NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
The major league baseball season opens on Sunday night, which means that between now and then, millions of otherwise sane human beings will gather to inaugurate the fantasy baseball season. Most will continue to root for the Yankees, Cardinals, or Giants, but they'll also be rooting for the two dozen ballplayers they choose for their own team.
These fantasy teams win or lose based on the number of homeruns or strikeouts the real players collect in real games, and it can lead to terrible personal conflicts. A Boston Red Sox fanatic might find himself actually rooting for Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees to closeout his beloved Bo Sox.
Sam Walker, senior special writer and sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal set out to describe this strange world from the inside. He joined a highly competitive league called Tout Wars and wrote about the experience in his book FANTASYLAND: A SEASON ON BASEBALL'S LUNATIC FRINGE. He joins us in a moment.
We'll also speak with the man who invented rotisserie baseball and with a coauthor of a book that evaluates fantasy prospects, major league ballplayers. Later in the program, what we can learn about business with a little help from our friends, The Beatles. But first, if you have questions about fantasy baseball, how it works, why it's become so big, give us a call. If you're a player, call and tells us why.
Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And our e-mail address is email@example.com. Wall Street Journal sports columnist Sam Walker joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. SAM WALKER (Wall Street Journal): Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: So you got to experience every fantasy player's dream, 10 months devoted to nothing but your squad. You had a staff to aid you, including an astrologer, a newspaper to bankroll you a press pass to give you inside information. So how'd you do?
Mr. WALKER: Oh, Neal, it wasn't very pretty, I have to say, in the end.
I really underestimated the level of work and the level of obsessiveness, and the level of passion that it takes to really play this game well. As you said, I had every advantage. I had inside access and, you know, I had a budget, and I had a staff, and I had nothing else to do all day long but try to win this fantasy league.
Now this just wasn't any fantasy league. This is Tout Wars, as you mentioned, is sort of the cream of the crop. It's where all the best analysts and top minds in the field of fantasy baseball come to a private, invitation-only league, to really see who's the best player out there.
And now these guys are really, I didn't realize the level to which they have risen in the ranks of baseball analysts. Seven current or former members of Tout Wars are actually working for major league teams now. Some of them are statisticians, some are scouts and some are actually in the front office working with general managers. So this is a really intense group of people who have kind of blurred the lines between this game as a profession and as a hobby.
CONAN: It's interesting that, in a way, baseball geeks, there's a special name for them, they're known as seam heads, and in a way, well, we'll be talking with Danny Okrent, who invented rotisserie baseball, in a few minutes, but in a way, the quintessential seam head is a guy named Bill James, who privately published his own analyses of baseball for years. He's working for the Boston Red Sox these past couple of years.
Mr. WALKER: Exactly. No, it's really, one of the things I wanted to investigate with this book was the culture of baseball had been overtaken by this idea, you know, in the last few years, that you could, it's possible that you could run a baseball team and evaluate players strictly on the data, I mean, basically, use a laptop to tell you which players are the best and assemble a team that way.
Now my prejudice here, my thinking was, hey, you know, I can go to the clubhouse, I can get to know these players, I can see things, I can see if they're limping, you know, I can know if they, you know, if they had a, they're having a rough, you know, time in their marriage or something, and I can, maybe it's possible that with my access, my eyes and ears and my own intuition in reporting, you know, I would be able to beat these guys because I would able to see things that they could not.
So really I set out to sort of use rotisserie baseball as a way to test this idea of what's the best way of evaluating human performance. Is it, you know, is it the stats and the numbers and the raw data or can you learn more by getting to know them as people?
CONAN: Our number if you'd like to join our conversation is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll begin with Nancy. Nancy's calling us from Westin, Connecticut.
NANCY (Caller): Yes, hello.
CONAN: Hi there.
NANCY: I just want to shed light from the perspective of a fantasy baseball widow. That is, from the moment I married my husband, literally, on our way to our honeymoon, he pulled off the road to a payphone to discuss with his fantasy partner of 14 years the, who they were gonna take for the draft, and that took an hour ahead of our honeymoon.
And it has been this way for 14 years.
CONAN: And you're still married.
NANCY: And we're still married. And in fact, the draft is coming up, as you know, on Sunday, and I bought tickets for an opera which I'll be attending with my mother, not my husband.
CONAN: And you will see your husband again, what, right around the playoffs?
NANCY: Yeah, exactly. But the one thing I do want to say is for husbands like mine who could otherwise have been addicts in casinos or, he's a very bright guy, that I welcome this because it keeps him out of trouble.
CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much and have a great time at the opera.
NANCY: All right, thank you, bye-bye.
CONAN: Appreciate it. In all seriousness, though, Sam Walker, there can be a pretty serious emotional price that some people pay.
Mr. WALKER: You know, I think so, and I think, you know, one of the things that Nancy alluded to is I think that, you know, this is a place where people are allowed to be compulsive, and there aren't too many places left, you know, where you can have a family and have a stable life and a good job and yet still be completely compulsive to the point of you know, totally obsession about something.
So, you know, I think for the most part, now, as she said, it does, this isn't fly fishing in Alaska, this isn't, you know, playing all the great golf courses of the world. I mean, as a hobby goes, this is something that keeps you home and it keeps you in front of the TV, so on the whole, I think, really, you know, it is a way that a lot of people can sort of exercise, feel the rollercoaster of emotions without, you know, wondering too far a field. But there definitely is a point at which you have to be able to separate what happens to your team from reality, and I found so many examples of people who are really flirting with that line.
One of the favorites I found was a group of guys who've been in this rotisserie league forever in Florida, and now there was a hurricane bearing down on Florida, and it looked like it was gonna hit on the day when they have their rotisserie transaction deadline. So as they were boarding up the windows and sandbagging their houses, they were also figuring out this incredible array of procedures they would use to make sure they didn't miss any rotisserie league transactions, and, you know, in the end, they had, some of them had roofs blown off their houses, they had trees fall on their cars, but they didn't miss a single transaction in their rotisserie league so, I don't know, I think you can lose your priorities pretty quickly.
CONAN: Yeah, people talk about the important initials being ERA or RBI. They may be OCD.
Mr. WALKER: That's right, exactly.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Katherine, Katherine with us from Alton, Illinois.
KATHERINE (Caller): Hi.
KATHERINE: Thanks for taking my call. I just, it sounds like I could start a support group with some other women out there. Not only for husbands, but three years ago, my husband started our oldest son, who was five at the time with his own team, and I was very resistant at first, but then seeing how he would sit there and analyze all the statistics and his math skills are very, very good now as an eight-year-old.
And his younger brother, now, in first grade has a team, and they just really, it's a really good pastime for them.
CONAN: Good luck, Katherine. Are they doing it again this year?
KATHERINE: Oh, of course, and it's their personalities, our oldest tends to stick with the Cardinals, trying to draft all the Cardinals, that's our fan area, and we weren't supposed to tell anyone that he actually drafted a Cub this year.
CONAN: Oh, no.
Mr. WALKER: No!
KATHERINE: But his younger brother, he'll draft the best from anywhere.
CONAN: And who knows who's going to win, you can't figure it out, Katherine. Thanks very much.
CONAN: Have great weekend.
KATHERINE: You, too.
CONAN: All right, bye-bye. Let's go to Aaron, Aaron's with us from Salt Lake City.
AARON (Caller): Hi.
AARON: So my favorite part about fantasy baseball, or fantasy sports is picking my team names. And because I heard that you were talking about clever team names and I wanted to give my favorite three team names that I've used.
CONAN: Okay, Aaron, go ahead.
AARON: Okay the first on is The My Little Ponies.
Mr. WALKER: Yeah.
AARON: And the second one is Jesuszilla, Son of Godzilla.
Mr. WALKER: Oh no.
AARON: And the third one is Virginia Wolfenstine 3D.
CONAN: Okay, Aaron, and which is the name of your particular team?
AARON: Those are just some team names I've had over the years.
CONAN: Oh I see.
AARON: This year, my team name is Virginia Wolfenstine 3D.
CONAN: Okay, well we wish the Virginia Wolfenstine 3Ds the best of all luck. Who's your big star this year?
AARON: Well, I wanted to get Ichiro Suzuki, but I couldn't get him.
CONAN: Somebody else --
AARON: -- drafted him right before me.
CONAN: Ah, so you ended up with, your second choice was?
AARON: Oh, I ended up with Pujols instead.
CONAN: Ah, Albert Pujols, that's a terrific player.
Mr. WALKER: Definitely.
CONAN: I think he's going to have a better year than Ichiro, anyway, anyway.
AARON: Probably will, but I like Ichiro better.
CONAN: All right. Aaron, thanks very much for calling us.
AARON: Thank you.
CONAN: Everybody who gets into this, I mean, there's a lot of places that do it. I mean, for example, Tout Wars, is there money involved in that?
Mr. WALKER: No Tout Wars is a strange island in the fantasy sports world. There's no money at stake, there's no trophy, there's no banquet for the winner. There's really no recognition at all. I think usually when someone wins, as I actually did last year, I realized firsthand that you don't get a whole lot of complimentary phone calls and there's certainly no ticker tape parade down Broadway. It's kind of a strange feeling.
But no, mostly you, I think there is definitely a financial incentive, but, you know, it's not a great deal of money. I think it's usually a few, a couple of thousand dollars to the winner, which is certainly significant. But, you know, given that you're spending six months of your life, you know, going through the twists and turns, you'd probably be better off, you know, just setting up a lemonade stand outside, outside your house if you wanted to make that much money.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a quick call in from Jay, Jay is with us from Pocatello, Idaho.
JAY (Caller): Hi Neal, I just wanted to say I refuse to go through the whole problem of rooting for your team in the Major League and having somebody on your fantasy team that, you know, on a rival.
JAY: So I kind of handicap myself, like I refuse to draft somebody from the Boston Red Sox for example, they're just completely eliminated from the get go, whether it's Ortiz, or Ramirez or --
CONAN: So Devil Rays fan are you?
JAY: I'm a Yankees' fan. Yeah, I know what you're talking about, but yeah, I just, you know, it's a player I don't like, I don't care how good they are they're not on my team. And I take the moral high ground I guess.
CONAN: All right, Jay, does it cost you when it comes time to finish up a league standings?
JAY: You know I really do pretty well. I'm usually in the top three or four every year, so I guess not, but.
CONAN: All right. Maybe that's because everybody else in your league hates the Yankees and you end up with all of their players.
JAY: Maybe that's why, and they have all the best players, so of course I do all right.
CONAN: Yeah. All right, Jay thanks very much for the phone call we appreciate it. We're going to be returning from the break to talk with Daniel Okrent, you remember him, the former public editor of The New York Times, serious journalist, well also the inventor of rotisserie baseball. We'll talk about the monster that he created and continue with Sam Walker, the author of FANTASYLAND: A SEASON ON BASEBALL'S LUNATIC FRINGE.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about fantasy baseball. Have you ever been burned on the rotisserie? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, e-mail is email@example.com.
Our guest is Sam Walker, who's a senior special writer and sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal and author of FANTASYLAND: A SEASON ON BASEBALL'S LUNATIC FRINGE. And as you've just heard me describe it, fantasy baseball is also called rotisserie league baseball.
Daniel Okrent, how come it's called rotisserie league baseball?
Mr. DANIEL OKRENT (Former Public Editor, The New York Times): Really lousy restaurant on East 52nd Street in New York in 1980, called La Rotisserie Francaise. And if we had been smart, we would have found a restaurant that had a more interesting name, but we're not that smart.
CONAN: The idea for this game came to you, well it's described in Sam Walker's book, the sort of the viral infection that became rotisserie league baseball.
Mr. OKRENT: Oh, I'm a disease, thanks.
CONAN: There you go. Well, you did get letters from people blaming you for the break up of their marriage.
Mr. OKRENT: That's true.
Mr. OKRENT: Actually I think that some of them were thanking me for the breakup of the marriage.
CONAN: What was the idea when you got it started?
Mr. OKRENT: Well, it was really just an off season when I was sad and missing baseball, between the 1979 and 1980 seasons. And I was on too many plane rides at the time. I was traveling a lot on business. And one boring day, somewhere over Western Kentucky, or South Eastern Missouri, I had an idea that was sort of based on something that a professor of mine in college had done in a very rudimentary form. You know the way that the Hummer is based on the stone wheel.
CONAN: And so you refined it into the Ferrari if you will.
Mr. OKRENT: No, if only. Yeah, I think I made a good Chevy.
CONAN: And, but now you look back, I mean, after awhile, you must have thought that only true geeks like yourself, and I know Daniel Okrent so I can say that, would have been interested in this. What made you, why do you think it's taken off?
Mr. OKRENT: A, it was free, B, it was easy. You needed no game pieces, you needed no tools of any kind. And then C, I think most importantly is that most people who are baseball fans really think they could do a better job of it than the people who run their favorite teams. This was a way to prove that you really could not.
CONAN: You also pointed out, I was reading it in Sam's book, that you think that this is something that takes place during the baseball season, the genius of rotisserie league was you could obsess about baseball all year round.
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, it really does ruin March for many people. That's when you begin to really obsess about you're going to do on that fateful day when you have to pick your team. Then after that, you might find very soon, as I often do, that you pick a really terrible team and you're out of the running and you have nothing to do all summer long.
CONAN: So, Sam also reports in his book that you invented rotisserie league baseball and you've never won.
Mr. OKRENT: Well, Sam's a liar. And he's doing anything he can to defame me. And what can I say about it. But yes, it's true, I've never won.
CONAN: He also says that you expect your tombstone or your obituary will read Daniel Okrent, inventor of rotisserie league baseball.
Mr. OKRENT: Well my wife says that I took the job at The New York Times as public editor two years ago so that it wouldn't say that. I'm glad that there was good reason for me to take that job at the Times. I can't think of any other.
CONAN: Do you ever have any second thoughts about this monster?
Mr. OKRENT: Oh sure, I have second thoughts when I have experiences like I did about 10 years ago when I was followed after a speech I had given to the men's room in a hotel by somebody who wanted to describe his team to me. And I went into one of the stalls and he went into the one next to me and kept talking to me. That's enough to make you regret anything.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Theresa, Theresa with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
THERESA (Caller): I just wanted to comment that my husband is the commissioner of the league and he has been for many years. It's sort of taken over our lives. And he's quite a researcher, so all of the guys on his league call him Scoop and we recently had a baby, a little girl, and I had to put my foot down because they all wanted him to name her Scoop. Melinga is our last name, so I just, I think you guys are nuts. But, it sure does make for something for him to talk about, that's for sure.
Mr. OKRENT: Well, I'm not gonna argue that we're nuts.
Mr. WALKER: Have you ever had to field a trade proposal, that's what I wanna know.
THERESA: No, but I think we've got some prom date proposals.
Mr. OKRENT: I'll give you my 23-year-old and my 25-year-old for the baby.
THERESA: Thank you.
CONAN: And maybe a baby to be named later. Theresa, good luck.
THERESA: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye bye. Do you still play, Danny?
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, I do. In fact, Sam and I are in a league. I'm in one of the many leagues, I guess, as Sam. We play a much-reduced version, which we call AARP rotisserie, or slow pitch, rotisserie light. It's, we have a draft, we have a week of trading and then that's it. We don't have to talk to each other all season. It's really much preferable to the old version.
CONAN: The computer has really changed things. When you started out, you were calculating all these statistics by hand.
Mr. OKRENT: Absolutely, yeah.
CONAN: So. And Sam Walker, certainly the spreadsheet has made this available to millions.
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. And I did it with an abacus. It's really been a reward.
Mr. WALKER: I think Danny is still using that abacus, unfortunately, but.
Mr. OKRENT: Exactly.
CONAN: Let's get another Dan on the line. This is Dan calling us from Fort Meyers in Florida.
DAN (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. Had a quick question. If any of you all were familiar with a game called Stratomatic about 25 years ago -
CONAN: Much too familiar, I'm afraid.
Mr. OKRENT: I played that as a, in the early ‘70s. That's really about all that I did. I think that I was married to my first wife then, but I don't really remember. I just remember the Stratomatic part.
DAN: Well, my brothers would stay up all night playing it and as I remember it, they would have little statistics cards on each of the plays.
Mr. OKRENT: And are they in jail now?
CONAN: There were statistic probability cards for each player and you rolled the dice and obviously if you had Babe Ruth, the number of times he hit a home run was a lot more than if you had, you know, Ty Cobb or somebody like that. So, but it was a very analogue version of what computers are now able to do. But, and as a, I think all of us have now confessed, the scene of much of our misspent youth. Dan, thanks very much.
DAN: Great to talk to you, Neal.
CONAN: And I guess, Dan Okrent, before you go, when is your draft this year?
Mr. OKRENT: We're having it on April 11th. We're a little bit late this year because we couldn't all get a date that we could agree on.
CONAN: Danny Okrent, thanks very much for being with us and good luck to you.
Mr. OKRENT: Thanks a lot, Neal.
CONAN: Daniel Okrent invented the rules for rotisserie league baseball and is the former public editor for The New York Times, author of the forthcoming book about that called PUBLIC EDITOR NUMBER ONE.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Mike. Mike's with us from Ireland, Michigan.
MIKE (Caller): Yes, I was just gonna call to comment about the Stratomatic. We, it was called APBA back when I was playing it. A-P-B-A, I believe. They had many versions. I had the baseball version. My one cousin had the football version and I had another cousin who had the baseball version of APBA games. We spent a lot of time in the summertimes and the off seasons just playing away.
CONAN: Well, I only stopped mine because I wore out my dice. And thanks very much for the call. Sam Walker, though, it's important to point out that from rotisserie league baseball, which Danny Okrent was talking about, there are now fantasy leagues there for basketball, football, of course. And even Supreme Court Justices.
Mr. WALKER: That's right. No, the concept of playing a virtual game that's based on a real one has exploded. And it's gone way beyond the borders of sports. You mentioned this game called fantasy supreme court, where the goal is, you look at the cases on the high court's docket and you try to predict the vote split and the outcome.
But there are all kinds of iterations. There's fantasy sumo wrestling in Japan. There's a fantasy fashion league for the Oscars. There are fantasy movie leagues, where you try to pick the sleeper, you know, movie hit of the year. And there's actually something rather morbid, which is called the dead pool, where you actually try to, you stock your team of public figures who are likely to die in the coming year.
So, there's a whole website devoted to that. So the whole concept is really, I like to say it's crossed more borders than the bubonic plague.
CONAN: Somewhere in the world, there was somebody just out the other day saying, wow, I had Lyn Nofziger.
Mr. WALKER: That's right. Or there's someone, you know, sitting in a yurt in Mongolia saying, sorry honey, not now, I gotta check my sumo team.
CONAN: Let's talk with Nathan. Nathan is on the line with us from Tucson, Arizona.
NATHAN (Caller): Yeah, I was calling to let you know that I am abstaining from fantasy baseball this year.
CONAN: How come?
NATHAN: It's too obsessive. Taken the life out of the game, taken the love out of the game. It's become too much of a number crunching thing.
CONAN: So, you prefer just to read the stories about, you're calling from Arizona, the Diamondbacks?
NATHAN: Actually, I'm, my hometown team are the Houston Astros. So I, I'll go ahead and keep on watching them on the TV, listening to them on the radio and checking the box scores for them and maybe a few other teams. But, you know, it forces you to be too obsessive, you know? If you aren't obsessive enough, then there's gonna be somebody else in the league who's more obsessive than you are to get the players as soon as they're off the disabled list. You're always --
CONAN: All right, Nathan, we're losing your line. I think we're losing your phone line, but we thank you very much for the phone call.
If you're not obsessive enough, you might want to go look at a book published by Baseball Prospectus and John Keri joins us now. The BASEBALL PROSPECTUS 2006 is just out. It lists the fantasy values for every player in Major League Baseball and co-author Jonah Keri joins us now. Nice of you to be with us today.
Mr. JONAH KERI (Author, BASEBALL PROSPECTUS 2006): Thank you Neal.
CONAN: What's your record by the way? Are you a winner in your fantasy league?
MR. KERI: I'm in multiple fantasy leagues, so it depends which one you're talking about. And I also play Stratomatic and there's a computer version of it now and it is fantastic, much more obsessive than regular rotisserie.
CONAN: Well, no doubt, because you only have, well, let's not get into the Stratomatic thing. I could be there all day long. As you look at the leagues this year, well, the cover of your book is a picture of Johnny Damon, the former center fielder for the Boston Red Sox, transferring this year, him and 50 million dollars to the New York Yankees, and you say overrated and over paid.
MR. KERI: Absolutely, and I look forward to getting pelted by tomatoes as soon as I leave the New York studios over here. But I mean it is true, he got a lot of money and free agent contract. He is a good player, but he's in his 30s and players tend to peak in their late 20s. That's what the research talks about, going back to Bill James and those of us at Baseball Prospectus have found this as well.
So, you're in a situation where this guy is not going to produce over the life of his contract what he's getting paid. So he helps the Yankees, certainly, compared to the options that they had, but at the same time for the amount of money that they paid they might have been able tot get somebody else who would've been better.
CONAN: And there's every reason to believe, I think a lot of people suspect, that the new center fielder for the Red Sox may have a better year than the old center fielder for the Red Sox.
MR. KERI: And he has a much better name. His name is Coco Crisp. I mean, you can't go wrong with a name like that. And Coco's 26-years-old. He's seven years younger than Damon. So, better name, younger guy, equal talent, come on, that's a bargain all the way.
CONAN: Here's an email question from Justin in Louisville. What's the easiest way to identify a sleeper, a player who's under the radar now, but who will be making it big during the season? Did you pick that up from anybody? How do you identify that?
MR. KERI: Look at the minor league numbers. There is a fallacy that goes around that says that a player's minor league numbers don't translate well to the major leagues. In fact they tend to translate very well. The key is understanding context. If you have a guy who puts up big numbers, let's say in Salt Lake City, which is an absolute hitter's haven, he hits 40 homeruns there, that might not translate well to the major leagues.
But if it's on kind of a neutral playing field, normal park, he's of the right age, you know, he's 21, 22 years old as opposed to being 26, 27, 28, that guy has a pretty good chance at success in the majors. So, pay attention to the prospects. That's where a lot of the superstars of tomorrow come from.
CONAN:I would also suggest, this is really geeky, but look at the dimensions of the ballparks in the minor leagues. For example, I used to spend some time around the Eastern League and Alfonzo Soriano began to get noticed when he hit homeruns at the Norwich Navigators ballpark in Norwich, Connecticut, a huge left centerfield and that even before we heard that unique sound that his bat made in the batting cage at Prince George's Stadium in Bowie, Maryland.
MR. KERI: Interesting story about Soriano. They actually asked him to double as a team mascot back then and he said no. So he's been turning down job assignments for a long time now.
CONAN: Now, with the Washington Nationals and he may be wishing he was back in Norwich when he gets a look at RFK Stadium. Anyway, we're talking about fantasy baseball with Sam Walker, he's the author of FANTASYLAND: A SEASON ON BASEBALL'S LUNATIC FRINGE, and with Jonah Keri, one of the authors of the 2006 BASEBALL PROSPECTUS. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is Louis, Louis who is in Fort Thomas, Kentucky.
LOUIS (Caller): Yes. I was wanting to know, it seems like the professional leagues aren't really embracing fantasy leagues maybe the way they could or the way they should and if you guys feel the same way, too?
Mr. WALKER: Well, you know, I think that Major League Baseball has really reversed that course. I mean, they've really embraced fantasy. In fact, you know, they're doing so much out there now and trying so hard to see, to test the limits of how much they can own the actual statistics produced by the game that, you know, I get the feeling that they see fantasy sports as a real growth side of the business.
It's growing, you know, maybe 7 to 10 percent a year. And, you know, the fantasy industry, I think if you added up all the money that's being spent, not necessarily being captured, you know, it's well over a billion dollars. And now baseball's about a 4 billion dollar business.
So, if you figure the growth rates that are happening now, I mean there could come a day where, you know, baseball is actually an information services company and the fantasy games and the other things that they provide to analytical fans, I mean that could be worth, you know, more and more lucrative than the actual game and the popcorn they sell and the tickets and all of that. So we may be on a strange course where, you know, baseball will become sort of, you know, like a gladiatorial thing.
Mr. KERI: And just to chime in, when you look at the pre-game shows and some of the analysis that you see, it's the fantasy baseball picks that click. It's the fantasy football picks that click. I mean, everybody, people really are talking about this stuff. So, you know, maybe there is a little bit of church and state going on, but at the same time these guys are smart enough to know that this is definitely a money making industry and they are jumping on it.
CONAN: Louis, good luck.
LOUIS: All right. Thanks.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's turn to Joan, and Joan is with us from Anderson, Indiana.
JOAN (Caller): Hi.
JOAN: I was wondering with all the problems that Barry Bonds may or may not be in, do you think anybody will pick him this year and I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks, Joan. Jonah Keri, what do you think?
MR. KERI: Well, Barry Bonds is on the cover of the other book that Baseball Prospectus recently put out called BASEBALL BETWEEN THE NUMBERS, so we certainly don't have any qualms about the gentleman. What I would say is that serious fantasy players don't really let emotions cloud their decisions too much. They kind of take a cold analytical approach.
The problem with Bonds, of course, is that aside from everything to do with his steroid allegations, he's got bad knees, he's coming up on 40 years old. There are all those factors coming into play. So he's not the fantasy guy that he used to be, but at the same time in spring training he hit about 900 with about 12,000 homeruns. So, I mean, in that sense he does project to be a pretty good fantasy pick. So, I think people will go ahead and draft him for the most part.
CONAN: He does sort of, the exception to the rule of your outfielders beginning to fade in their mid and late 30s, though.
MR. KERI: Right.
Mr. WALKER: That is true.
CONAN: Yeah. He may have had some help there. But anyway, let me ask you, how did you get into this? I mean, you're, Jonah Keri, you're doing something that a lot of these people would love to do, making a living working on fantasy baseball.
MR. KERI: Well, it's like anybody else. It's like Bill James or anybody. I had an active interest in it and it was something that I ultimately decided to pursue. And there's a whole bunch of angles. I mean, Sam getting into the culture of it, I think does a great, great job in his book and just our ability to really get behind the numbers as well. And, you know, our website baseballprospectus.com, we just have more stats than you could possibly imagine, but what we like to say to people is that it's really a way to enhance your enjoyment of the game.
I mean, someone earlier was saying well, it kind of sucks the life out of it. I disagree. I think that if you're a baseball fan and you really want to know more about your favorite team or your favorite player, having some knowledge of the numbers and just really getting behind this stuff is really interesting stuff. And at the end of the day, you know, just to be a little immodest for a second, I do work with a group of tremendous writers. This is really enjoyable stuff to read. And, you know, when you combine it with the analysis, it really is a great product.
CONAN: We just have a few seconds left, but do you find yourself rooting more for the team of your youth or the team you care about or your fantasy team?
MR. KERI: Well, Neal, you're asking a great question because I grew up as a Montreal Expos fan. So, there is no more team for me to root for, so yes, my fantasy team is my one and only team to root for because my old team is now defunct.
CONAN: Jonah Keri thanks very much for joining us today. Good luck.
MR. KERI: Thank you.
CONAN: Jonah Keri, one of the authors of the 2006 BASEBALL PROSPECTUS and also shares with our buddy Allen Schwartz the Keeping Score column in The New York Times, The New York Sunday Times sports section. You want to check that out. When we come back from a short break we'll continue to deconstruct the fantasy draft in baseball and later, business secrets of the Beatles. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Today, we're talking also about fantasy baseball. We're handicapping players and crunching the numbers. Our guest is Sam Walker, author of FANTASYLAND: A SEASON ON BASEBALL'S LUNATIC FRINGE. 800-989-8255 if you'd care to join us. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And as you looked at it after participating in this, Sam, for a year, I wonder, did you decide why people do this? I guess a lot of different reasons.
Mr. WALKER: There's so many. I think the thing I said earlier about how there's not many places left where you can be this compulsive. I think that plays into it. But, you know, there's something about fantasy baseball that's very American in a way. I mean, if you look at baseball it's one of these, it's this odd pocket to totalitarianism. There's an anti-trust exemption. You know, there are these baronial owners who rule with complete authority and, you know, your role as a fan is to pay your $60 and buy your $12 beer and sit in the stands and root for the team and cheer for the team no matter what kinds of dumb decisions the team makes or whatever happens on the field without having any say so.
And what fantasy does is by taking, by making your own team, I mean, in a way you're sort of adding a little bit of consumerism into the whole thing. You know, you're able to mold the game to your own sensibility. And, you know, by creating your own team and by having your own allegiance to those players, you're, in a way, you're almost shielded from some of the games larger problems.
One of the reasons that I set out to write the book in the first place was, you know, I'd been covering baseball and there'd been this nasty stretch of stories, whether it was steroids or the labor negotiations or ballpark financing, all these things that had pushed me away from the game and made me a bit cynical.
Whereas, all the people I knew who were playing this rotisserie game, I mean, they were like zombies. They didn't care about any of this stuff. All they wanted to know was, you know, how many RBI's Manny Ramirez was going to get. And if you can't help with that, you're useless. So, I kind of wanted to get into this world and see a little bit of what sort of punch they were drinking.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. this is Mike. Mike calling us from Mazoola, Montana.
MIKE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
MIKE: I just wanted to give you kind of a perspective of someone who's been playing in fantasy baseball leagues for about 20 years now. And I have never won my league. The best I've done is third and I tend to end up at the bottom or in the middle of the pack.
But speaking to what your guest was just saying, the main reason I stick with it, obviously is not because I'm so great at this fantasy sport, but it's a really good way for me to keep in touch with my friends who are now spread out all over the country.
Mr. WALKER: That's a wonderful point. And, you know, one of the things I've noticed about this game. You know, there was an essay written many years ago called Bowling Alone. And it was a very interesting analysis by a Harvard professor who looked at the decline in bowling leagues and talked about how Americans were becoming a little bit less associative than they had been, say, you know, when DeTokaville made his travels, you know. And he had some great data to support it.
But I really find that rotisserie leagues are this amazing antidote to that, because this is where people are coming together. It doesn't require you all getting together in the same place more than, say, once a year. But it keeps friends in contact. You know, I've found rotisserie leagues now where they're going onto the third generation. You know, where there was, the grandfather played and now the father and now the grandson's playing.
And, you know, there are amazing stories out there about friendships that have endured, you know, over decades over fantasy baseball. And some of these leagues have stayed together, some of these leagues are, different kinds of fantasy leagues are 25, 30 years old. So, there's really a strong connection there that's formed. And I think it's a positive thing.
CONAN: So, you're not much of a winner, though, are you Mike?
MIKE: No, but I hope that when I do teach my two boys how to do it, I'm a better teacher than a player.
CONAN: I think that's all of our goals. Good luck.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's try Rebecca. Rebecca's with us from Waukesha, Wisconsin.
REBECCA (Caller): Hi Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
REBECCA: You have a great show.
CONAN: Go ahead.
REBECCA: I just wanted to give voice to the other side. You had a lot of fantasy baseball widows at the beginning of the show. And my husband, unfortunately, is a fantasy baseball widower. And his idea of a fantasy league involves Gandalf and the Dungeon Master. So he's sort of lost on the whole thing.
But really speaking to what your last caller was saying, too. Our league is my family, my siblings, and we are spread across the country now, and this is like having us all back in the same house, you know? Talking trash, and trying to get the right team put together so you can put down your brothers and sisters. So it's a really wonderful way to bring us back together.
CONAN: Well if you think about it, they're not that different. He's just drafting Frodo with, hoping he gets Samwise too.
REBECCA: Exactly. Well my mom said he could do the fireworks for the Fourth of July game, or the All Star game.
CONAN: Who are you picking first in your league this year, Rebecca.
CONAN: Well, I've got Bonds on my bench, but, I don't know. I'm, I've got, oh I can't even think of who I have now. I've got Ortiz, and --
CONAN: David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox.
REBECCA: Yeah, yeah. I can't think of who else I've got.
CONAN: Well, good luck to you, Rebecca.
REBECCA: Thank you.
CONAN: Okay. Sam, are you going to be playing again this year?
Mr. WALKER: I am in five leagues, and I've drafted almost all of them. I have one more draft to go, the one with Danny we were talking about before. And so I'm fully subscribed to rotisserie and I'm full of advice, I'm full of, you know, players wafting through my thoughts.
I'm hoping Kurt Schilling proves to come back this year and I'm hoping Troy Gloss returns to home run form, and these are the things I think about in idle moments.
CONAN: Well good luck to you.
Mr. WALKER: Thanks.
CONAN: Sam Walker is author of FANTASYLAND: A SEASON ON BASEBALL'S LUNATIC FRINGE, also senior special writer and sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He joined us from our bureau in New York.
When we come back, the end of a hard day's night.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.