Friday, June 02, 2006

Fantasyland (Sam Walker)

Something has happened to our household. Back in March, Jim joined a fantasy baseball league. Since then, he's spent most waking hours checking on "his guys," yelled expletives at his laptop at the unfairness of that week's matchup, created a detailed spreadsheet that proved how triumphant he would have been if said matches were reversed, and has done the unforgivable: He's rooted against the Cubs. ("But Freddy Garcia was going to get them all out anyway," he said, as he was in need of strikeouts from Garcia, one of "his guys." "He might as well do it by striking them out.")

Last time I went to the library, I found Fantasyland by Sam Walker on the new book shelf and thought it would be interesting, given the current situation. But even then, I wasn't prepared for how funny and entertaining it would be. Sportswriter Sam Walker decides to enter the fantasy realm by going straight to the top of the Rotisserie leagues to a league composed mainly of fantasy baseball experts. Walker figures he can beat these "show me the data" guys by using his clubhouse experience and scouting players.

To prepare for the fantasy draft, he hires a statistician, a baseball astrologist, and an assistant he calls Nando who helps him create the "Hunchmaster," a player database that includes categories such as players that are single, players that have been arrested and when they were arrested, and players who are devout Christians. "As for the impact of religion, Sig's analysis yielded a troubling conclusion: 'Turning to God' he says, 'costs you 2.5 runs a season.'"

Walker visits the teams during Spring Training, and talks to the scouts he meets there about what he should look for in a player. "What they gave me was a synopsis of all the cliched ballplayer quotes I was likely to hear. 'I'm in the best shape of my life.' 'I got a personal chef.' 'I had Lasik surgery.' 'I'm on a macrobiotic diet.' By the middle of May, Schwartz continued, most of the players who say these things will go right back to sucking." Armed with this information, he goes into the various clubhouses to feel out the players. "I have a lively chat with general manager Chuck LaMar about the intangible benefits of having a bunch of track stars on your ballclub, and a ten-minute conversation with first baseman Tino Martinez, from which I glean the following: Tino has been doing a lot of sit-ups."

I can't say if those who have no knowledge of fantasy baseball will find this book as entertaining and on the mark as I did. If you haven't read any baseball books (and would like to) I'd recommend starting with Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which is a great, accessible, very funny book that will give you a good introduction to the stats side of baseball. Then read Fantasyland.

Next book up: The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

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