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Sam WALKER - The Halos Heaven Interview

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Every decade has its defining baseball tome and for the 20-aughts, it has to be Sam Walker's amazing journey into Fantasy Baseball, Fantasyland. Already a reprint paperback in the prestigious Penguin Classics line, Booklist had this to say about the initial 2005 hardcover edition:

"Walker, a Wall Street Journal sportswriter, initially avoided contact with fantasy baseball--too geeky--but after burning out on such real-life baseball subjects as steroid scandals, labor strife, and contract negotiations, he decided to write about the game's fantasy side after all. He wrangled himself a spot in one of the most prestigious fantasy leagues and decided to research in person the team he would pick. The result was a tour of a dozen spring-training sites in Florida and Arizona during which he spoke to players, coaches, general managers, and trainers. And, of course, he availed himself of the fantasy traditionalist's potpourri of statistical reports, online sites, and daily box scores. It's all great fun, written with humor and a twinkling eye directed at the lunacy of it all; but fantasy baseball and its attendant statistical reliance has spawned an internecine baseball war between old-school traditionalists (most scouts, for example) and the numbers people, many of whom have fantasy backgrounds. In offering a fascinating analysis of this underlying conflict within the sport, Walker gives his account of fantasy fanaticism an unexpected and satisfying depth."

Thanks to Sam Walker for sitting down with Halos Heaven's own cupie for an in-depth discussion of a contemporary masterpiece of baseball literature.

Cupie for Halos Heaven: Beginning with your introduction, "Something about Jones," you introduced the conflict between what the stats say and who you see as the ballplayer. Do you see this as the ultimate conflict in fantasy baseball?

Sam Walker: It's not the ultimate conflict. I probably spend the majority of my time trying to rationalize how many hours a week I spend thinking about fantasy baseball. That's clearly my biggest conflict. But in terms of teambuilding, definitely yes. I don't care how much you love the numbers, the media machine is so large now that it's impossible to have no preconceptions about a ballplayer or to be ignorant of the conventional view of them. Even in the league I joined, Tout Wars, which is basically ruled by quantitative thinking, you still see the same people targeting the same players every season. Even laptop huggers get crushes. And by the same token, they also develop irrational hatreds for certain players. I could say something about Troy Percival here, but I'll let you read the book.

I opened Fantasyland with Jacque Jones because he's a ballplayer who's really in the middle of this clash. The statheads think he hits too many ground balls to be a power threat and isn't fast enough or good enough at drawing walks to be a leadoff guy. They think his batting average is inflated because he's basically been lucky at converting batted balls into hits. To his admirers, however, he's a perfect example of a guy who plays with heart. He's not the greatest physical specimen but he plays good defense and he's willed himself to hit .300 with a bunch of homers on a playoff team. I also used Jones because I wanted to show that this conflict isn't academic. You saw how Jones reacted to Ron Shandler's analysis of him when he saw it in the clubhouse. If I learned anything by trying to "manage" my fantasy team in real life, it's that this is serious business to these guys, it's their livelihood.

By the way, the stats vs. intuition debate isn't limited to fantasy baseball. The world is getting more quantitative, whether it's Wall Street or real estate or a companies that manufacture raincoats. People who figure out ways to use the numbers to tell them little truths that nobody else knows are going to make a lot of money. But that doesn't mean the computers are enough. You still need a good feel for people and for intangible things like "image." Wal-Mart might have the finest network of numbers in retail, but they have a lot of work to do on the public relations front.

Halos Heaven: How difficult was it for you during your travels, interviews, and war room discussions to separate the fan from the General Manager of the Streetwalkers Baseball Club?

Sam Walker: At first? Not hard. I'd been covering sports for about 10 years and I'd spent enough time in locker rooms and talked to enough ballplayers to satisfy the starstruck fan in me. And after spending a few years covering fun stuff like steroids, ballpark financing and the collective bargaining agreement, I was pretty jaded. I remember being in the Yankee clubhouse after Aaron Boone's homer beat the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and the only thought going through my head as I watched the players celebrating was: "please don't dump champagne on my head."

As soon as I drafted my first fantasy team, all that changed. Jacque Jones had such a hot April that I made him a trophy that said "Streetwalkers Player of the Month" and gave it to him in the clubhouse. I gave David Ortiz a Streetwalkers baseball Club T-shirt. I bumped into Mariano Rivera at Newark Airport and actually asked him for his autograph--something I'd never asked anyone before. Later in the year I was calling Pirates GM Dave Littlefield to try to convince him to trade for my first baseman, Doug Mientkiewicz, and I was lobbying Lou Piniella to play B.J. Upton at DH. By the end of the season I was watching episodes of Law & Order with Miguel Batista and drinking beer with Bill Mueller.

In the end, it became my biggest weakness as a Roto player. If I hadn't liked these guys so much, I probably would have traded some of them a lot sooner.

Halos Heaven: Did Sig, your NASA expert and indifferent stat man for the Streetwalkers Baseball Club, ever like a player because of who he was, as opposed to what the spreadsheet said?

Sam Walker: Honestly, I don't think he's capable of liking a player who doesn't look good quantitatively. In his mind, any big-name player who's overvalued by the market or has dubious stats is sort of like that girl your friends keep trying to set you up with because they think she has a good personality.

There was only one case where he actually liked a player more because of something subjective. I was thinking about trading Josh Phelps, one of the players he considered "undervalued," so he Googled him to try to find some argument beyond the numbers for keeping him. He found some interview where Phelps said his favorite subject in high school was math. From that point on, he was smitten. He even referred to him once in an email as "Phelpsy" as in, "You can't trade Phelpsy!" Now that Sig has moved on to work for the St. Louis Cardinals, he's mellowed a bit. He still judges players by their numbers first, but he's come to know a lot of minor leaguers he's helped identify for the amateur draft and he likes to send out updates on their progress. He's like a proud papa now.

Halos Heaven: And vice-versa with Nando, your anti-sabermetric "feel" scout--was he ever convinced that the spreadsheet on a player was more compelling than his gut feeling?

Sam Walker: One time during the season in late May, he looked up all these stats from recent years that suggested Sidney Ponson was actually a pretty reliably good pitcher in June. He started pressing me to trade for him with so much passion that I actually did it. A few weeks later I broke into his laptop and deleted Excel. It never happened again.

Halos Heaven: There's a tangible presence to much of the writing in the book. How much of Fantasyland was written on the spot versus later off of notes?

Sam Walker: Thanks for saying that. I'd planned to write a lot of the book on the fly, but once the season started I was so consumed with trying to win Tout Wars that my writing fell by the wayside. I've always been a bit of a packrat and a freak when it comes to documentation, so I took a ludicrous amount of notes. I saved every email, every scrap of paper and every document. I took pictures of things to be able to describe them better later and kept files and logs indexed by the day. People made fun of what an obsessive nut I was, but when it came time to write it really paid off because there were hardly any gaps in the record. A lot of people have told me the book is a very quick read, which is great to hear. I wrote draft after draft to make sure I'd cut out almost all the fat. One of the things I hate about books (especially sports books) is that you always seem to hit a passage that's just dull as dirt and sloppily written--but you can't skip it because it might have important plot elements. A lot of times, I just close the book right there and never finish it. I was determined to write a 330-page book that you could buzz through in two nights.

In Part Two of Cupie's epic interview with Sam Walker, he discusses the Jose Guillen suspension, his favorite Angels minor leaguer and much much more. Join us Wednesday!