Fantasyland: True Tales from America’s Most Compulsive Fantasy League by Sam Walker

Around this time of year I am always tempted by books about baseball. The weather is warming up. The teams are about ready to open up the season. This year is bittersweet due to the sports stoppages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yesterday was meant to be Opening Day and I miss the game terribly. Still, I did my baseball reading with Fantasyland: True Tales from America’s Most Compulsive Fantasy League. Our author, Sam Walker, is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal and he takes part in the only Fantasy Baseball league in which you need an invitation from its creator; and he’s in it to win.

The year is 2004 and Sam Walker is ready to take part in Tout Wars, the most exclusive Fantasy Baseball league in the country. Not only does Walker want to make an impression on this league, he wants to win. There is no money involved (except for the auction draft) only bragging rights. This league is filled with several baseball bigwigs. Jason Grey who, today, is a fantasy analyst on ESPN; Ron Shandler, the creator of Baseball Forecaster, the year’s guide to every baseball player; and Lawr Michaels who worked for Fangraphs.com. Walker is so determined to win that he goes to the Winter Meetings to badger GMs and managers about players. He even hires two “helpers” to draft and manage his team: Nando is in charge of scouting. He’s the humanist of the group. It’s his job to find out everything about every player. Have they recently signed a big deal? Gotten married? Lost a family member?; Sig Mejdal is the numbers guy. He works for NASA as a day job, but his dream is to work for a major league team as a stats guy. His job is to look at players by stats only. Are they worth spending big on at the draft? If we trade David Ortiz, can we get anything equal in return? Walker spends nearly $46,000 and travels across the country to try and make his mark in this ultra-exclusive fantasy league. Despite all of their hard work, the trio comes in 8th out of 12.

By far, my favorite part of this book is the description of the draft. Tout Wars’ 2004 auction draft is AL only and takes place in a Wyndam Hotel conference room. Each league member has $260 to spend for his roster. They work each other over by driving prices up on players they don’t want each other to have. Or they nominate players they don’t want and hope someone will spend their money on him. Walker goes into the draft wanting elite pitching. He walks away with Mariano Rivera and Curt Schilling so he did his job. He also walks away, however, with a pitcher he wanted no part of: Sidney Ponson. Walker nominated the pitcher himself and put him put there for $12, about $6 higher than he should have. Absolutely no one bid on Ponson who, at the time, was far too overweight and had off-the-field issues. It was hilarious to read Walker’s description of his blunder.

I love playing Fantasy Baseball myself so it was really cool to read about someone else’s experience. Granted, I don’t let it claim control over my life quite like Walker did (he was at Yankee Stadium watching a couple of his players when his wife told him she was pregnant), it still holds a special place every season. Hopefully we get some form of baseball season this year. The game is dearly missed.

Fantasyland

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