Thursday, March 09, 2006

Book Preview: Fantasyland by Sam Walker


The usual disclaimers apply: I'm not really much of a book guy. I'd almost always rather be out drinking. That's why you get a "preview" instead of a "review" - because there's about a 50% chance I'll never make it to the end of any given book. You've been warned.

One of the joys of March is getting jazzed up about the upcoming baseball season, and I've found this year's book for doing so. Fantasyland bills itself as "A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe", which sounds about as interesting as...well, as listening to someone talk about their fantasy baseball league. Which is what this book is. Which would be torture. Why do I think I'm going to like book again?

Well, for starters, Twins Geek is mentioned. Or rather "TwinsGeek chatroom" is mentioned. They're referring to the old comments section that existed on the StarTribune.com web site and they're specifically referring to the debate that went on when Doug Mientkiewicz was traded in 2004. And that's why most Twins fan will love this book - it is packed with inside information about the 2004 Twins team.

That's the case for a lot of teams, because Sam Walker was a sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal who had never played fantasy baseball in his life, but was invited to play in Tout Wars, the premier fantasy baseball league in the world. And he is determined to win the damn thing, in part because he wants to see if his inside access to the world of baseball trumps the nerdy stat guys.

So he goes a little overboard. Like hiring a NASA scientist to crunch numbers. And an assistant to organize research. And renting an office as the "war room". And taking a hiatus from his job. And using his press access to interview GMs and scouts at the Winter Meetings. And players at spring training. And I'm only on page 49.

But the best part, as far as I can tell, is that he's determined to manage his team. And I don't mean deciding who is "starting" on his team. I mean sitting down with the players he drafted and trying to improve their approach at the plate. Or trying to talk their coach into getting them more playing time. Or trying to convince a GM to trade for one of his players because he'll be a starter on the new team. This guy had access and was determined to use it.

Since two of the players on his team are Jacque Jones and Doug Mientkiewicz, some Twins are featured prominently in the book. For instance, he tries to influence the Mientkiewicz trade. Remember when we kept wondering on this site why the Pirates would have any interest in Minky? This insight might help...

"Sad as I am to see one of my players shipped out, it also presents an opportunity. Reports say the two teams most interested in Mientkiewicz are the Red Sox, who would probably use him as an occasional defensive substitute, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who would play him every day. In Rotisserie terms, I'd much rather see Mientkiewicz go to Pittsburgh, where he'll be a mainstay in the lineup.

At noon Sig and I begin to pore over the numbers, looking for some compelling and hertofore undiscovred reason why the Pirates should acquire our $12 first baseman, and after wading through all the lukewarm arguments, we strike pay dirt. Sig notices that the Pirates home infield is a difficult surface to play on. In fact, the the last two
seasons there were 42 percent more infield errors committed at Pirates home games than Pirates road games, which is the biggest deviation in baseball. Nonetheless, I notice that the Pirates' starting pitchers have a strong tendency to give up more ground balls than fly balls, and the bullpen is even more extreme. So not only do the Pirates have a bad infield surface, they've built a pitching staff that actually exacerbates the problem. If there's any team that needs a Gold Glove first baseman, it's this one.

Hanging up with Sig, I deal a number with a 412 area code.

"Dave Littlefield", a voice says."

I mean, honestly, how great is that? And Mientkiewicz is a cameo compared to Jacque Jones. Jones looks over Walker's the roto handbooks during spring training when the roto books hated Jones. Walker drafted him anyway, presented him with a trophy for "player of the month" (for his roto team) and talked to Jones about his approach at the plate. He also watched Jones deal with the death of his father up close and found he was caring far more for these players on his team than he ever had as a disspassionate sportswriter.

So far, it's a fun ride, with a guy who is almost purposely going off the deep end, and mocking himself while doing it. I'll let you know if I find some more fun stuff, or you could just grab it yourself (and likely beat me to the punch).

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