Fantasyland by Sam Walker

(Penguin Books, 2007), 354 pages.

If you start talking to a fellow baseball fan about your fantasy team, chances are you will provoke one of two very different responses. Either you will spark a half hour conversation, filled with excited comments about trade value and obscure relief pitchers’ WHIPs, or the person will groan and try to escape from your clutches as quickly as possible. Fantasy baseball is just like Marmite: either you love it or you hate it.

Sam Walker, a sports writer for the Wall Street Journal, had always leaned towards the latter position before he finally gave in and decided to discover why millions of people are so captivated by the competition. Fantasyland is the product of a year spent living the life of a fantasy nut.

Rather than dip his toe into the water, Walker dived right into the deep end in 2004 by joining Tout Wars: an expert league containing people who sell stat-based products and publish articles and guides that are lapped up by the fantasy community. Describing the task as “like trying to the learn the cello by joining the London Philharmonic”, Walker battles against the odds by building a crack team of helpers and using his press credentials and contacts to try and gain an advantage on his competitors.

Fantasyland contains a useful guide to the creation of what is known as Rotisserie baseball and charts its phenomenal rise from a simple game between friends to being a billion dollar industry. The very fact that there is an expert league of so-called ‘Touts’ goes to show how popular it has become.

Walker delves into the characters and life stories of his fellow competitors such as Ron Shandler, whose Baseball Forecaster publication is required reading for thousands of the most dedicated fantasy owners. Shandler actually gets hired as an adviser by the St Louis Cardinals during the course of the book. His story shines a light on the way fantasy experts are seen by Major League organizations as well as revealing the sometimes caustic internal politics within the fantasy camp itself.

As well as investigating the origins of Fantasy baseball, Fantasyland delves into the heated ‘stats versus scouts’ debate. In building his own Front Office, Walker picks a guy from both camps. Sig, a biomathematician for NASA, is in charge of statistics while Nando is installed to collect non-quantifiable data about every player in the American League, such as whether a player has just found religion.

Together they form “the most outlandishly bipolar advisory team” and the wildly differing conclusions they arrive at provide plenty of entertainment when Walker has to decide whose advice to follow. They also highlight brilliantly the way the stat and scout camps can form very different opinions on the same players.

While the stats versus scouts angle has been covered in several recent books, not least Moneyball, Fantasyland is able to stretch out into more unique territory by considering the relationship between the fantasy world of baseball and the real world of baseball. While those within the game may mock the more obsessive (i.e. ‘geek’!) nature of the activity, any claims that they can rise above it are clearly unfounded.

Whether you are a GM being hounded for making a real-life trade that badly affects fantasy owners, or if you are a player like Mo Vaughan being harassed on the phone for hurting his friends’ fantasy teams, it’s clear that fantasy has an impact on those involved in the real game.

In fact, Walker makes sure of that. He uses his press credentials to gain access to the players on his fantasy team, living out the dream of thousands of fantasy owners, and some of the most enjoyable sections in the book relate to the resulting conversations. At one stage, Walker celebrates in the road clubhouse at Yankee stadium with Jose Guillen and informs him that he had recently picked him up in a trade for Sidney Ponson:

Hearing this, Guillen throws back his head and laughs demonically, drawing funny looks from the beat writers. His laughter is infectious, though, and soon I’m laughing too, at poor old Rick Fogel [the rival fantasy owner who agreed to the trade]. Guillen shakes his head and puts a fingertip to one of his temples. ‘Dat Guy’, he says, ‘got a beeeeg old headache rye now’”!

Aside from such genuine ‘laugh out loud’ passages, the real strength of Fantasyland is that it charts Walker’s full season from beginning to end, providing a compelling narrative that wills you to keep reading to find out what happens next. From his attempts to glean insider information at the Winter Meetings, to his scouting trips during Spring Training, the draft day itself and the many ups and downs that the season brings, you are taken along for the ride.

The draft day is particularly well written and the setting is used very effectively as a dramatic device in much the same way that Michael Lewis uses the scene of the amateur draft in Moneyball. The reader can’t help but get wrapped up in the nervous tension and excitement as Walker tries to instigate his plans, surrounded by the experts all waiting for him to fail.

Keen fantasy owners will adore this book, but even non-fantasy fans will find it an extremely enjoyable read. Walker does a great job of uncovering why so many people become obsessed with the competition, while his interaction with the real players and his own self-mocking asides provide lots of humour along the way. In less than a year, I’ve already re-read Fantasyland on a couple of occasions. It’s an addictive book about an incredibly addictive past time.

Have you read “Fantasyland”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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2 Responses to Fantasyland by Sam Walker

  1. Joe Gray May 8, 2008 at 9:51 pm #

    I’ve just finished reading the book a few minutes ago, so this review is very timely for me. I wouldn’t disagree with anything you’ve said but feel the need to add that second only to Walker’s obsession with winning Tout Wars is his obsession with facial hair…

    It’s not just his continual reference to one of the other Tout Wars participants (Ron Shandler) as “the Bearded One”. If you turn to a page at random, there’s a good chance that it contains a description of someone’s beard (which might be its shape, its tidiness, or the amount of grey in it).

    Aside from the beard thing, reading the book has inspired me to get my thoughts together for my own post on the topic (at some point in the not too distant future), which will mainly involve trying to explain why I haven’t yet given it a go.

  2. Matt Smith May 8, 2008 at 10:00 pm #

    Thanks Joe. You’re right about Walker’s fascination with beards. Maybe a psychologist could draw some deep meaning from it?!

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on Fantasy baseball. As noted in my review, it’s definitely a divisive topic.

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