By Eric Neel
Page 2

Walk through any airport in America these days and you're liable to see packs of business travelers carrying copies of Sam Walker's new book, "Fantasyland." It's a witty, wacky, in-the-belly-of-the-beast look at the allure and grip of fantasy baseball, and it's not to be missed.

Earlier this week, Walker took the time to do an e-mail Q&A with us. How'd it go? Witty, wacky and all bellybeastish, of course.

EN: OK, if we presume two players of equal statistical value and if we presume they are equally useful to your team at the moment in which they are available in a draft, beyond the numbers, what criteria do you use in determining which player you'll select? What are your fantasy intangibles?

SW: Really dumb stuff that's probably meaningless. Seriously. I'll spend a few weeks hugging my laptop and generating spreadsheets. But when I'm sitting in the draft room and I have two seconds to decide whether to bid another buck on Cliff Lee, the last thought clanging around in my head is something like: "Hey, the guy plays chess!" I've taken a player because I met his dad on a subway train (Pokey Reese), because he told me he doesn't give a crap about fantasy baseball (Dmitri Young), and because he can talk for five minutes without blinking (Brad Radke).

One of the players I'll always gamble on is Alex Rios. Not because of his numbers, but because of the following story: Back in 2003 when he was playing for Caguas in the Puerto Rican winter league, Rios had a day off. In the late innings of a close game, he plopped down in the dugout with a giant hunk of chocolate cake and, to wash it down, a two-liter of warm Pepsi. Rios had just about finished this meal when his teammates loaded the bases and his manager called him up to pinch-hit. Rios burped, grabbed a bat, put on a helmet, burped some more, walked to the plate and cracked a double. For some reason, this makes me want him on my team.

You've spoken shamelessly to players on your fantasy team, about their hitting technique, about how they'd better help your cause, etc. Where are your boundaries? What sorts of social interactions make you uncomfortable? What wouldn't you do?

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The first player I ever interviewed for my Roto team was Rocco Baldelli of the Devil Rays. I softened him up with a couple of nice questions, then I asked him if he'd ever thought it might make sense to NOT swing at every pitch that comes within five kilometers of the plate. If we'd been alone at the time, he probably would have stuffed me in a dumpster.

I might not be so blunt again. But for the most part, I think that ballplayers should just embrace this fantasy thing and run with it. So whenever possible, I try to break down that wall. I've given my third baseman a six-pack of cheap beer as a present to boost his spirits. I've asked Miguel Batista to call one of the owners in my Roto league to try to convince him to pick him (Batista) up in a trade that I'd proposed. I've even asked Barry Bonds if I could have a sip of the special "sports shake" he was drinking (OK, that's not true, but I wanted to.)

As for scruples, I can think of one: In the summer of 2004 I went to the ballpark to see about Vernon Wells, who I was thinking about trading for. The word was that he'd banged up his calf, so I wanted to make sure he was healthy. When I saw him in the locker room, he was wearing shorts.

"Can I see it?" I asked.

"See what?"

"Your calf."

Wells gave me a funny look, but obliged. He had a nasty blue and green blotch on the muscle with little seam marks from where the baseball had hit him. After this conversation (I passed on the trade), I remember thinking I was glad the guy didn't have a deep thigh bruise or maybe a groin pull. So there's something I wouldn't do: inspect a guy's groin injury.

When you win in fantasy baseball, as you did in Tout Wars last year, how is that win qualitatively different from other victories in your life? How does it compare with, say, winning an argument with your wife, winning the respect of your friends and colleagues, winning a $2 lotto scratcher, or winning as you play along with "Jeopardy" at home?

When you win an expert league like Tout Wars, where there's professional pride on the line, it's not like beating your buddies. There's no prize money. There's no trophy, either, and no banquet for the champion. So after it was over, I was standing in my microscopic Manhattan kitchen with my co-GM, Nando, drinking some really rancid champagne (Andre, his selection) and trying not to wake up my son, Gus, who was sleeping in the next room. I got a few congratulatory phone calls from my leaguemates, who had various nice things to say (translations are in parentheses).

"Really happy for you." (You suck.)

"You definitely earned it." (Next year you die.)

"You've come a long way." (You're a moron.)

I'd like to say it felt better than first sex or something, but that's not exactly true. Actually, it was a lot like winning the Pinewood Derby when I was a Cub Scout. I worked pretty hard sanding that block of balsa wood and I got lucky a couple of times at the starting gate. But on the whole it was completely unexpected, totally thrilling and a lot less stressful than losing.

I got up at 5 a.m. Sunday morning to participate in my upcoming fantasy draft. I wanted it this way; I asked the commissioner to schedule the draft, anchored in the Central time zone, before the crack of dawn. I did this because I don't want my wife and daughter to know how addled I become during a draft. What do you think of me? Be honest.

When you get to Shady Acres, look me up. I'm in room 422.

What role, if any, have good luck charms, talismans, shrines, votives, curses, chants and prayers played in your career as a fantasy baseball player? (Please provide specific anecdotes, if possible.) What effect, if any, do you anticipate this week's solar eclipse might have, butterfly-flaps-its-wings-in-Madagascar-style, on your fantasy baseball roster?

Man, you really need to read Baseball Prospectus. They've got a stat for that now. I believe it's called "EXeRGNuSE" which stands for "Equivalent Expected Runs Generated by a Nonrandom Solar Event." I haven't really researched their methodology, but from what I can tell, they think Brad Wilkerson is a really great player.

Honestly, I was never the type to collect votive candles or talismans before I played Roto. But now I can't make room for a book on my shelf without knocking three of them on the floor. I've got souvenir balls, champagne corks, a toad pin, a vial full of Chicago infield dirt (don't ask) and a boarding pass signed by Mariano Rivera.

The king of them all, however, is my indestructible Troy Glaus Russian nesting doll. It's a freebie I picked up during a ballgame in Anaheim and from the beginning, I was pretty sure it wouldn't last a week. For a few months, whenever something went wrong on my Roto team, I'd throw the Troy Glaus nesting doll across the room or at a tree or into the street. But for some reason, the damn thing wouldn't break. When Alfonso Soriano blew out his hamstring that season, I put it on the floor and tried to stomp it to smithereens. No luck. This year, I finally gave up, added it to my bookshelf, and drafted Troy Glaus for $22.

If he sucks this year, I'm lighting it on fire.

What are your favorite lame song-and-dance lines when explaining to non-fantasy players why fantasy baseball is actually cooler than they think it is?

This is not an argument you can win very often. I once tried to explain my book to the Slovenian guy at the deli where I get my egg sandwiches in the morning. He didn't get it. I think he still thinks that I actually played for the Yankees in 2004.

But if someone seems like they could be persuaded, I tell them this: fantasy baseball is The American Way. Think about it: baseball may be our national pastime, but it's a totalitarian state. The owners are basically dictators and there's an antitrust exemption that shields them from market forces.

Being a fan of one team alone is sort of like being a vassal. You buy the overpriced gear, you pay $50 for a ticket to the megapark and, if you're really a "true" fan, cheer your little heart out no matter how many rockhead moves the GM makes. Your team could trade Albert Pujols for a cocktail waitress and a 1982 Pontiac Fiero and there's not a thing you can do about it. In return for this blind fealty, you're given a 1-in-30 chance your team will finish the season a champion.

If you have a Roto team, none of this applies. You're an entrepreneur with full executive powers. If one of your outfielders is dogging it? Trade him. If your late-round pitching sleeper wins the Cy Young? Take all the credit for yourself. If you play in a traditional league, you have a 1-in-12 chance of winning the title. And you don't have to walk around in the same stupid Tigers jersey all summer (not that I've done this). So that's the best argument I can think of. Fantasy baseball is capitalism!

Having become something of an expert these last couple of years, what would you say are your top three fantasy tips? And don't tell me to "do my homework" or "consider park effects."

1. Don't listen to tips. Ever. I know there's a whole industry built around giving advice to Roto players, but the fact is that if anyone really knows something about a player from a credible source that's clearly going to be useful, they're not telling you. Other than building a solid team at the draft, the things that put you over the top in a fantasy league are avoiding injuries to big stars, picking up cheap players who have huge breakout seasons and knowing the other people in your league well enough to steal their ideas and exploit their weaknesses. Those "tips" have nothing to do with it.

2. Have a baby in May. I don't care if you're married or if you're 14 years old. Get pregnant in September! The best thing you can do with a fantasy team is have a good draft, spend a month making little tweaks, and then sit back and let the guys play. If you have to change 456 diapers a night, this will keep you from micromanaging your way to last place. It worked for me last year.

3. Cover your TV in chicken wire. You don't have to be real handy. Just get some scrap lumber and build a little chicken coop that fits over the Samsung. This way when you have two pitchers facing each other in the middle of a tight race in September, you can hurl beer cans at the television without damaging the picture tube.

Are you more of an OPS guy or a VORP guy?

These days I'm mostly BYOB.

Can I confess? I hardly look at either stat before June. Before the draft I try to focus on good information, raw skills and opportunity. Numbers like those don't become important until later in the season after roles are defined and teams take on character. When it's time to think about trades, that's when I take a hard look at the stats.

If I had to choose between those two, however, I'd go with VORP. Especially the kind with yellow raisins, not brown ones.

How many saves will the Devil Rays' closer get this year?

Ha! A trick question. If I had to choose today, I'd say Miceli gets 19, Orvella gets 12, Colome gets 6, Harville gets 4 and the backup organist at the Tropicana Dome gets 2.

What's impressive to me is that the new manager, Joe Maddon, recently called his closer situation "amorphic." That's the kind of word that used to get a fella beat up.

Does calling it "fantasy" baseball ever make you feel dirty?

Yes. And sort of naughty. The title of my book, "Fantasyland," doesn't help matters. Try registering that URL!

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.