‘Fantasyland’ Reinforces Archaic Stereotypes, Still Greatly Entertains

29th, 2010
Section >> Fantasyland

Have you ever heard about how you are a loser or need to “get a life” because you play in a fantasy baseball league? Do you hear people stigmatizing you because it’s “not real” while telling you to get a real hobby?

If so, we can blame people like Jed Latkin.

In “Fantasyland,” a documentary about fantasy baseball fanatics — specially centered on the famed Tout Wars league that features industry pioneers and experts — we get to see Latkin bring every accusation and negative opinion of the naysayers acted out.

We’re talking about a guy desperately trying to strong-arm other owners in the league into an early-season trade while his wife was in the middle of labor — with twins, no less. Seriously. We’re talking about a guy who claims to only get 2-3 hours of sleep during the season, due to his constant number-crunching. He flew halfway across the country several times to visit with players and tell them how much he needed them to play well. He even handed out jerseys sporting his team logo to a few of his players.

And we’re not even close to being done with the absurdity.

Latkin drove 7 hours and 45 minutes to show up on the doorstep of Tout Wars founder Ron Shandler’s doorstep, unannounced and uninvited. Why? Because he wanted to convince Shandler to make a trade with him. Apparently, the 100-plus emails he sent over the course of the previous two days (you read that correctly) were not enough harassment.

The funny thing is, despite seeing this insanity, the movie itself is very entertaining. Dare I say, as much as it killed me, I found myself wanting Latkin to win the league. It’s brilliantly edited and sets him up as the protagonist. The antagonist is clearly Shandler.

You see, long ago Shandler set up two fantasy baseball leagues, one AL-Only and one NL-Only. They use 12 owners in each league, each season. These are comprised of industry mainstays and Shandler seems to be very guarded about who they let enter. It’s like his little elite club. In fact, at the end of the movie, Shandler specifically says, “it’s supposed to be arrogant and elitist” when pressed about how he decides who to allow in the leagues.

Latkin was allowed into the AL-Only league after an extensive search, as a gimmick of sorts, to bring a “real fan” in the league, as opposed to guys who get paid to write about fantasy baseball for a living. Latkin is actually a stock broker, though the way the film portrayed him, he can’t have much free time to actually do his real job. He’s all fantasy baseball, all the time.

From the beginning, Shandler seemed annoyed by the presence of Latkin. He told his wife he wasn’t sure about the “experiment,” and his demeanor exuded that of true disdain for the project. His annoyance boiled over when Latkin showed up on his doorstep, and rightfully so. Think about it, this guy you’ve known for less than a month peppers you with over 100 emails over the course of just two days and then drives nearly eight hours without notice to show up at your house. This shows Latkin’s passion, but it also shows he may be a bit unbalanced.

One thing I found interesting about this part of the movie, though, is something I laugh about in fantasy leagues quite frequently. These experts were absolutely married to their respective drafts. Sure, it was probably annoying as hell to be constantly bombarded with trade offers from this crazy fanatic, but each of them would respond that it was too early to make a trade. Why? Values of every single player are changing every single game. Sure, it’s slight the overwhelming majority of the time, but there’s always room for a trade discussion. In this case, the refusal to deal by Shandler turned out to bite him. Not only would Latkin’s trade offer have made Shandler’s team better for the rest of the season, but Shandler finished 10th out of 12. Latkin finished sixth.

And, actually, Latkin got royally screwed by Justin Verlander. It happens every season with multiple players, but Verlander’s 2008 campaign is one of the more head-scratching ones in recent memory — and he was the highest priced guy Latkin bought (Tout Wars leagues are auction format). Had he pitched like he was capable, it’s possible Latkin would have made a run at the top three.

Of course, this finish did not do much to impress Shandler. He point blank said Latkin will never be invited back, because his presence was “uncomfortable.” He said he was looking forward to getting things back the way they were supposed to be in the next season. This was when he made the “elitist and arrogant” comment. I do believe he was more aggravated by the barrage of trade requests more than finishing behind Latkin, but you could tell the inclusion of an “outsider” ruined the experience for Shandler.

Other than the “good vs. evil” storyline between the fan and the expert, there were plenty of positive things about the movie.

One great story came from former major league pitcher Tom Candiotti. He explained that one season he decided to play in a league and Jeff Kent was on fire and someone else in his league owned Kent. When his Dodgers squared off against Kent next time, he told Ramon Martinez to hit Kent in his first at-bat. Martinez complied, and Candiotti said he had an epiphany — that he had to stop playing fantasy baseball.

On the down-side, the documentary wasted some camera time on a handful of crusty curmudgeons like Murray Chass and Mike Francesa, who did the whole “get a life” act. More whining about how people focus on stats too much and not enough on the game itself. Sure, there are people out there who look only at numbers and don’t watch the games, but there can be a balance. I only play in two leagues per season and would much rather watch a game than just read a stat-line. I’m not alone. In the end, fantasy baseball has made Major League Baseball more popular, so what’s with the whining? As far as the filmmakers, this was probably a necessary inclusion for the sake of balance — I’m more against the guys who were interviewed.

The viewing audience is also treated to some interviews with wives of fanatical fantasy players (guys who play in like 30 leagues, which is ridiculous enough for me to join in and say “get a life, guys”). They called them “fantasy widows.” One wife was asked if she’d ever join a league and she gave an emphatic no. “I live in the real world,” she said. Again, I take issue with this stance. Fantasy baseball is not strat-o-matic. We watch real games and use real stats. There are those of us who treat it as a fun hobby and still maintain a normal life alongside said hobby.

Just not Jed Latkin. In the end, the sheer insanity of Latkin was funny, and there are plenty of other entertaining moments. Gary Sheffield managed to come off as personable while Verlander, J.J. Putz and Vernon Wells were all very cool with Latkin. Trey Hillman, on the other hand, was not. Latkin also took a ball to the forehead in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. The way it was presented was quite funny, much like the majority of the movie.

The bottom line is that this is a very good flick for fantasy baseball fans to view. Just don’t get too caught up in believing Latkin is anything more than a crazy outlier in our world. Kind of appropriate, because — in comparison to most other fantasy baseballers — he resembles the season Justin Verlander had for him.