, you probably don’t remember this incident at all. However, if you are a Met fan, you may remember how big of a deal this was for about 2 weeks during the 2000 season. Most of the controversy stemmed from Bobby V’s answer to a question regarding the Mets all-field, no-hit shortstop Rey Ordonez. Basically, Bobby criticized Mets management (namely Steve Phillips) for signing Ordonez to a multi-million-dollar, multi-year contract.

So, where do I fit in? Any guesses? No, I am not secretly Brad34. However, I still played an integral part in the whole controversy. I attended the infamous “lecture” with fellow Baseball For Thought columnist and Penn alum Matt Sandler. I remember how excited we were – we were going to have a chance to hear our manager speak! After a short speech, Bobby V opened it up to questions. The whole thing probably lasted less than a half hour. I remember coming away with a very favorable impression of Valentine. He was engaging and completely honest. Rather than the typical non-answers to potentially controversial questions, Bobby always answered the questions, a trait very rare with other sports figures. In fact, that’s what I wrote in a letter published by the Daily Pennsylvanian shortly after the controversy erupted.

So, have you guessed correctly my role in the whole affair? How did I indirectly almost get Valentine fired? Well, it was I who asked the question about Rey Ordonez. I asked Matt for his best recollection of what my exact words were and he gave me this: "Can you explain why the Mets gave an extension to a player who has been proven to be one of the worst regulars in baseball?"

Fairly innocuous, no? But by asking a simple question to the manager, I was almost able to get him fired!

Well, with this story in mind, I think I have a few questions for Willie Randolph...

Doug Silversten's column appears alternate Mondays
"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine

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