We were watching the new documentary based off Sam Walker’s terrific book Fantasyland yesterday, and we were thinking it was entertaining — if not as entertaining and human as the book — and about four years too late. The premise of the film — which you can watch right here — revolves around the famous Tout Wars fantasy-baseball league, which brings together the best fantasy-baseball experts in the country and pits them against each other. At one point in human history, it might have seemed strange that such a league would exist. Not anymore.
In the book version of Fantasyland, Sam Walker, now sports editor of The Wall Street Journal, enters the Tout Wars league, with fantasy luminaries like Ron Shandler, Lawr Michaels, Matthew Berry, and Mike Siano, and attempts to win it, hiring statistical experts and even trying to procure inside info from his team’s players themselves. (He even gets Damaso Marte to wear his “official” team T-shirt.) In the course of the narrative, Walker tells the story of several competitors (he catches Berry right before his ESPN ascent and breaks your heart with the story of Michaels’ dying wife), sketches the history of fantasy baseball and shows how, for many fans, fantasy is almost preferable to the real thing. In 2006, this was a crazy thought: We remember being aghast that one Tout Wars player had no favorite team and instead bought whatever baseball merchandise was on discount. (This would be the equivalent of buying a Jeff Weaver Yankees T-shirt.)
In 2010, it’s less crazy, which is one reason the movie, as sporadically entertaining as it is, doesn’t have the same power as Walker’s best seller. The film basically attempts to re-create Walker’s experiment, awarding one lucky obsessed fan (a mutual-fund trader, back when such a thing existed, named Jed Latkin) a spot in Tout Wars, sending him out to do some of Walker’s old stunts. (In one bit, Gary Sheffield looks awfully close to clocking Latkin in the face with a bat.) Latkin isn’t nearly as likable or sympathetic a narrator as Walker — forgive us, we’ll take a journalist over a mutual-fund trader any day — and a lot of the film seems staged, particularly Latkin’s desperate attempts to make a trade while his wife is having twins. Latkin’s also obnoxious to the point of discomfort. Shandler, who is sort of the Bill James of fantasy baseball, is set up as his foil — a serious baseball mind, Shandler is pretty much a walking reaction shot throughout — and it’s beneath him. By the end, he’s eager for Latkin to just go away and, frankly, so are we. Walker, on the other hand, is still a respected member of the league, and pops up throughout the film to inadvertently remind us why we liked his book so much more.
Still, the film has its moments: We enjoyed the look inside the draft room, it’s well-edited and shot, and its heart is in the right place. But its general premise — fantasy baseball is hugely popular and it’s not just for nerds, swear — seems a little outdated. That is to say: Is there anyone who debates that anymore? Is there anyone that still thinks fantasy-baseball players are some sort of niche, Trekkie sect? Countless Major League players admit themselves to playing the game, and the web hasn’t only mainstreamed it, it has turned it into a multi-million-dollar business. At this point, we’d say more sports fans know who Matthew Berry is than know most of the players on his team. In the film, inevitably, venerated and crotchety sportswriter Murray Chass shows up to tell these fantasy-baseball players to “get a life.” If Murray Chass is your counterpoint, it’s clear you’re arguing a point that doesn’t need to be argued.
The most obvious sign of this is the MLB Network, which is transporting its long-running and outstanding Fantasy 411 program, hosted by MLB.com’s Siano and Cory Schwartz, into a nightly show on the flagship. (It begins a week from today at 5 p.m. Eastern.) The show is positioned to be among the network’s most popular shows and will surely be more useful to average baseball fans than Billy Ripken’s old stories about dugout hotfoot. Fantasy baseball is the mainstream. It doesn’t need to be defended or espoused or explained. Fantasyland the movie is fun and goofy and completely unnecessary: The geeks have already won.