So you think you're obsessed about your fantasy baseball team? Relax. No matter how obsessed you are about your team, you aren't the biggest Rotisserie geek around. It's a peculiar brand of madness that Sam Walker develops in his book Fantasyland, which is now out in paperback. In the book, Walker, a sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal, tells the story of how he approached his 2004 fantasy baseball season with a single-minded obsession that would have embarrassed Captain Ahab. The result is a hilarious tale that reads like Moneyball on acid.
Walker had never played Rotisserie baseball before the 2004 season. He readily admits that he had an impression of those that did play as somewhat geeky, but claims that his biggest reason for avoiding the game was that he knew people who did play could become obsessives who bored other people at parties with tales of their biggest trade.
Walker changed his mind in 2003 for a couple of reasons, including professional burnout, and he decided that in 2004 he would play the game and write a book about his experience. But rather than get a game together with his friends, he decided to talk his way into Tout Wars, the all-star fantasy league run by and for people who make a living writing about fantasy baseball.
This is, as Walker readily admits, a little like a beginning violinist playing at the Philharmonic. But Walker has a plan, you see. More than a plan, he has a press pass and a rolodex. He has Theo Epstein's cell phone number. Armed with his "inside information," Walker was determined that he could leap to the head of Tout Wars and maybe even answer some questions in the "stats versus scouts" debate that had been raging in baseball since the publication of Moneyball.
The results are pure comedy.
Walker assembles a "front office" for his fantasy team, the Streetwalkers. He hires Sig to be his stats guy, Nando becomes his scouting guy and Andrea becomes his astrologer. He buys every fantasy magazine there is and subscribes to every on-line service. He visits every American League team in spring training (he's in the AL-only league) in both Florida and Arizona. He hires a sexy actress to play his videographer at the draft, whose real purpose is to throw off the other owners by cooing about how hot men who play Rotisserie baseball are. By the end of the season, he's spent about fifty thousand dollars of his own money (although I'm sure most of that came out of his book advance) trying to win a Rotisserie league with no prize money whatsoever.
Throughout the season, he tries to enlist the players on his team to take up the cause of the Streetwalkers. He has t-shirts made up for his players and gives them to them in major league locker rooms. Some actually wear them. Through these exchanges, Walker learns that every major league player is aware of fantasy baseball and has had run-ins with their "owners." Walker also gives nice portraits of several of the "Streetwalkers." Bill Mueller is just a regular guy who loves cheap beer. David Ortiz gets excited about winning games for the Red Sox and the Streetwalkers. Doug Mientkiewicz knows that he's a lousy fantasy baseball player and Jacque Jones is a very sensitive and shy man who doesn't respond to criticism well. (Jim Hendry would have done well to read Walker's book before signing Jones and sticking him in Sammy Sosa's old position. Walker claims that Jones was close to tears after reading Ron Shandler's scathing assessment of his fantasy value.)
Cub fans will also note that Walker talked to Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield in an attempt to derail the Nomar Garciaparra trade. He wanted Mientkiewicz to go to Pittsburgh, where he would have more playing time than in Boston.
Walker also gives a history of fantasy baseball and profiles each of his competitors in Tout Wars. Each one has a reason for playing fantasy baseball and through these people, Walker tries to explain the appeal of fantasy sports.
If there is one criticism of this overall hilarious book, it's that near the end of the season, Walker seem to be doing things because he thinks they'll make interesting chapters in his book more than it will make his fantasy team better. In fairness they are funny episodes and Walker does seem a bit embarrassed by them, but they do seem a little staged.
In the end, Walker discovers something he had been looking for at the beginning of the season: He had become a fan of the game again. Through Rotisserie baseball, he re-discovers the kid who taped Alan Trammell's baseball card to the wall of his bedroom.
Fantasyland is Moneyball done as a comedy. Walker's obsessive behavior and crisp writing makes Fantasyland the funniest non-fiction baseball book of the young century. Most all readers of Bleed Cubbie Blue should find it to be an enjoyable book, and many of them will see a little of themselves in Sam Walker and his insane odyssey.