A fantasy journey that's all too real

March 07, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Fantasyland

Sam Walker

Viking Press/354 pages

I knew I would like Sam Walker's Fantasyland from the moment the first scene unfurled.

Walker, a Wall Street Journal reporter, is talking with outfielder Jacque Jones in the Minnesota Twins' spring clubhouse. He hopes to divine the player's true nature because he thinks Jones might be a sleeper pick in his fantasy draft.

The outfielder spots a copy of the Baseball Forecaster by fantasy guru Ron Shandler in Walker's bag. He flips to Shandler's prediction for his season. It's not good. Shandler believes Jones' average and power will plummet.

The outfielder's countenance sinks.

"It seems entirely possible that Jacque Jones is about to cry," Walker writes.

Fantasyland is all about these collisions between real and fantasy baseball. Walker had never played fantasy before 2004, but he talked his way into a league of top-notch fantasy experts called Tout Wars. He figured he'd use his contacts around the game to upstage the number crunchers.

What ensues is a fantasy leaguer's dream journey. Walker travels to Florida and Arizona to scout potential picks. He hires two assistants. When one of his guys is slumping, he travels to encourage the player in person. He hands out team T-shirts to real major leaguers.

The exercise is such an over-the-top lark and Walker is so skillful at recounting it, that it's hard not to be charmed. If you've already caught the fantasy bug, Walker's book will make you laugh as you see the signs of deepening obsession. For those who don't play, it's a guidebook to how your friends and loved ones lost themselves in this imaginary pastime.

Walker sketches the history of the fantasy games and draws effective portraits of the leading players.

But he's best when writing about his own quest to beat the experts. At the winter meetings in New Orleans, he runs into a NASA mathematician named Sigurd Mejdal, who's looking for a job in baseball. "Sig" will become team statistician for the Streetwalkers. Walker then finds Ferdinando Di Fino working at a produce warehouse in Syracuse, N.Y. "Nando" shows an uncommon aptitude for unearthing and remembering biographical details about players, so he's hired as chief scout at a salary of $1,500 a month.

The tensions that arise as Walker, Mejdal and Di Fino work up a master strategy lead to great comedy.

The book seems in danger of losing steam when Walker's team drops out of contention. But then, he gets obsessed with finishing higher than the league's other rookie owner.

He decides he can do this by inspiring his players. So he gives Bill Mueller a six-pack of Schaefer beer, the brew the Red Sox third baseman's grandpa used to drink. He then flies to Oakland, where he and his underlings picket the Angels' hotel because the club has suspended outfielder Jose Guillen (one of Walker's few power hitters).

Fantasyland is the first book to capture the mix of numbers, personalities and unhealthy love for baseball that makes fantasy baseball so enticing. It's a lot of fun.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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