When Every Pitch Counts

FANTASYLAND: A Season on Baseball’s Lunatic Fringe, by Sam Walker. Viking, 354 pp., $25.95.

Newsday, March 26, 2006

Robert Coover built “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.” around a solitary accountant so engrossed in an elaborate baseball-simulation game he devised that he loses touch with reality. J. Henry Waugh (whose initials suggest he is the supreme being in this fictional universe) spends his time rolling dice, not reading the sports pages or trolling the Web. But in other ways, Coover’s 1968 novel anticipates Rotisserie baseball, in which players cobble together rosters of individual ballplayers and compete based on their aggregated statistics. There have probably been casual fantasy-baseball players, but I’ve certainly never met one, and Roto drafts can trigger a kind of March madness. What else do you call the Florida man who, on medical leave from his job as an air-traffic controller, spent 70-hour weeks scouting for his 41 separate Rotisserie teams, if not the second coming of Henry Waugh?

Sam Walker, who relates the preceding anecdote in “Fantasyland,” has little in common with Waugh. Not only does Walker have a wife and plenty of friends, but, as a sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal, he’s a baseball insider. Wary of the addictiveness of fantasy sports, Walker always kept his distance until he wrote about it and realized that, while covering baseball had sapped any pleasure he used to derive from the game, Roto players maintained “an emotional investment in the outcome of every pitch.” So he decided to immerse himself in the fantasy-baseball subculture for the 2004 season and write a book about the experience.

Walker is a novice, but he talks his way into Tout Wars, an expert league of professional pundits who provide statistics, gossip and analysis for fantasy-baseball amateurs. At first, he thinks his press pass and front-office contacts will give him an edge but discovers that other touts also show up for spring training. Quickly overwhelmed, Walker hires two assistants: Sig, a moonlighting NASA mathematician with decades of player statistics on his laptop, and Nando, a baseball-crazed college graduate charged with entering every tidbit he finds on the Internet – injuries, hobbies, expressions of religious fervor – into a database called Hunchmaster.

Between Sig and Nando, Walker is paying $2,700 a month, but they help him get up to speed on hundreds of potential draftees and develop a strategy that just might let his team, the Streetwalkers, beat the experts. This odd couple allows Walker to echo the “ideological cold war” in baseball between veteran scouts and numbers-crunchers who never played baseball. It’s an imperfect parallel, however, since in fantasy sports, everyone’s crunching some kind of data. (Walker cites a sociologist who found that Roto players are 94 percent white, 98 percent male and “overwhelmingly” college educated.) Mostly, Sig, Nando and other part-time and impromptu advisers – from a baseball astrologer to David Ortiz, whom Walker is considering trading for Alfonso Soriano – let Walker externalize decisions that feel monumental to participants in Tout Wars but to outsiders are meaningless. This is true of sports, too, of course; but somehow fans believe that trading Ortiz affects them more than it does Mrs. Ortiz.

Walker succeeds in conveying the thrill of what is essentially derivatives trading. Once he gets through his preseason scouting trip, “Fantasyland” chugs along briskly, and the tense drama of the Tout Wars draft, held in a windowless hotel room near LaGuardia Airport, comes alive. The scene would be perfect if not for the sexy friend Walker hired to distract the competition with her womanly wiles while posing as a videographer. This sort of gimmickry keeps getting in his way. Walker buys a radar gun but doesn’t know what to do with it. He tours locker rooms and hands out T-shirts (and one player-of-the month trophy) to the bemused but largely indifferent Major Leaguers who are accruing home runs and strikeouts for the Streetwalkers. Later on, when Jose Guillen of the Angels and Streetwalkers is suspended for the rest of the season, Walker and Nando stage a protest outside his grievance hearing. These tactics usually fail and, taken together, raise the question of whether “Fantasyland” is one big cheap trick.

None of this will matter, I suspect, to readers who already knew the difference between Rotowire and Rotoworld. When Walker published his first piece on fantasy sports, he got loads of mail from men boasting or bellyaching about their own Roto teams but ignoring his focus on “the subtle influence that Rotisserie zealots were exerting on the major leagues.” They didn’t seem to care whether this posed a problem, and Walker’s behavior means it must not bother him, either. Fantasy sports are not quite gambling – most leagues are low-stakes contests – but there’s a tremendous amount of pride at stake. And the industry, according to Walker, now generates $150 million per year, not counting premium cable packages. A fantasy-sports scandal on the order of the Black Sox series or CCNY’s point-shaving may be only a matter of time.

Posted in