January 1, 2006

Review:  “Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe”
by Steve Lombardi, for NetShrine.com

Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe, by Sam Walker, (to be released on February 16, 2006 by Viking) is a splendid read.  In fact, it is so exceptional that I found myself devouring it – rather than simply reading it.  Each of its 368 pages leaves the reader with an insatiable desire to read more.  Because of this, Fantasyland is the type of book that you will not want to put down – until you have read its last page.

Why is Fantasyland this engrossing?  Simply put, Walker’s book is frank and full of facts – as well as being simultaneously witty and charming.  No matter what your preference may be in terms of narrative offerings, you will find it in Walker’s delivery.

Baseball fans who enjoyed reading Dollar Sign on The Muscle, Moneyball, or The Numbers Game, will find Fantasyland to be just as satisfying to read.  In the parlance of today’s popular sports-media personalities, if Fantasyland is not “the best baseball book” of 2006, it’s certainly in the team picture.

Fantasyland is Sam Walker’s chronicle of his first rotisserie baseball experience.  However, this is not your everyday fantasy baseball rookie tale.  Walker is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal who talked his way into joining “Tout Wars” (which is a prominent rotisserie “experts” league) for their 2004 season.  Additionally, Sam was armed with a substantial budget – he spent nearly $20,000 traveling and preparing for the league’s player auction – and he decided to employ both a Sabermetrician, Sig Mejdal, and someone who was more focused on the qualitative-side of scouting, Ferdinando (Nando) Di Fino, to assist him through his rotisserie expedition.  As such, the debate of Sabermetrics versus traditional scouting (and the balancing of the two schools) is a prevailing thread throughout the book – and in many ways Fantasyland is akin to a good buddy-movie in the way that these three characters (Sam, Sig and Nando) play off each other.

But, there’s more to Fantasyland beyond Walker’s personal fantasy baseball experience. 

As a sportswriter, Sam Walker has the access that most fantasy team owners can only dream about – in that he has a direct connection to players, scouts, coaches and general managers.  As such, in the book, there are many remarkable stories involving Walker’s roto-related exchanges with current major league baseball participants such as Jacque Jones, Doug Mientkiewicz, Jose Guillen, David Oritz, Bill Mueller, Brad Radke, Miguel Batista, Mark Shapiro, Jim Beattie, Theo Epstein, Dave Littlefield, Billy Beane, Kenny Williams, Lou Piniella, Alan Trammel, and Mike Scioscia – just to name a few (from a list of numerous personalities).

Imagine talking then Devil Rays Manager Lou Piniella into using B.J. Upton as a Designated Hitter because he’s on your rotisserie team and you need the At Bats.  Walker did it.  Imagine e-mailing then Orioles G.M. Jim Beattie to see if Luis Matos was about to lose his full-time job – and getting a fast and honest answer.  Walker did that as well.  Imagine asking Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz if he would trade himself in exchange for Texas Rangers speedster Alfonso Soriano (because you need steals in the standings) and then having a debate with him over it.  Again, Walker did this.  Fantasyland is full of entertaining and sometimes startling dealings such as these mentioned here.

Further, Walker provides an in depth narrative of the genesis and evolution of rotisserie baseball (in terms of a "game" and an industry) as well as sharing thorough synopses on the careers of several of the fantasy pastime’s more notable figures and other prominent baseball information brokers – including, but not limited to, Bill James, Ron Shandler, Dan Okrent, Mat Olkin, Joe Sheehan, John Benson, Steve Moyer, Keith Law and Bill Gamson.  Shandler is featured prominently throughout Fantasyland.  As such, I believe that this book will do for him what Moneyball did for Billy Beane (in both the positive and negative sense).

Lastly, there are several other amusing anecdotes told in Fantasyland that I would like to share in this review.  However, to do so in any amount of detail would be somewhat of a spoiler for the reader.  Therefore, I will only disclose a teaser on a few of them.  One involves a "coquettish distraction."  Another centers on a stick of butter.  There's one more where the focal object is a six pack of Schaefer beer.  And, there's also a tale of public protest that seems almost too surreal to be true.

Fantasyland offers many angles of amusement.  As such, because of the robust nature of the content found in Walker's book, you do not need to be a rotisserie player to enjoy it.  I highly recommend Fantasyland.  It is well worth the retail price of $25.95 (for the hardcover edition).

However, if you are a former fantasy league player, you should be warned of one possible outcome as a result of reading this book.

I fall into that this category.  For 12 years (from 1989 through 2000) I served as a commissioner (and franchise owner) in what many would consider an intense fantasy baseball league.  After a dozen seasons of serving as a fervent rotisserie den mother, I suffered from severe burnout and quit the game, cold turkey, following the 2000 campaign.  In none of the five years that have passed since that time did I ever experience any hard feelings of withdrawal - zip, nada, zilch, nothing.  Nevertheless, now, after having read Sam Walker's book, I have to confess that I am beginning to feel (to draw on a term that Walker borrows from Dan Okrent in the book) "bereft" of the game.  Reading about the fun in Fantasyland has stirred the remnants of rotisserie juices in my system.  And, I suspect that other former "players" will have the same reaction when they finish this book.  

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