When we were on our Caribbean vacation a while back, we spent most of our time on a beach, sipping blue beverages and ... reading about fantasy baseball. Naturally. Specifically, we were reading Sam Walker's Fantasyland, a relentlessly entertaining look at a fantasy baseball virgin attempting to win the most difficult fantasy league on earth: Tout Wars, consisting of only fantasy experts like Ron Shandler and Lawr Michaels.
Walker, a sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal, devotes himself to winning the league, hiring two assistants and infiltrating Major League dugouts to try to talk managers into giving his players more field time. (He even gives certain players official team T-shirts.) Along the way, Walker looks at the history of fantasy baseball, from its founding days in the New York literary world to its current position, in which fantasy experts are actually being hired by Major League teams. But mostly, he tries to figure out how to win his league ... just like you.
The book is available at Amazon.com and at bookstores everywhere, and Walker took time out to answer our dumb questions, after the jump.
We love that you boil down the fiercest fight in baseball right now — statheads vs. scouts — down to, essentially, "nobody knows anything." Do you think a lot of that is bluster? Who do you see controlling the game in 10 years?
Ah, the great feud. Baseball's Waterloo. The ultimate smackdown cage match of death! Yes, I think it's a little overblown. It's no secret that baseball teams were slow to embrace the quantitative stuff and that they're all looking for ways to cover that flank now. They're definitely using more stats, especially for things like the late rounds of the amateur draft, when they used to basically throw darts. I'm pretty sure the list of teams who would consider Tony Womack as a leadoff option is a little shorter. But as I mention in the book, the stats are only able to predict the performance of ballplayers with about 60 percent accuracy. Nobody knows how accurate the scouts are, since that's never been quantified, but it's hard to imagine they're better than that. I think baseball is a game played by humans and is therefore susceptible to the vagaries of human nature. But isn't that what makes it fun?
It's pretty amazing when you go to Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca and give him statistics about Josh Phelps he knew nothing about. (It's almost no surprise he was fired shortly thereafter.) Did you ever actually think, when you talked to some of these managerial guys, that you might actually persuade them to do something? Or were you just sort of playing around?
Going in, I never thought I would take it as far as I did. But sometime in June before a game I showed some pitch count statistics to Bob Cluck, Detroit's pitching coach. He literally grabbed my arm and pulled me into Alan Trammell's office and asked me to repeat them. That's when I started to realize that baseball was a lot more insular than I thought. When the hell does Joe Torre have time to read up on the latest Sabermetrical theories of bullpen usage? He doesn't. It's hard enough for these guys to find a working coffee pot in the visitor's clubhouse, much less log on to Baseball Prospectus. These guys are so busy making 100 little decisions a day that they don't have time to get a lot of input from the outside. So the whole thing started out as kind of a goof but got a lot more serious. At one point in September, I talked to Lou Piniella about using one of my guys (B.J. Upton) as a DH, and a few days later he actually started doing it. I'm not sure if I had anything to do with this, but I'm pretty sure I was one of only a few people who offered an opinion.
You have no idea what kind of fantasy nerd dream you're living by getting some of your players to wear your team T-shirt. How do you even approach a guy to do that?
I can't explain it. In other areas of my life, I
m pretty easily mortified. I don't care how drunk I am, there
s NO WAY I'm getting up on stage at a karaoke bar. But for some reason I'm a different guy in the clubhouse. I've always been able to ask athletes the most idiotic and bizarre questions without feeling the least bit self-conscious. So saying something like, "Dude, you
re on my Roto team, do you want a shirt?" wasn
t that far from the ordinary. In general, these guys were happy to get them — not because they were honored to be on my team, but because they basically travel around half the year living out of a duffel bag and don't have much time to go shopping. Getting a freebie shirt increases their wardrobe by something like 40 percent. The best moment was when I got a call from a guy at the White Sox who told me he
d seen Damaso Marte wearing my shirt on the field during warmups. The next time I was in Chicago, Marte told me it was his "lucky" shirt. I snapped a picture of him wearing it, which is up on my Web site: Fantasylandthebook.com. It was one of a bunch of moments during that season where I was thinking: Holy shit. Did that really just happen?
We were continually impressed and surprised that you had such open access to players. Does the WSJ have some super press pass that allows you to just show up at any game at any time? And what percentage of the players, would you say, actually like fantasy baseball, and which are annoyed with what it stands for? It seems, as you note, as a bit of an extension of the stathead notion that they
re robotic stat producers.
If I don
t say this up front, Dow Jones security will be clearing out my desk within the half-hour. The WSJ had nothing to do with any of this, other than granting me a leave to write a book about managing a baseball team that doesn't really exist (which is a story in itself, I guess). To get credentials, I had to explain the book's premise about 200 times to various people. Some of the team media guys knew me well enough to figure I wasn't going to do anything too ridiculous. A few of them actually play Roto, so they were surprisingly sympathetic. As for the ballplayers, yeah, a fair number of them hate Roto. Some of them have friends who draft them in their leagues every year and give them a hard time whenever they hit a slump. Some of them don't like being singled out from the team, especially if they don't look so good under the statistical microscope. But what surprised me is that the majority of players has either made peace with fantasy or even come to appreciate it. Major leaguers are strongly discouraged from playing fantasy baseball (for obvious reasons), but there
s a fantasy football league in just about every clubhouse. Eric Hinske once held me captive for 15 minutes explaining how Curtis Martin ruined his fantasy team.
Honestly, we think actually going to locker rooms and asking athletes the same questions over and over seems like the least fun thing in the world to do, which is why we do this site instead of being a sports journalist anymore. You touch on the idea that this book was a way of removing all the cynicism that being a sports reporter had built up in you. Are you having more fun at your job now? You want to do this forever?
Once you get a few gray hairs, there's something really absurd about covering sports. There
s something crazy about watching Bob Ryan or Peter Gammons walk up to some ballplayer or random team flunky, whip out a notebook and start writing down everything the dude has to say. I think it's the rare guy like Ryan or Gammons who has the nimbleness of mind to keep finding new ways to love the job. I'm not sure I'm one of them. There's a large part of me that would rather live in a Mongolian yurt for six months than write another story about steroids or ballpark financing or to try to wring another quote out of Juan Gonzalez.
I think that's what this book was about for me: finding a way to continue to love the job and to love baseball, no matter how many stupid moves the management makes. And you know what? It worked. It might sound corny, but some of the players I followed that season — David Ortiz, Jacque Jones, Bill Mueller and Doug Mientkiewicz, to name a few — reminded me that baseball is a really hellaciously hard game to play. I have a lot more respect for the guys in cleats now.
As a WSJ guy, do you read sports blogs? Do you trust them? Is there value for a reporter in them?
Maybe not a reporter who's covering the ins and outs of the new bankruptcy legislation on Capitol Hill, but for a sports reporter, absolutely. Anybody who whines that you can
t "trust" the sports blogs is missing the point. As a group, newspapers take sports much too seriously and by doing so, they've made themselves irrelevant to the conversations that 90 percent of knowledgeable sports fans are actually having. So while most newspaper sportswriters are vomiting up their "take" on the most predictable headline of the day, everybody else is talking about their fantasy teams or those Matt Leinart photos or what Clinton Portis is wearing in the locker room or (let
s face it) the latest developments in the lives of Renee and Angela.
I'm not sure what direction the sports blogs are heading in, but the traditional "sports section" is looking more pointless by the hour.
We enjoyed seeing the personalities behind the "fantasy expert" personas of a lot of these guys. (We loved Ron Shandler
s "response" to you on his site.) Since they
ve read the book, is everybody pretty cool with it?
Wait ... You mean somebody was cool with it? I
m kidding. Most of the guys in Tout Wars are fine with their portrayals. Ron Shandler may not like my assessment of the relative dimness of his basement, and Lawr Michaels may have a point when he says that his hairdo isn't technically a mullet, but they're not going to light me on fire at the Tout Wars draft. Still, writing a book like this about a group of guys who are enormously competitive with one another was a tough business. Some feelings were hurt along the way, and I've had some calls and email exchanges with people in the league that have been personally difficult. As a writer, you have to say things about people in print that you would never tell them as a friend. Still, I think readers know that the book isn't a serious attempt at writing the biographies of these guys; it's about what I saw and thought while playing in this league and getting my butt kicked by these enormously smart people. And at the end of the day, nobody comes across looking like a bigger jackass than I do.
After playing in Tout Wars, can you ever play in a "citizen" fantasy league again?
Absolutely. Hey, I'm $50,000 in the hole on Rotisserie leagues now. After taking on people like Jason Grey, Joe Sheehan, Trace Wood and Matt Berry, I have no problem beating up on civilians and taking their money.
Our favorite little tidbit is the guy who, since he only plays fantasy baseball and has no rooting interest in any particular team, just buys team merchandise from the bargain bin, since he doesn
t care what the logo is. That's hysterical, and kind of sad. Do you think fantasy sports can take away some of the joy of being a fan in that kind of way?
The way I see it, there are two types of fans. The Type 1 fan is the guy who has been socialized to think that you're supposed to pick one team, watch all of its games, follow its roster moves, set up a memorabilia shrine in your basement and basically bond with it for life no matter how much it starts to resemble the Detroit Tigers. But there
s a subset of Type 2 fans like Steve Moyer, the guy who shops in the discount bins. They just want to be fans of baseball generally without having to bow down every summer and put their mental health in the hands of Josh Paul. A lot of these people love Roto because it's a pure expression of the way they engage with the game. As a Tigers fan, I'm starting to think the Type 2 guys have it figured out.
We always find it strange how MLB (and the NFL) embrace fantasy sports now that they
re so huge online, even though, for the most part, they're That Demon Gambling. Do you see any hypocrisy there?
Totally. But I have a hard time getting outraged about it. Maybe if the owners can make a fat profit on fantasy games, they'll stop charging $9 for a cup of that yellowish bubblewater they serve at the ballpark.
Seeing as Nando lives on my couch, it
s really not that difficult to keep in touch ... I
m joking. Sig and I talk all the time, although now that he's working for the Cardinals he's a lot less chatty about all the mind-altering statistical advancements he
s working on. Nando and I talk almost daily. He helped me through the Tout Wars draft last year, and he'll be back at my side again this time. At the moment I'm a little concerned, though. Last time I heard from him he was on a balcony overlooking the French Quarter during Mardi Gras trying to balance the phone on his shoulder without spilling a drop of any of the three beers he was carrying. Since then, nothing.
As many people that we know play fantasy baseball, we think we know even more who play fantasy football. Have you ever played that? That seems decidedly less scientific.
Never played. To be honest, it doesn
t seem complicated enough to turn you into a total nutjob, so I doubt I ever will.
So, you ready for your next book? Get on that.
Definitely. But first I gotta fix the Knicks.