Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe
Fantasy baseball was developed more than 20 years ago by a group of
bored guys in the publishing field who decided they could do a
better job of putting a winning team together than the jokers who
actually do this sort of thing for a living.
The first group of intrepid souls, led by Daniel Okrent, named the
invention "Rotisserie" baseball after the pub in which they used to
meet. Since then, the concept has grown outrageously, both in
variations on that first theme and number of participants.
What gives? Why would otherwise (relatively) sane people (mostly
middle-aged white males) waste their time on this stuff? That's
what Sam Walker, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, seeks
to discover in FANTASYLAND: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic
I must say, as big a baseball fan as I am, I've never "gotten"
fantasy baseball. The idea of agonizing over your real favorite
players and/or ballclubs when tangible outcomes actually count for
something is tough enough. To work up the same sweat for an ersatz
team just strikes me as a bit silly. I'm just saying. Obviously
there are plenty of folks who think otherwise: A quick look on
Google reveals more than 38 million mentions for the search
term "fantasy baseball."
These armchair general managers spend countless hours (and in some
cases dollars) to choose their players in hopes of beating similar
hobbyists in hundreds, if not thousands, of leagues around the
world. Some play for money, some merely for bragging rights. The
idea isn't just to put together an all-star team, but a more
realistic ensemble, including second stringers.
Walker picked a particularly hardcore brand of fantasy baseball
called Tout Wars, meant for the best of the best. To that end, he
hired two assistants to help in his research and statistical
analysis, bought numerous reference works, and traveled to spring
training sites in both Florida and Arizona in an effort to get the
inside dope from players, managers and front office personnel. He
even hired a baseball astrologist to see how the stars aligned as
he prepared to choose his roster of players.
"Rotisserie baseball may be the most ridiculous duplication of
effort in the history of human beings, but that's hardly a
concern," Walker writes, as he gets dragged deeper into the unholy
He presents the 11 other team owners in his Tout War league with a
combination of respect and head-shaking. What would compel these
educated, otherwise accomplished gents to occupy themselves with
such a time-consuming, often frustrating, and ultimately futile
Walker also depicts the desperation involved in seeking edges over
the competition, rooting for your players, railing against the
real-life decisions managers make that affect your roster. One
observation: The line between fantasy and reality blurs from time
to time. For example, who do you root for when one of your top
batters faces one of your pitching aces? Or when two of your
pitchers face off against each other?
You have to give him credit, though: he certainly dives into his
subject, going through absurd lengths to find who would complement
his team the best, planning drafting strategies, and even psyching
out his opponents by methods that are, let's just say, less than
Walker claims to have spent thousands of dollars to research and
select his players. (His team finished eighth out of the 12 teams)
One would imagine the other owners are similarly passionate, but
what he fails to do is show the reader what makes these guys tick.
Why do they go through such seemingly nutty lengths?
Overall, FANTASYLAND is full of fun and self-deprecation. But if
Walker isn't careful, one can easily see him as a character in
another book, THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, INC., J. HENRY
WAUGH, PROP., the popular Robert Coover novel in which the
protagonist loses grips with reality as the fantasy takes a firmer
and firmer grasp on his life.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 21, 2011