Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fantasyland a dream read

70. Fantasyland, Sam Walker. Baseball, 7-25p. 344

Books on baseball are generally reserved for deepest winter as a vital aid in recalling sun-drenched fields, an expanse of the greenest grass and the bluest sky. Intrigued by the premise of Sam Walker’s Fantasyland, I slipped the book onto the top of my reading list in July rather than January. It was the right thing to do. Fantasyland, a season in the trenches of the arcane world of Rotisserie League Baseball, would have been of no assistance whatsoever in summoning images of summer in the bleak mid-winter. Instead, this account of a game within the game proved a delightful distraction from baseball’s current off-field mischief and misdeeds.

Walker, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, competes in Tout Wars – an annual competition among the so-called experts of fantasy baseball. Walker doesn’t simply want to write about the experience, he wants to win. He also views the opportunity as “a noble experiment. A chance to determine, once and for all, which device was better at predicting a ballplayer’s performance: the laptop or the human eye, cold, hard data or gut hunches and intuition.”

To assist him in the process, Walker hires a NASA biomathematician, who has a master’s degrees in mathematical modeling and human-factors engineering, and an employee in a produce warehouse, who is given to researching obscure biographical details about major league ballplayers. He recruits a woman who specializes in horoscopes for ballplayers and shamelessly enlists a sexy actress friend to play the role of a photographer at the annual league draft. Her mission, in which she succeeds admirably, is to distract the other team owners, while Walker executes his pre-draft game plan.

Is Walker’s game plan a success? Is soulless number-crunching or seat-of-the-pants intuition a better device for building a baseball team? The answers to these questions, which are answered to varying degrees in Fantasyland, are less important than the journey. Walker’s behind-the-curtains view of the fantasy leagues is always fascinating and often laugh-out-loud funny. It’s an excellent, and unusual, addition to the canon of baseball literature.

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