I love fantasy baseball. And I like fantasy football. It's not my intention in this post to auto-administer a psychological barium enema in order to locate and diagnose the precise void, the yawning maw of self-reproach and regret, fantasy sports fills for me. Suffice to say I crave it, like I imagine a smoker might jones for a nicotine fix. And so you know what sods me off like nothing else? When some rube who is fortunate enough to have made a career in the sports industry -- like an ink-stained wretch of a sportswriter, or a smug, corpulent, sports talk radio host (Hank Goldberg, please pick up the red courtesy phone, Hank Goldberg) -- starts wielding pejorative terms like "fantasy geek," and implores his callers to "get a life" whenever he so much as sniffs the aromatic waft of a fantasy-motivated call. Spend your day researching and writing a memorandum of law on the enforceability of foreign arbitration provisions under the FAA, fatboy, rather than scribbling a few hackneyed gnomes on Nick Saban's perfidy between your 10:00 am wake-up and afternoon shvitz, and then you may insult my temporary but therapeutic escapism to your privileged, work-a-day world. In the meantime, feel completely free to STFU.
It was with this infected mindset that I first saw the dustcover to Wall Street Journal sportswriter Sam Walker's Fantasyland, eyes drawn to the undertitle: "A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe". Naturally, I was instantly suspicious that I was in for another dose of arrogant braying about my harmless hobby, a 354-page tattoo spelling "L-O-S-E-R" intended for my forehead.
Good thing I don't judge a book by its cover.
Walker's premise was to shake off the shackles of sports privilege and discover what all the proletarian fuss was about. The hard way. He connived an invitation to "Tout Wars," the league conducted by all the leading prognosticators and experts in the "industry," and set out to beat their statistically-based systems by exploiting his inside access to the clubhouse. Walker's self-deprecating wit, essential to all "serious" tomes on fantasy sports leagues, drew me in as early as page 3. Strolling through the Twins' Spring Training locker room with league guru Ron Shandler's book under arm, he scans for some inside dope that will beat the dry numbers, and occasions upon Jacque Jones:
On page 55 of this year's Forecaster, [Shandler] renders his judgment on Jacque Jones, the ballplayer now seated in front of me. According to Shandler's statistical gauges, Jones is a lousy bet to hit another 25 home runs in a single year, and his batting average last season was "grossly inflated." Shandler doesn't specifically mention that Jones is an impatient hitter who strikes out five times more often than he draws a walk, but the numbers are printed in the accompanying row of stats. To anyone who follows his teachings, there's only one proper conclusion to draw.
This guy is horseshit.
In the often-used words of Art Pincus -- one of the few benevolent sportswriters who would never tell a fantasy player to "get a life" -- great stuff.
As the narrative continues, Walker devises a ridiculous plot. He hires two full-time staffers, one a numbers wiz, the other a researcher determined to break down every intangible factor and personal peccadillo of each player, and pits them against each other in a battle for his own roto-soul, like a baseball version of Sergeants Barnes and Elias. He ends up consulting an astrologer. You get the picture.
Back in 1988, a few members of my now 20-year old rotisserie baseball league were blowing through the Ft. Lauderdale area during Spring Training. We went to a game, and managed with relative ease to sidle our way up against the chain-link fence of the Yankees' bullpen, situated right between journeyman reliever Steve Shields (not to be confused with the now very good reliever Scot Shields ... who is actually from Ft. Lauderdale ... but I digress) and the bullpen catcher. As the mediocre Shields threw his, oh I don't know, 92 mph smoke, the ball was literally invisible to our untrained eyes. What's more, when it hit the catcher's mitt, a high-pitched sound was emitted that we had theretofore assumed could only be heard by dogs, a haunting squeal that seemed as if the mitt itself was crying out in pain. When warm, Shields was summoned to face the last batter in the eighth, and swiftly struck him out. Needless to say, a few weeks later, the bidding was surprisingly spirited on the crappy reliever whose legend had grown so prodigiously in the interim, he had acquired what was undoubtedly his first pet nickname, DeSteve DeShields. I wasn't the purchaser, but as the season unfolded (4.37 ERA, 1.53 WHIP), a philosophy was born: if you want to be successful in fantasy baseball, don't trust your lyin' eyes. (Some, not I, have taken it as far as "don't watch baseball altogether."). So you know which end of the divide I fall on. Walker's own struggle with the competing philosophies made for an interesting, oftentimes funny story line.
The legendary "DeSteve DeShields"
After the book peaks tracking some of the unknown origins of rotisserie baseball (who knew that its precursor, its English cricket corollary, shares the same biblical homeland as my own league, the University of Michigan), it does drag during the dog days of the season, as Walker's flagging team and sometimes incoherent moves begin to wear thin as copy. Searching for a "big finish," he stages a sublime protest outside the MLB offices during a hearing over the suspension of nutcase outfielder Jose Guillen. While it's funny how the team officials exiting the hearing yell at him to "get a life" (that's right, interestingly, it's comical when perturbed baseball officials condescend to fantasy players, yet insulting when human dirigibles who are paid a handsome living to talk sports with fans do the same), ultimately, it feels silly and forced, even demeaning to the game in a too-self-deprecating sort of way. It's trying so hard at this point, it almost makes you want to cry out, "Sam, shut up ... you had me at horseshit, you had me at horseshit."
So the book runs out of gas. Perhaps the whole premise was better suited for an article series, anyway. But the bottom line is, if you're a roto-geek, you owe it to yourself, to the game you love, to buy and read this book. For others, I suppose it could be an acquired taste.
Overall Grade: B+