Fantasyland – A New Book by Sam Walker

A Wall Street Journal writer has penned a hilarious tale about pulling out all the stops to try to win his fantasy baseball league. And, it more than touches on the real Cardinals in the process.

It is weird. Really weird.

 

Not the book, the characters in it.

 

On March 2nd, Sam Walker's new book Fantasyland becomes available. The Wall Street Journal writer and columnist tells the most enjoyable tale about fantasy baseball and its collision course with the real game that I have ever read.

 

Granted, the thought of reading several hundred pages about someone's fantasy team might seem about as exciting as spending an entire evening with Great Aunt Louise going through her photo albums. But, Fantasyland isn't that way at all. Walker deftly weaves multiple stories together, from the history of fantasy to the backgrounds of his league competitors to his zany interactions with real-life people in Major League Baseball.

 

The lengths to which one desperate man will go in trying to win his first-ever fantasy league, the expert-level Tout Wars, are simply hilarious. Walker has more chutzpah and craziness than the aggregate of all the beat writers I have ever met. Just the fact that he wore his fantasy aspirations on his sleeve in major league clubhouses explains Walker's book's subtitle perfectly – "A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe".

 

How about asking David Ortiz what he thinks of being traded off one's fantasy team or badgering Billy Beane for roster tips? Or, how about staging an impromptu strike outside a hearing in an insane attempt to get a suspended player reinstated – a player who just happens to be a stalwart of Walker's fantasy team?

 

Or even better yet, can you believe Walker actually lobbied Dave Littlefield of the Pirates to trade for another one of his fantasy stable in real life just to improve the player's chances of securing playing time and improve Walker's team's stats in the process?

 

Yes, the by-products of what might appear on the surface to have been a simple fantasy league competition became quite strange and extreme. There is that stick of butter that Walker had to consume for losing a side bet, for example…

 

The best part is that this is all true.

 

But, that is also why it seems so strange to me. You see, I know these guys. In some cases, I know them very, very well. Many of the central characters, Walker's competitors, profiled in Fantasyland are my friends, associates and competitors in the fantasy baseball business.

 

Reading in black and white what one character says about another feels very uncomfortable at times. It is almost as if I walked up behind friends and overheard them talking about other members of the same circle.

 

Still, Walker does an excellent job of identifying both weaknesses and strengths of each of the participants in the American League Tout Wars 2004 competition, while hilariously highlighting his own foibles time and time again, of course.

 

I guess the trash talk should be expected. After all, some of these guys bring it on themselves, cultivating almost cult-like reputations that have grown to be almost larger than life. Otherwise, how could one explain business handles that sound like they're straight out of Pokemon (Mastersball) or a new rassler signed by Vince McMahon's WWE (The Talented Mr. Roto).

 

Yet, how can one argue with success? More than 15 million Americans from all walks of life play fantasy sports, spending over a billion dollars in the process, much of it in attempting to feed a seemingly-insatiable appetite for advice and information.

 

Despite this, while the NFL wisely uses Peyton Manning and other superstars to promote fantasy, the lords of Major League Baseball did their best to ignore the explosion - until they saw the dollar signs, that is. Now, go to mlb.com and you'll find almost a dozen different games waiting for you, not to mention references to ugly lawsuits as they try to corner the market on the use of game statistics.

 

Meanwhile, Mastersball, TMR, CREATiVESPORTS and the other fantasy businesses represented by the players in the Tout Wars leagues have built bases of literally thousands of satisfied, no, make that hundreds of thousands, of devoted customers, each of whom is seemingly looking for the edge to win their league this year and humiliate their brother-in-law or that jerk from accounting in the process.

 

As noted above, while the "Lunatic Fringe" subtitle of Fantasyland is appropriate enough, the reality is that for many of these fantasy experts, that fringe is becoming more and more mainstream. In fact, major league organizations have hired seven current or former members of Tout Wars as scouts or consultants in recent times. One of them is Ron Shandler of BaseballHQ.

 

As luck would have it, the subplots of Fantasyland hold plenty of references to the St. Louis Cardinals. First of all, Shandler's hiring by the Cards as a consultant prior to the 2004 season led him to give up his spot in the National League Tout Wars competition just to avoid the perception of conflict of interest. That helped open the door for people like me to join Tout. But, that is a different story for a different day.

 

As I documented a year ago January, Shandler resigned his post with the Cardinals after one year for at least two reasons. First, he wasn't getting the traction in the team's decision-making process that he had hoped. But, more importantly, Shandler's employment by the Cardinals was causing his clients to question his motives in his core business of fantasy player valuation. Understandably, something had to give. As a result, Ron Shandler chose his fantasyland over the real thing.

 

However, that story has already been told. (link)

The fact is that I probably should be reviewing the book in detail here instead of veering further off track. However, I already believe that not only will Fantasyland receive a veritable avalanche of fawning reviews very soon, but Walker's book is also going to become a best-seller in the process. I am quite sure of it. Fantasyland is that good.

 

As a result of this inevitability, I realized that I would need to take a different approach so this article isn't buried in that inevitable mound of high praise. I have ready access to Walker, Shandler and most of the other key characters in Fantasyland. But, other writers will surely go there, too.

 

So instead, I have chosen to focus on one of the key supporting characters in the book, one of the two members of the crack research team Walker hired in his furious and futile attempt to take American League Tout Wars 2004. You'll understand why in a moment.


Despite being a self-professed fantasy neophyte,
Walker believed he already had a built-in advantage based upon his credentialed access to major league players and baseball executives. Just to make sure, he leveraged the financial resources provided him by his book advance to hire both a full-time scout and a statistician, not to mention consulting an astrologer. Walker spent close to $50,000 in the process, just to help him try to win Tout Wars.

 

Fantasy and reality all come together perfectly in the person of Walker's personal statistician, one Sigurd Mejdal.

 

As chronicled in the book, this former NASA scientist was exclusively employed by Walker for the 2004 AL Tout Wars campaign. Just reading how Walker played Mejdal off against his intuitive co-hire and partner was entertaining enough on its own. But after Fantasyland ends, the story becomes even better the next season.

 

You see, in April, 2005, St. Louis Cardinals Vice President of Player Procurement Jeff Luhnow hired Mejdal as the team's new "senior quantitative analyst".

 

That's right. Walker's "dispassionate statistician" from Fantasyland achieved his goal of actually working in the game and is as happy as can be as he plies his algorithms for the Redbirds.

 

Now, instead of simply trying to win a fantasy experts league, Mejdal is lending his considerable brainpower to the army trying to help the Cardinals capture their first World Series in almost a quarter century and develop a strong minor league system upon which to build the future.

 

After I asked Walker to hook me up with Sig to discuss Fantasyland and the Cardinals, Mejdal initially seemed a bit bewildered as to why I would want to do so. Perhaps it is just a bit too early for him to appreciate what is happening. Soon enough though, I think Sig will realize his 15 minutes of fame is coming just ahead in the next hour.

 

But, first things first. I strongly encourage you to preorder your copy of Fantasyland from Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com now. Trust me; you will not be disappointed.

Then come back here tomorrow to meet Sig Mejdal. I think you'll find it an entertaining and enlightening read.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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