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Fantasyland

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Recently, one of the SB Nation writers and I were talking about baseball, the A's and other various topics when he brought up an excellent book he recently read. Peter Bean, who runs an excellent blog about Huston Street's alma mater (the Longhorns for those who don't know) called Burnt Orange Nation, told me about Sam Walker's book Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe. He said he'd love to write a review for AN about the book because it related directly to A's fans.

So, without further ado, here is the review from Peter Bean. And a thanks to Peter for writing this specifically for AN.

By Peter Bean
Special to Athletics Nation

One of the things I love about the SBN baseball blog network is the live-and-die-with-every-pitch culture that bursts to life in each Open Gameday Thread. When Jason Kendall hits his first home run of the new millennium, a wave of unbridled joy (and hilarious needling) erupts in the thread. Comment threads become so saturated by the third inning of big games that new ones have to be created. It's the kind of joy and love for the game of baseball that makes us lifelong devotees, or, perhaps more accurately: addicts.

AN readers, then, should have no trouble relating to the central characters in Sam Walker's recent book Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe, a non-fictional account of Walker's immersion into the most competitive fantasy baseball league in the world - Tout Wars.

Walker, a Wall Street Journal sports journalist, had grown wary of the tired stories that have been dominating mainstream baseball coverage: steroids, bloated contracts, Yankees-Red Sox, and so on. Seeking to reconnect with the game that had captured his imagination as a young boy, he decided that the best way to spark that passion once again would be a healthy dose of Rotisserie madness. Or, as Walker soon found out, an unhealthy dose.

The idea for Walker's book was simple: join the Tout Wars league, and put the experts in their place with a novel strategy of using his access and contacts in major league baseball to gain an extra edge. What ensues is a wild, entirely hilarious, series of adventures over the full course of the 2004 MLB season. By the time Walker had finished, he'd spent $46,000, made friends and enemies alike, and learned a whole lot more than he ever imagined about baseball, its players and executives, and the most obsessive fans in the world.

The book itself is a quick, fun read - a perfect book to take on your four day trip to the beach. Walker writes with a journalist's ability to capture events, but inserts enough edge and personality to keep the prose moving and enjoyable. He's terrifically witty, and more than a little bit funny.

The most surprising, and interesting, lesson from the book, however, comes in the surprising convergence of fantasy and baseball reality. What I was amazed to learn is that fantasy baseball, historically chastised as a game for geeks divorced from baseball reality, is anything but. Fantasy baseball forecasters are predicting player results at a level that competes with the very best systems used in major league front offices. And in 2004, the year of Walker's adventures, the American League standings, had they been cast in terms of Roto Points, were 1) Boston 2) New York, 3)Anaheim, and 4) Minnesota.

Not coincidentally, it turns out, those were your 2004 playoff teams in the American League. Who'd have thought that by figuring out which teams accumulate the best statistics in 10 of the simplest categories in baseball statistics (BA, R, RBI, SB, HR and W, Ks, SV, ERA, and WHIP), you could nail down the real MLB playoff teams? It's a shocking concept to those of us who spend a lot of our time reading about VORP and WXRL and all the other advanced metrics used by our favorite analysts. This isn't to say those aren't accurate and insightful, too, but the fact that these 10 categories correlated so strongly with actual finish in the standings is remarkable.

In thinking about this review and how it might best be written for Oakland Athletics fans, I immediately knew I needed to relate some of the various Billy Beane anecdotes. Walker actually talks to Beane at great length during the year, and the reader learns a few things about the man many of us got to know through Moneyball. Beane is a fantasy baseball junkie, it turns out, and gives Walker telling advice as he preps for his fantasy auction draft.

Telling Walker to zig when the others zag, Beane says, "Look for value, like you're running a business. Take an actuarial approach. Be dispassionate and always trust your paradigm. Even if you know the deck is stacked in your favor, you still have to have the discipline to trust the math and the cojones to go to the ATM. The more unemotional you are, the more actuarial, the better."

What is it you guys always say? "In Billy We Trust."

You're in good hands...

Peter Bean is the writer of Burnt Orange Nation, an SBN blog devoted to University of Texas athletics. When not writing for his blog, he's obsessing over his fantasy baseball team and hoping his Scott Kazmir for Nick Swisher trade works out for the best.