Baseball Men - The Fantasy Player

Baseball Men - The Fantasy Player

Our "Baseball Men" series continues with Sam Walker, Wall Street Journal staff writer and author of ‘Fantasyland'.

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 Die-Hard Fans'.

 

 

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 general managers.

 

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 understanding.

 

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 ‘Fantasyland':

 

 

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 action.

 

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 field.

 

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 Stadium.

 

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 life.

 

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 true.

 

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 smoke crack- 

 

(chuckles)

 

They figure they'll become obsessed, too. ‘Better to stay away altogether', is the thought.

 

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 intense.

 

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 back. 

 

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, basically.

 

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 authentic.

 

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 nowadays.

 

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 instincts?

 

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 special.

 

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 dimension.

 

Sam, it was a great plan-

 

Yeah. (chuckles) You know how it turned out.

 

Which didn't quite work out as planned.

 

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 mean?

 

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 fantasy league.

 

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 fired.

 

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 superior.

 

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 competition?

 

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 words.

 

Exactly, and like I said, that was really tough.

 

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 before.

 

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 lie'.

 

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 look.

 

What do you see as the future of fantasy baseball?

 

As far as I can tell, the future's very bright, for a lot of the reasons we've been talking about.

 

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 same?

 

I didn't think it was possible for me to more of a fan. (chuckles) It was. Baseball always had me . . .  but now? Forget it.

 

 

The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men' interview series can be found here.

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