While we at Razzball are content toiling within the modest confines of fantasy baseball blogdom, we occasionally like to flex our journalistic muscles and take on a challenging interview. (Click here for our interview archive.) Our interview subjects in this post are the director (Stephen Palgon) and star (Jed Latkin) of the recently released documentary Fantasyland (based on the Sam Walker book).
What does fantasy baseball have in common with playing Scrabble and orgasms? If you said, “Things I like to do in front of the computer,” that’s nice (we don’t judge) but not the answer I was looking for. The answer I was looking for is “Things that are a lot more fun to experience than to hear some guy describe his experience.”
So it’s a testament to Sam Walker that his book, Fantasyland, was such an entertaining read. The book chronicled a sports journalist’s experience competing in the renowned Tout Wars expert league and he leveraged his player access to mixed success in fantasy baseball but greater success in crafting an entertaining read. The Jacques Jones segment, in particular, hit me square in the pathos bone (right next to the funny bone).
I was very intrigued when I heard that a documentary based on the book was being made. Did the director have a DeLorean or Cusack-occupied hot tub whereby he could film the scenes from Sam Walker’s book? And, if he did, could he stop by my old apartment and clue me in to not draft Gary Sheffield in 2006?
Alas, the documentary went the ‘inspired by’ route and did an extensive search to find a fantasy baseball (non-expert) fanatic who would get the opportunity to compete in Tout Wars. Below is my interview with Stephen Palgon (director) and Jed Latkin (the star). I also recommend checking out the film which can be streamed for free at Snagfilms for a limited time.
On to the interview (potential spoilers included)…
Rudy: How did this documentary come about? Did you pitch Tout Wars to open up a spot for a ‘non-expert’ as a documentary or did they pitch you?
Stephen: I saw an article online about Sam Walker’s book Fantasyland and was very intrigued by his story and journey in the book. The aspect that interested me the most was that he made playing fantasy a dramatic endeavor that wasn’t solitary. When I read this I thought that it would be a great documentary and from there I contacted the people who had the rights to the book and made my pitch for doing a documentary. We did pitch Tout Wars about the project. There was some initial caution on their part since they had been through the process with the book and some of them had parts of the book that they were not comfortable with.
Rudy: Who was involved in casting Jed? Based on Tout Wars founder Ron Shandler’s reaction, it doesn’t sound like he was part of it.
Stephen: Essentially the production team was involved in the decision and the process. We put out a call and received a great deal of responses. We conducted interviews personally and received tons of submissions via the web or through the mail.
Rudy: Are you a fantasy baseball player yourself? Did this experience increase/decrease your interest in it?
Stephen: I have played some fantasy baseball, but mostly basketball. I am in a fantasy baseball league this year. For a period of time I was in a keeper basketball league, but I think I realized that if I got into it much more that I might’ve gotten really deep into it and I needed to avoid that. So I play but in a more casual way. Playing fantasy baseball is serious time commitment.
Rudy: Sometimes documentaries start as one thing and evolve into another. At what point in the filming did you realize that you were filming Jed’s intervention?
Stephen: I am not sure if we ever thought of it that way and I don’t think Jed would say that he thought of it that way. The main reason for that is because the people around him I don’t believe think he has a problem. I think that’s the biggest issue that I believe Jed’s side has with how some people have reacted to him and the film. His wife Amy happens to be completely supportive of Jed and what he does. The have a relationship and understanding about these things that works for them and it’s not for us to judge it. When the twins were born and Amy talks about fantasy with Jed about twenty minutes* after the kids were born, this is not something we told her to do, she just did it. She supports Jed, roots for him and doesn’t view it as the problem that other people do and I believe his family feels the same way. I think we were seeing Jed as who he is, he doesn’t fake that.
* Note: Twenty minutes talking with a girl about fantasy baseball is nineteen minutes and thirty seconds more than I’ve ever managed. Those thirty seconds were rebutted with “Jeez, if you wanted to break up with me so bad, you could’ve just said so versus torturing me like that.
Rudy: In the Fantasyland book, Sam Walker talks with several of his ‘players’, including a notable sequence where Jacques Jones found out he was due for a regression in the coming year. But Sam Walker was researching a book and is a journalist – so his actions had a certain realistic quality to them. Jed was an ‘Average Joe’ so it’s a bit more incongruous that he’s talking with players. Was there a conscious decision to abandon the ‘Average Joe’ angle for a ‘fantasy fanatic with unlimited travel budget and access to players’ angle?
Stephen: A few things to be clear about, there was not an unlimited travel budget at all and if you remember, Sam Walker spent 60,000 dollars while competing in Tout Wars. I actually disagree with your take on Sam talking to the players vs Jed. Sam and Jed talked to the players to attempt to see what information they could get, but also in both examples, the book and the movie, it was done to make playing fantasy more dramatic as well as entertaining. A book about Sam just playing in Tout Wars and looking at his stats every morning was not going to be as compelling as the one that he wrote extremely well. To me, talking to the players is a vital angle to both pieces. Fantasy sports essentially has people watching games and looking at numbers on a computer. That is not going to make compelling storytelling. It has to be more active than that and we actually took our inspiration from the active way that Sam played fantasy. Another point is that talking to players is not something that only Jed Latkin and Sam Walker have done, other people that play fantasy talk to actual players, general managers, scouts, whatever. There is a desire to find information any way possible. When we received some of the audition submissions people told stories about talking to players and actually Jed had done that several times prior to us ever filming him.
Rudy: In the film, you talked with several players and coaches. Did talking with players net any valuable insights?
Jed: Talking to the players didn’t net as many insights as talking to the coaches did. The players did give some insight on other players but the coaches (not the manager) gave valuable insight into how players were running and swinging. Also the bullpen coach really gave good insight into how the injured pitchers were rehabbing.
Rudy: When talking with the players, had you considered the Heisenberg principle (or at least the modern appropriation of it) which says that observing a phenomenon inevitably alters that phenomenon in some way? Do you realize that you may have led to Verlander’s poor season?
Jed: I like to think I was helping Verlander but judging in how he has pitched so far this year he might be getting hit with the Saberhagen principle — ie he stinks in even years and wins Cy Youngs in the odd years. As for observation, I think it is a key part of evaluation.
Rudy: It appeared that Sam Walker (writer of the book Fantasyland) and Lawr Michaels were two of the more friendly players you competed against. Who were your most and least favorite Tout Wars participants?
Jed: I really got along well with Joe Sheehan and he is now one of my closest friends. I also got along well with Jeff Erickson and Jason Grey although in our initial trade discussion I kept on calling Jason, Jeff. As for least favorite tout that’s a tough one — I think Rick Wilton was the toughest to deal with since he really stuck to the book valuations and would only consider a trade if he was getting the better dollar values.
Rudy: How many leagues are you doing this year? Any preference in format (auction/snake, AL/NL/Mixed, # of teams)?
Jed: I am doing 11 leagues and prefer single league auctions in person with at least 11 to 13 teams.
Rudy: In the documentary, you’re clearly that guy in every league who sends a ton of trade offers. Besides persistence, are there any other tips you can share on what makes for a successful trade?
Jed: Persistence is big but also make an offer that makes sense for the other guy. Analyze the other person’s team and figure out which areas they need the most and then exploit that in your offer. The key is to try and get the better of the deal but also makes sure if makes sense from the other person’s point of view.