Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fantasyland by Sam Walker

I just finished reading Fantasyland by Sam Walker, and as a result I'm starting to plan for the upcoming fantasy baseball season. Any baseball fan will enjoy it, not because of the Rotisserie baseball action that it describes but because it is funny and uplifting and discloses the heroism present in ordinary people.

Walker is a writer for the Wall Street Journal and he had never played Rotisserie baseball before. But he was able to finagle his way into the Tout Wars expert league, which is widely regarded as one of the toughest leagues out there. For those who aren't aware, fantasy baseball has become a billion-dollar industry with numerous Web sites, books, and magazines targeting a largely male market.

Walker describes how he gets into the league and his objectives -- to win, obviously, but more importantly he thinks that his access to the actual players he drafts onto his team and acquires through trades as well as to the executives who run and amass the real teams will give him a distinct advantage over his opponents, who are armed primarily with statistics.

And Oh, the statistics! To his credit, Walker does not bog the book down with endless streams of numbers. Rather he describes the salient ones for the book's audience, backs things up with conversations with the actual players (many of whom disregard the predictions and dismiss them as missing the point), and shows how overwhelming and seductive the numbers can be for those who think they can use them to divine the future. There are moments where it reminded me of the movie Pi in that regard.

Walker hires a couple of guys to help him in this venture -- a statistician who works for NASA full time, and a guy who becomes completely immersed in the minutiae of baseball -- and even gets a beautiful model to videotape the draft as a way to try to distract his competition.

Then the book traces the rest of the 2004 season. Only toward the end would the non-baseball fan learn that the Red Sox won the World Series, their first in eighty-six years, because the standings that get listed are not the ones a casual fan would read in the sports pages but rather the standings of the Tout Warriors.

I expect baseball fans would laugh out loud throughout much of this book -- I know I did -- and the wives of fantasy baseball team managers would probably also appreciate this peek into the world of the maniacs they married.

However, Walker also does an admirable job of showing the real lives of baseball players. There's a wonderful chat on a New York Subway train with the parents of Pokey Reese, and I'll always hold Jacque Jones (pictured above) in high regard. He is a classy man. Read the book and you'll see why.

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