Sorry, no film review today, but don't fear - Fantasyland by Sam Walker was a hilarious read! The film is about one man's inaugural and zany journey into the world of fantasy baseball for the 2004 Major League Baseball season. It is geared more towards fans of sports, fantasy baseball in particularly, but it received a great deal of acclaim since its release in 2006. I did a bit of reading in my recent travels and I just got around to finishing it.
Wall Street Journal sports columnist Sam Walker received an invitation to play in an elite fantasy baseball league (Rotisserie rules) called the Tout Wars, which consists of only the upper echelon in fantasy baseball players. Walker accepted the invitation to play in order to conduct an experiment and solve a long standing argument in the fantasy sports world: which school of thought is more accurate in winning a fantasy baseball league as a newcomer versus seasoned veterans of the game - Decisions made purely based on statisical information or by the "old school" of traditional player scouting? The premise sounds boring to non-sports and non-fantasy baseball players, but trust me when I tell you that the rest of the book is entertaining and everything but predictable.
For those of you who are not in the know of what exactly fantasy baseball is exactly, let me provide a quick explanation: Fantasy baseball is a game where players manage imaginary baseball teams based on the real-life performance of baseball players, and compete against one another using those players' statistics to score points. (from wikipedia). The managers draft the real life players utilizing a salary cap system (let's say the cap is $200) where each player costs a certain amount of imaginary money (e.g. Manny Ramirez would cost $30). The manager must fill their team with an "X" amount of players to qualify, so the manager must budget their money according to not exceed the cap. During the course of the season, managers can sign the undrafted players or make trades with other managers to help strengthen their team throughout the grueling 162-game MLB season.
The Preface of the book hooked me in immediately. After the conclusion of a spring training baseball game, Minnesota Twins outfielder Jacque Jones sees Walker sitting in the stands and reading a fantasy baseball publication, one that analyzes the pros and cons about each individual player. Curious of how he is ranked in this publication, Jones yanks the book from Walker's grasp and reads the many disparaging remarks about himself. He gets visibly upset (over some magazine author's opinion) and vows to prove the analysis wrong. Inspired, Walker records Jones as a player he "must draft" because of Walker's unintenional motivation.
Being a sports journalist and having a press pass to all professional sports locker rooms, Walker lives every fantasy owner's dream. First, he recruits two "scouts" from both aforementioned schools of thought to help him prior to the draft: one guy who bases his analysis strictly on a ballplayer's makeup (attitude, conditioning, ballplaying skills, etc.) and another, a former NASA mathematician, who creates a program that bases all of his decision on statistical information only, not at all about the player himself. So there are constant funny clashes between the scouts and Walker on managerial decisions made throughout their season together.
Walker spends thousands and thousands of dollars to scout and "follow" his team throughout the season even though the league champion receives ZERO monetary compensation. Using his own money and the benefits of his press pass, he flies and drives all over the country in order to go to ballparks before and after games to converse with his "players" and their real life MLB managers in order to gain insight. He even goes as far as letting these players know that they are on his team and encourages them to hit better and steal bases - all aspects that will help him score more "fantasy sports" not really hlp the player in question. Real life players are not fans of the fantasy baseball "universe", but that does not stop Walker from doing things like giving his players custom made jersey shirts, hats and even awards for his team's "players" to wear and cherish. So it's no surpise that they don't cherish the gifts and think he is insane.
Some funny highlights include:
- Walker hires a very atrractive actress to pose as a photographer during the league's draft. Her purpose is to flirt and distract the other managers en route to make them act "cool" and pay more attention to her and less on the picks they are making. It is successful to a certain point.
- Walker gets so enthralled in watching a game with several of his players involved that he does not realize that his apartment building is on fire!
- Walker makes a bet with another manager to see who finishes higher in the standings at the end of the season. Loser has to eat a whole stick of butter
- One player instructs Walker to trade him because he is not that good enough to be on his team. Walker's team suffers because he does not heed the player's advice.
- After a successful game, Walker buys one of his players a six pack of his favorite beer and drinks with him in celebration.
- Upon learning that Walker plans to trade him, one player warns him not to complete the trade and then later mocks him for going through with it when the player goes on a "tear" and the returning player in the trade hurts Walker's team.
- Walker becomes so obsessive over his team's performance that he no longer even follows any real MLB team standings, only his own "Streetwalkers" team.- Walker gets duped into trades because he overthinks every move he makes.
- Walker has a few more run-ins with Jacque Jones, who holds a chip on his shoulder for Walker based on their spring training run-in. Oh and Jones is on Walker's team and that drives Jones nuts!
Again, these are just a few of the highlights. There are also some serious experiences Walker faces with other managers and perils in the lives of his ballplayers. Some are tragic and sad, but they are not heavy-handed.
All in all it is a great book that is good for some laughs. Walker becomes so obsessed that he does not care how much of a fool he makes himself out to be in the locker rooms of real MLB teams. Slowly but surely, Walker becomes addicted to the craze that is fantasy baseball. Hats off to Walker, and as a longtime fantasy sports enthusiast I say to him, "Welcome to the club!"