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.
Roger Kahn is a Brooklyn-born newspaper reporter who recounts his years following the Dodgers baseball team before they moved west. The 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers team is the stuff of legends even though they had trouble winning pennants. Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Pee Wee Reese are only a few of the names that took the field for this baseball team during the time Roger was reporting on them. He got to meet, and became close with these players. He got to do things most of us only dream of doing.
Kahn begins the book by telling his own story. He remembers growing up in Brooklyn and taking the train to Ebbet’s Field. He talks about his parents. His mother and father were university professors and regarded intellect as the real measure of human culture. His mother never understood his love for the game of baseball. His father loved the Dodgers as much as Roger did and took him to games to feed his hunger to see the boys play. Kahn tells of how he came into the newspaper business. Starting as a copy boy and working his way up to be the field reporter for the Dodgers.
Next, Kahn recounts the years he followed the Dodgers team around the country watching them try to win pennant after pennant. He tells of how Jackie Robinson came to the team and the reactions of his teammates. He remembers his friendships with Campy and Duke, and about how sometimes he made them unhappy because of what he wrote. All these boys wanted was to win a world series and he reported on their sorrow when the season ended with no pennant. He also reported on his own sorrow when the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.
Lastly, Kahn tells us readers about individual players after their baseball career. He visits each one in their current hometown and writes what they’ve been doing, what they remember about their playing days, and how much they miss the game. He reports about how to get to each city they are currently residing. What surprises him about each player’s lives now that they don’t have to take the field every day. We meet their families and friends. We learn if they have to work or live comfortably with no job. He ends the book with the funeral of captain Pee Wee Reese and the reaction of his team when their leader was gone.
The most intriguing part of this book for me was that it read so much more like a narrative than a biography/autobiography. Each of these players was a character for me rather than an actual person who lived and played the game. Kahn did a wonderful job painting the pictures of cities and people. His writing made this book incredibly enjoyable especially for someone who loves baseball. The Dodgers are in no way my team, but reading about their lives in Brooklyn, and their lives after Brooklyn was such a wonderful experience.
This book is about a New York reporter who decided he would like to know what its like to be a professional umpire. Weber put himself through umpire school in Florida where he met and spoke to several other young and old men (and one woman) who were, as they say, “livin’ the dream.” Weber also spoke to members of the umpire hierarchy. Men who were in charge of the umpires still working their way up in the minor leagues. Men who are currently in charge of those same umpires. Men who work for Major League Baseball in the department that deals with Major League umpires. What Weber wrote about was very surprising to me.
Weber, of course, mentions in the book how the umpire is the one guy on the baseball field that no one roots for. No one watching the game knows their names, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. They are supposed to be invisible. We all know, though, that the moment they become visible and the crowd aware that they are there is a bad sign because that’s how you know they got a call wrong. Or at least wrong in the eyes of the fans. I knew all of this going in. I’ve been watching baseball my whole life and I know who the umpires are supposed to be. I know that they are human and they get things wrong sometimes and I think fans can be too harsh on them. Much of what Weber writes is anecdotal. Tales from former and current umpires of times they made a call and paid for the result. Times they were supposed to make a call but lost sight of the ball or bag. Times they’ve fought with players and managers because they believed their call was made correctly. I’ve seen a lot of this go on in the games I’ve watched.
What Weber wrote about that I was not aware of in professional umpiring is how these men are treated before they get to the majors. There was an anecdote that Weber wrote about an umpire who was travelling. The umpire was in a dumpy motel and was robbed at gunpoint. Shaken, the umpire could not go back to work for anxiety. He was nearly fired for not being able to work 48 hours after a traumatic experience. The staff in charge of the minor league umpires don’t seem to care what happens to them. They stick them in run-down hotels, give them a daily allowance that can feed them only in fast food, and run them ragged with their schedules. Now, many of the umpires know this going in to the job, and I respect that. But I was totally unaware that the minor league umps were treated as poorly as the minor league players. I have a whole new level of respect for these men that spend years in a crappy situation just to one day feel the joy of umpiring a major league game.