Book Review: Fantasyland


by Sam Walker (Viking, $25.95)

And you thought you were obsessive in your pursuit of fantasy baseball glory?

Sam Walker, sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal, poured $64,000 into his quest for a fantasy championship. Read the gory details in his book “Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball’s Lunatic Fringe” as Walker documents his journey from fantasy novice to Roto addict.

What could compel an otherwise sane individual to payroll excesses only George Steinbrenner could love? In a decision born of pure masochism, Walker opted to take his first fantasy steps in the expert-only, invitation-only Tout Wars, where he competed with 11 heavyweights in the fields of fantasy baseball advice and statistical analysis. After pitching his book idea to the head Tout, Ron Shandler, Walker was entered in the American League-only affair.

Most Tout Wars owners use the league’s auction as a kind of fantasy laboratory to test new ideas and theories. Perhaps the most famous of which was Larry Labadini’s gambit to spend the bare minimum of nine dollars on his pitching staff–or a dollar an arm. Walker, ably assisted by his front office, sought to devise an auction paradigm worthy of a Bond villain and similarly suitable for immortality. A strategy so devious, it will “make Dr. No look like a garden-variety tax cheat.”

Walker’s plan is to utilize his access to major league executives and players to gather inside information, which he hopes will give him an advantage when deciding whom to target at the auction. He conducts season-long reconnaissance missions to ballparks across the country, beginning with treks to both Arizona and Florida spring training sites, to scout potential fantasy players. In one memorable exchange, Walker asks the opinion of slugger David Ortiz on whether he should trade him for speedster Alfonso Soriano because Walker’s fantasy team is stolen base-deficient. Big Papi is skeptical.

Also unique to Walker’s strategy was the employment of a fantasy front office, consisting of a statistician (later hired by the Cardinals) and a scouting assistant responsible for tracking all manner of information on players. Walker also made use of a disarmingly attractive videographer and an astrologist to attempt to predict ebbs and flows in player performance. All expenses were out of pocket.

One realizes quickly in reading “Fantasyland” that Walker has turned the neat trick of illuminating an inherently dull subject with skilled storytelling and tight prose. To break the flow of his fantasy fretting, Walker profiles all his opponents in Tout Wars, paying special attention to Shandler, the Bearded One, pioneer of player projections.

Ultimately, Walker learned the keys to fantasy success–much like real-life baseball–are identifying breakout performers and avoiding injury to star players. In his introduction, Walker cites that an estimated 15 million Americans play fantasy baseball, and well before the book’s end, it’s apparent Roto has another convert.