Peter Handrinos is a frequent
contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York
Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for
Some say you’ve got to be
realistic. Fans prefer baseball.
The game’s always been an escape
from day-to-day reality. When the outside world produces confusion, the ole’
ball game’s as clear as a 4-6-3 double play. When real life
offers ambiguity, the game provides box scores and league standings. When
politicians and the powers-that-be talk their way around everything, the
National Pastime offers the cold, hard facts in endless statistics.
Baseball’s always been a ‘fantasy’
refuge, but the word’s gained a whole new meaning over the last 25 years or so.
When Daniel Okrent and a small circle of Manhattan-based friends first
popularized stat-based competitions in the early 1980’s, their ‘Rotisserie’
competitions brought role-playing to baseball for the first time. Fans suddenly
had the option of competing against each other through mock drafts and trades,
with the winners determined by the real-world Major Leaguers selected by amateur
The whole thing has exploded to a
level that few could have imagined a generation ago. In the new millennium the
fans' stat games have become a thriving adjunct to the players’ games- it’s estimated that 15 million
participants make up nearly as many leagues, all while paying out over a billion
dollars in entry fees, statistics research, scouting services, the works. Some
predict that the still-mushrooming economics of fantasy sports will one day
approach the dollars involved in real-world baseball.
Sam Walker’s ‘Fantasyland’ is the first book to
provide an in-depth look at all facets of that world, and it does so in
remarkable fashion. Certainly, it echoes 'Moneyball' in its breakdown of the
market innovations and competitive edges produced by stat-based evaluations, but
it also examines how the contests foster new appreciations for the on-field
performances as well as off-field negotiations. Most of all, the book’s shot
through with glimpses the excesses, wacky humor, nerdy intensity produced when
die-hard fans compete in the game they love. “These people have taken a goofy
parlor game and turned it into a winner-take-all death match. They don’t want to
beat you, they want to chew your organs,” he writes, not without some
Walker's book is more than a great read
- it may be one of the most engrossing and entertaining baseball books ever
written. Recently, Sam discussed his journey into
Where you aware of fantasy
baseball games while you were growing up?
I was vaguely aware of it. The
first inkling I had of this other, analytical world of baseball was my dad’s
library - he had all the Bill James books, and I’d stare at them and leaf
through them. I expected to see, you know, glossy pictures of Kirk Gibson and
Alan Trammell, but instead they had these reams of numbers and a lot of big
words. I can’t say it grabbed me. To me, baseball was a game you played, and I
loved playing. It dominated my summers back home.
Dad loved baseball - in addition
to his books, he listened to Tigers games on the radio and took us out to the
ball park a lot. Looking back, though, he enjoyed it mostly as an intellectual
exercise, rather than a physical thing where, you know, he was out there
actually taking grounders. I remember my brother and I would ask, ‘C’mon, let’s
play catch’, and he’d come out, but somewhat begrudgingly.
So the dad was thinking about the
off-the-field baseball ideas while the kid was thinking about the on-field
I’d say that’s true. For Dad,
baseball was something you played in your mind, something that occupied your
thoughts. To me, for the longest time, it was mostly a sport on a ball
You know, part of the incredible
power in the game is how it works on either level. You can think about
abstractions in history, social connections, and that kind of thing. There’s
something so rich in conjuring up images from the radio. At the same time, it’s
terrific to get out there on the diamond or go out at the
So, for years, you weren’t playing
fantasy baseball at all.
No. (chuckles) I described it as
‘years of principled resistance’ but, seriously, it just wasn’t a part of my
Looking in from the outside, what
were your impressions of fantasy players?
Well, my friends played, going way
back. In college, the arguments these guys would have . . . they’d be at the
dining hall tables arguing, arguing and then I’d finish my food and leave, go up
and do some homework, and an hour later, they’d still be arguing ‘Mike Schmidt
vs. Dale Murphy’ or something. (chuckles) What can you say? I thought they were
fanatics. They’d cheerfully admit as much.
Why did you finally take the
plunge into it?
It’s funny. Covering baseball for
the Journal, I ended up getting away
from the sport on the field a little bit. There was kind of an ugly stretch
there for a few years, when it seemed like everything was about ballpark
financing, Bud Selig, a possible strike, steroids. It got kind of tough to watch
without getting kind of sidetracked or upset about some issue or other. The line
in the book was ‘I ended up knowing more about the Diamondback owners’ liquidity
than their starting rotation’, and that was literally
My fantasy baseball friends,
though, they were still going strong, and their love for the game was completely
unshakable. All they cared about was how many RBI’s Manny would get this year.
You couldn’t get them down on something if you tried, and I really wanted to get
back to that level of excitement.
I have to believe that a lot of
big-time baseball fans stay away from fantasy leagues exactly because they
respect the excitement involved. Many don’t play for the same reason they don’t
They figure they’ll become
obsessed, too. ‘Better to stay away altogether’, is the
I’ve heard the analogy. Another
analogy is air guitar - fantasy is to baseball fans what air guitar is to music
lovers. You know what I mean - you’re so overtaken in the moment that it’s not
enough to just sit back and enjoy it, you have to get up and participate in some
way, even at the risk of social embarrassment.
I’d say fantasy is pretty much the
same thing - a lot of fans love baseball so much that they want to get involved
on a deeper level, even if outsiders get the feeling they’re getting too
With ‘Fantasyland’ as a chronicle
of your introduction, you mentioned how your perception of the Major Leagues
started to shift. Can you talk about that?
I think we’re all conditioned to
believe that the way to be a fan is to pick a favorite baseball team early in
life, to bond with it, to buy tickets, to build a shrine in your room, to stick
with them through thick or thin, no matter what. Some people are able to do
that, obviously, but it’s problematic. I mean, I grew up as a Detroit Tigers
fan, and [the championship season of] ‘84 was the greatest year of my life, but
not too much later, it occurred to me, ‘That might be it for a while’. And it has been a while. From the time I was in
8th grade until now, when I’m married with a child, we haven’t been
Fantasy is different. By forcing
you to scout most every player in the Majors, it tends to give you a stake in
most every player in the Majors. I start talking about ‘my players’ and ‘my
[fantasy league] team’ far more than the guys on real-world rosters.
You became a fan of every team,
I became far, far bigger fan of
every team. I mean, once the season got started, there was no such thing as a
meaningless game. Most games had at least one of ‘my players’ and, beyond that,
every game, every day had some impact on the fantasy [league] standings. I don’t
care if it was the Brewers and Rockies in a battle for last place, I was
hanging on every pitch, thinking of a player I didn’t draft, or one of my
competitor’s picks. Or a new call-up - did he have a hole in his swing? Whatever
it might be.
It’s almost as if the whole game -
every team, every day - became an extension of my own ego and beliefs and
judgments. There was always some
storyline or some small truth to be mined.
A lot of the humor in
‘Fantasyland’ is how everything became so much more personal once you started
playing fantasy baseball. For instance, you talk about requesting Mariano Rivera’s autograph for the first time, after seven years covering him for the
Wall Street Journal.
I always felt that, when you’re a
sportswriter, you have to have a level of objectivity. You can’t be a
starry-eyed fan, you have to pull back a bit and observe what’s really
happening, outside the emotions of the moment. I kind of prided myself in not
being too taken with athletes. I suppose many fans are like that.
But, honestly, Rotisserie
obliterated that, and that Rivera thing may have been when I realized something
had changed. [Once he was drafted number one overall] Mariano Rivera wasn’t
merely an athlete anymore - he was my guy, saving games . . . for me, in some sense. I realize how bizarre
that must sound, but within the context of the league, it was absolutely
That was a real revelation for me.
Before reading the book, I assumed that the whole thing was about treating ball
players as commodities.
Not in those moments. There was
something so uplifting in committing to a player, staking your personal pride to
his performance, even when one of your competitors didn’t believe in him or
tried to trade him away. Like I said, a ball player becomes your guy. You can’t dismiss him as some
lucky, overpaid jock who’s sort of detached from everything else. There’s a
whole new emotional investment. I’d never felt anything quite like it before.
The ‘commodities’ issue is
interesting. You know, fantasy really picked up steam in the early ‘80’s, not
long after free agency came along, and I’m convinced that it’s not a
coincidence. A lot of fans started realizing that, ‘Hey, if the players can
choose their teams, shouldn’t we be able to choose our players?’ And they did.
They cared about players just as much, only they were ‘their’ fantasy players.
I never thought of it that way -
free agency for the fans.
I believe that’s what happened,
basically. That doesn’t mean that fans weren’t attached to the local, real-world
teams. That’ll always be true. It just meant that fans found a new option for
their personal attachment and thinking and, before you know it, USA Today and baseball reference books
started taking off. Then it was James and a whole array of new sabermetrics.
Then it was the internet and a thousand great web sites.
Who would have guessed the oldest
team sport in America would have the capacity for that
kind of innovation?
Not Daniel Okrent. He’s gone on
record in saying that he was completely shocked by how quickly fantasy took off,
how it’s become this huge industry. It might account for $1 billion or more
The connection between modern free
agency and fantasy goes further, though, in the sense that a lot of fantasy
league experts ended up influencing the Major Leagues. Bill James was only the
most famous example.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? One
of James’ first big breaks was when Okrent wrote a [Sports Illustrated] piece in the early
‘80’s. Another founder, Lee Eisenberg, gave James his first job, writing the
baseball preview for Esquire. Yet
another founder, Peter Gathers, published his first big book.
At every point since, there’s been
this grassroots, almost insurgent campaign to start transforming old-line
baseball thinking. Computers helped, too, but fantasy created the market demand
for baseball innovation and analysis. It’s still going on.
I mean, look of the guys who’ve
been associated with Tout Wars, which is
still known only to this very thin subset of fantasy guys. Seven or eight former
players are now employed by Major League Baseball, working for the Brewers, for
the Cardinals, for the Mariners. It’s amazing.
They’re employed as number
crunchers, essentially. How much of the fantasy competition was on the other
side, in playing hunches and going with your
Statistics might get you, let’s
say, 60% of the way home, but it’s not enough to win. To get over the hump, you
have to be witness things with your own eyes, you have to consult with scouts
and people with experience, and make sure the real world jibes with the numbers.
It’s only when both sides match up that you really have something
When I got started in ‘Tout Wars’,
I actually thought my big advantage would be on the personal side. I figured,
‘OK, I’ll hire someone for the stats, but the guys in the league don’t look
beyond the surface. I’m a sportswriter - I can go to GM’s, I can go to into
clubhouses, I can talk to the scouts’. I figured that would be my key, the extra
Sam, it was a great
Yeah. (chuckles) You know how it
Which didn’t quite work out as
Nah. In the end, I did so badly
[in the league competition] because I actually got the worst of both worlds.
Sometimes I concentrated on the numbers too much; sometimes I concentrated on
ball players’ personalities too much.
I realized I was in trouble in
Spring Training, when I ran into Bill Mueller of the Red Sox. We started talking
a little bit about baseball, then we got into his dog, what kind of beer he
drank in college . . . He was just this solid, humble guy. Terry Francona said
he was the kind of guy you’d want to adopt if you could. Jacque Jones was
another guy who really impressed me with his personal character. Another one was
Doug Mientkiewicz. Once I got into that, it kind of affected my objective
judgment, which was trouble.
I hated finishing in eighth place,
but even so, I wouldn’t necessarily trade the experience for anything.
How do you
Well, before I wrote the book, I
remember being in the Stadium after Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, when Aaron Boone broke the Red Sox’ hearts with the home run in extra innings. Boone came
right up to me in the Yankees clubhouse and my thought was, ‘Please don’t pour
that champagne on me’. You know, I was a little bit jaded.
In the 2004 playoffs, I’d gone
through an entire season with Jacque Jones on my fantasy roster, and it was a
brutal year for him, with his father being diagnosed with cancer in June and
passing away before the playoffs. When he hit a home run off Mike Mussina
[before Game One of the ALDS], I was absolutely elated. It felt like that scene
in ‘Jerry Maguire’. I was so proud of him, and I don’t want to say that in a
condescending way, but to say, ‘What a great human accomplishment. He did it’.
You know, we live in this age or
irony and we’re not necessarily into hero worship, but, going back to what I
said before, there was an emotional investment there. I knew that Jacque Jones’ home run was
heroic, and I never would have felt that without drafting him in this crazy
That sounds completely sane to me,
but you subtitled the book as ‘A Season on Baseball's
Lunatic Fringe’. Why?
Oh, that was some hyperbole. I
know [fantasy players] are more than sane, that they’re very rational, and I
communicated through the book. It goes without saying that my competitors were
all extraordinarily gifted in some way.
What I meant by [the phrase] is
that fantasy players go to extremes in their love for baseball. And by no means
do I exempt myself from that - I ended up spending more than $50,000 to win a
competition with zero dollars in prize money, with no trophy or banquet.
One of the stories that came out
of the book was Ron Shandler, who was a member of the league and one of the
foremost fantasy pundits in the country. Just as I started writing the book in
2003, he was negotiating with the Cardinals and he eventually signed on as a
consultant to the team, with a salary and a title. But, from the minute he
started talking about it, he didn’t seem very happy - he wasn’t sure why he was
doing it or if he was having any impact. At the end of the year, both sides
decided he would step aside. He said, ‘In the end, I’d rather win Tout Wars than
the World Series’.
I loved that story because it was
about being a real purist, as so many fantasy players are. However silly and
eccentric it can be at the edges, there’s a caring there, and not as a means to
outside money or attention, but as an end in itself.
Sure, just for the satisfaction.
They go through high and lows, just like anyone else. Most everyone seems to be
playing from good motivations, purely for the satisfaction of thinking and
living in a beautiful game.
Maybe that is a fantasy (chuckles), but being a
sports fan, in general, is about doing nutty things and having fun. It’s about
being inspired, whether it’s a ball club winning the real World Series or
someone hitting a crucial double for Rotisserie.
You mean, Omar Minaya and Brian
Cashman are fantasy players, too?
(chuckles) I wouldn’t go quite
that far. They have some big budgets and salaries connected to their work. If
they make too many mistakes, they don’t just lose - they get
Most GM’s, I’d say, are almost a
dead heat with the best fantasy players in evaluating, finding new information,
doing their best to crunch the numbers and tally the intangibles. Front offices
may have more resources, but their thought processes aren’t necessarily
What the best GM’s do have is
another dimension - they can really relate to personalities and the media.
They’re talented in that kind of extroverted way, and that’s important. [Blue
Jays General Manager] J.P. Ricciardi said, ‘The difference between fantasy
players and GM’s is that we have actually deal with our players face-to-face’.
That’s valid and important.
Speaking of personal
relationships, what did you learn about your fellow fantasy players during the
Well, going in, part of my plan
was to get to know their psychologies, figure out their weaknesses, and then use
that to swing all kinds of lopsided trades. What did I learn? That they were
pretty sharp and they were playing me, too. (chuckles)
Still, the basic approach seemed
right. If I’d give any advice in winning your fantasy league, I’d say - find a
way to figure out what your fellow players are doing. Definitely, know your
stuff about the ball players, but figure out your opposition’s moves, too.
Scout the scouts, in other
Exactly, and like I said, that was
In the past, like everyone else,
I’ve negotiated for a car, an apartment, things like that, but the fantasy thing
took that to a whole other level. With possible trades, I started thinking, ‘OK,
who can I sell on a really dumb idea?’, ‘Who’s going to give me too much?’. That
was a whole level of salesmanship I’ve never dealt with
In a way, you wrote a terrific
business book, too. I loved your insight on the negotiation process - ‘The best
of the best have such an uncanny human radar that they can talk an opponent into
doing the single stupidest thing he’s capable of, all without telling a single
Yeah, well, I was on the other
side of that, too. More than once.
That’s another thing - there’s
honor among fantasy players, like there is among General Managers in the Majors.
Everybody’s trying to get ahead and it’s a zero-sum game, but if you lie to
someone? You’re dead. No one will want to deal with you again, or they’ll be so
wary that you’ll be at a real disadvantage.
Did the competition change how you
watch baseball today? Are you too busy calculating equivalent adjusted ERA’s to
enjoy peanuts and Cracker Jacks?
No, no. I still like the way the
park smells and the mellow pace of a ball game, that sort of thing. What’s
stayed with me is how this is truly a crazy game. You stick around long enough,
and you’ll see something new on a consistent basis. You never know, and the more
you try to put a number or theory on it, the more crazy things can
What do you see as the future of
As far as I can tell, the future’s
very bright, for a lot of the reasons we’ve been talking
I think something happens as you
get older - maybe you’re married, you’re pretty set in your career, you have a
relatively stable home life. But something hits you - you start looking for ways
to re-connect to your youth and interact with your friends. You pick up on
fantasy because you’re looking for a challenge and camaraderie. That’s been a
foundation, and I think that’ll continue.
I also think - and this may be
just a crazy theory of mine - but more and more fans are interacting with the
world of baseball in a new way. Young people, in school and college, absolutely
take fantasy competition for granted as a central influence. If the
powers-that-be improve the marketing and administration / execution somewhat,
there may be a day when fantasy baseball revenues will approach or exceed the
revenue in real-world Major Leagues.
After your experience, are you
more of a baseball fan, less of a fan, or more or less the
I didn’t think it was possible for me to more of a fan.
(chuckles) It was. Baseball always had me . . . but now? Forget
The complete Table of Contents for
the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.