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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Do you need a disturbing window into your fantasy baseball obsession this draft season?

In 2005 journalist Sam Walker published a book, Fantasyland, which followed the 2004 baseball season through the eyes of the truly baseball-obsessed participants in one of the most prestigious fantasy experts leagues, Tout Wars.  Walker provided a history of the hobby and profiles of some of the industry's biggest names, but also presented a relatively simple thesis.  He believed that, if he was diligent in his preparation and strategy, the "insider" status gained via his press credentials would allow him to best the Ron Shandlers and Lawr Michaels of the world, who approached the game primarily through statistics.  Thus, his book includes interviews with players like Nick Swisher and David Ortiz, who Walker ended up acquiring largely based on hunches picked up via personal interactions.

Professionally written, humorous, and self-effacing, the book attempts to navigate the fine line between fantasy baseball and the real thing.  It does not hurt the narrative arch, of course, that Walker goes on to win the AL Tout Wars title in 2005.  The book had a readymade audience, the tens of millions of people who play fantasy sports, and though not a runaway bestseller, it sold well, and has inspired a documentary, released this month and directed by Stephen Paigon.  The documentary, called Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe, takes Walker's thesis in a new direction, as Tout Wars opens up one spot to an "amateur," who hopes to make up for his level of expertise through sheer willpower and gall.  The film follows this baseball-obsessed Wall Street analyst, Jed Latkin, as he attempts to duplicate Walker's feat during the 2008 season.

The film performs some of the same functions as Walker's book, providing a brief history of rotisserie baseball and introducing Tout Wars regulars like Shandler, Michaels, and Walker.  But Latkin is clearly the star, and his completely un-self-conscious reflections on what the filmmakers clearly characterize as an addiction remind one of other voyeuristic documentaries which cover somewhat creepy OCD subcultures like The King of Kong and Murderball.  Latkin embodies two seemingly conflicting stereotypes.  He is a Wall Street trader: aggressive, fast-talking, and a little bit shady.  At one point he is seen attempting to make a trade while his wife is in labor.  He is also a geek.  He's fastidious, his voice is nasally, he doesn't smoke or drink, and his offseason obsession is Star Wars.

The filmmakers clearly chose Latkin specifically for his candidness and oddity.  His personality constantly breeds the awkward moments which are the lifeblood of "mockumentary" and reality television.  There are no shortage of cringe-worthy moments.  Among the best come when the twitchy, excitable Latkin interviews deeply skeptical ballplayers who he has drafted, including Gary Sheffield, Vernon Wells, and Justin Verlander.

Fantasyland is not a film about baseball.  This can't be overstated.  You won't learn anything about the game, the players, about statistics, or even about fantasy baseball strategy from watching it, all things that were substantively covered in Walker's book.  Its intended audience probably already has a cursory knowledge of such things, being fanatics themselves, or they have no desire to know such things because their attraction to the film comes from the "lunatic fringe" aspect.  Walker himself admits at one point that meeting Jed was cathartic because it made him less ashamed of his own sports obsession, which is moderate by comparison.

As someone who struggles with reality television and even embarrassment comedians like Ray Romano and Ben Stiller, Fantasyland provided me with some challenges.  I had to pause the film a couple times when Jed had made me uncomfortably anxious.  However, there is no denying that the film is excellently constructed and often quite funny.  The subjects, Jed included, are genuine and, as such, deeply sympathetic.  Highly recommended for fantasy nuts...and, even moreso, their significant others.

Check it out here.

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