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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.

From Around The Web

  1. wynams says:
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    Nice article!

    I’ll have to admit as much as I wanted to root for Jed (like I rooted for Wiebe in King of Kong) he actually came across in Fantasyland as a bit of a tool (the disrespect for Shandler, the disdain at players turning down his team t-shirts, etc.).

    Pompous statements such as this gem from your interview “I like to think I was helping Verlander” indicate Stephen Palgon caught the essence of Latkin spot-on in his film.

  2. Stephen says:
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    @wynams: Completely agree on the essence of Latkin comment.

    @Rudy: Excellent interview and loved the Heisenberg link.

  3. @wynams: @Stephen: Thanks. Jed wanted me to tell you that he’ll trade his essence for Jay Bruce and each of your auras.

  4. eltoo says:
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    @wynams: wow, I found king of kong on netflix a couple of weekends ago….I didn’t think there would be anyone else out there who knew it, or had actually gone through with watching it

  5. uncdrew says:
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    I really enjoyed the book and the movie, but admittedly like those types of books and documentaries (the Donkey Kong and Scrabble ones especially). Perhaps it helps me feel normal. ;)

    For what it’s worth, both the Donkey Kong dude (Weibe) and Jed seem normal compared to the competitive Scrabble players. Word Wars is the movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0390632/

  6. Eddy says:
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    I really enjoyed this movie when i saw it last week. Great film. I think Jed got a little TOO obsessive with his persistence, but I also didn’t like that Shandler said they’re not bringing him back because he didn’t feel “comfortable”. Whatever, at least he was honest about his reasoning.

    I started playing fantasy baseball in 2009, so it was a shame I couldn’t associate much with the 2008 players (Was Thames really worth trading one for one with Ichiro?), but I hope to one day become as good as some of the guys on this board, and as good as the “‘perts”.

    I recommended this movie to my friend and he loved it so much that we somehow came to the conclusion that we’re going to co-manage a team together next year!

    But yea, great interview Rudy, I always enjoy these since it reveals a writer or blog that I tend to find very interesting (i.e Ensberg’s blog).

  7. Stephen says:
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    @Eddy: Shandler has been quoted saying that Tout Wars is purposely an elitist league. Meh, such is life. Thames was never worth Ichiro.

  8. wynams says:
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    @Rudy … no go on Bruce, but I will trade my aura away to Jed if he can straighten out Javier Vazquez

  9. jimmy v says:
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    Phillips for Soria+ F Guttirez in 16 team dynasty. Who wins? One team needs the 2b and one team needs the closer

  10. Awesomus Maximus

    Awesomus Maximus says:
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    Posted this about a week ago, but worth reposting here and now. I watched [i]Fantasyland[/i] (with my wife… how cool is she?) and found it extremely entertaining and hilarious at times. I’d put it up there with other dorkumentaries like [i]Word Wars[/i], [i]Wordplay[/i] and [i]Spellbound[/i]*. I highly recommend it to all of you, and you can confidently invite your significant other to watch it with you, even if (or especially if) they think your “hobby” is ridiculous.

    *can’t believe I forgot to include [i]The King of Kong[/i] on that list, but yeah… consider it added

    Thanks for the interview, Rudy. I found it slightly unfair that Jed was penalized (not invited back) for making people uncomfortable… but the movie wouldn’t have been as interesting if he wasn’t that kind of over-the-top enthusiastic maniac. He seemed to take it pretty well, though, and I figure that he had to assume it would be a one-shot deal, regardless of the outcome.

  11. Awesomus Maximus

    Awesomus Maximus says:
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    Oops… used UBB code instead of HTML (my head was still at my ESPN league forum)… mah bad.

  12. Terrence Mann says:
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    I watched Wordplay a few weeks ago and really liked it. I’ll make sure to check this out.

    My only complaint would be that they should have cast AJ Mass if they wanted a non-expert fanatic.

  13. Nice article. I’ll have to check this out.

    King of Kong may be one of the best docs I’ve ever seen.
    “Donkey Kong kill screen coming up…”

  14. jj says:
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    Hey rudy, were you trying to get him to say how much of a jerk-off Sheehan is.

    Cause he sure came off as one in the movie.

  15. sean says:
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    I did not enjoy Fantasyland as much as I would have hoped.Jed was supposed to be the guy carrying the torch for all the rest of us fantasy baseball maniacs, but I felt zero connection to him. He mostly repulsed me. Lawr was the only dude who was portrayed as a decent human being.

    I’m not shocked that Shandler wanted Jed gone, but that’s because Shandler came off as a giant douche.

    Just like an experienced amateur poker player, a fantasy baseball fanatic can definitely hang with the so-called experts.

  16. @Eddy: thanks!
    @Stephen: i agree w/ him. it’s an expert league where everyone is a writer. he got a one-time invite.
    @wynams: It’ll take a couple souls to get Vazquez back on the wagon.
    @jimmy v: I like Soria + FraGu
    @Awesomus Maximus: Given he isn’t a writer, I’m not sure why he warrants a spot in Tout Wars over, say, Grey and I. Get back in line, Latkin!
    @Terrence Mann: Ha!
    @jj: I was just curious. I didn’t have any Tout Wars participant in mind.

  17. @sean: I kind of agree on Jed but I have an aversion towards the guy in every league who ‘really wants to trade’. Should’ve drafted better, sucker! As for Shandler, I met him once. Thought he was a nice guy. He founded Tout Wars to be an expert league where everyone wrote about fantasy baseball. I’m just pissed he didn’t give us Jed’s spot :)

    And, definitely, the line b/w ‘expert’ and ‘amateur’ in fantasy baseball isn’t far. I’d say it’s closer than poker where at least an expert could bluff.

  18. sean says:
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    @Rudy Gamble:
    My big gripe with Jed was kind of like that famous knock on MTV’s Real World: in the real world people pay rent.

    Jed was just kind of floating around and living the dream: no responsibilities, a wife who didn’t give a shit that he spent more time globetrotting to high-five his fantasy picks than help her with newborns, some mysterious, lucrative job as a trader that supported this lifestyle without any time spent in the office, etc.

    PS: I’m with you on the trade guy. If your thing is the thrill of the trade, become a day trader. Don’t flood my inbox with your ridiculous 4-for-1s. “Dude, I’m giving you so much value for (your first round pick). I’m offering Buerhle, Varitek, Juan Pierre, AND Cody Ross. I’m helping you at four positions!”

    PPS: For full disclosure’s sake, I’m also a little sour about Shandler, who’s basically the first ‘pert to mainsteam sabermetrics, turning to this Mayberry Method bullshit: we’re just gonna ballpark it because projections are inherently flawed . . .

  19. Fan Death says:
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    The fact that the filmmakers felt compelled to “humanize” Jed with the mention of his Crohn’s Disease and getting hit in the face with a baseball speaks to the fact that he’s essentially a complete and utter douchebag. It’s like they realized that this guy is so obnoxious that he would actually turn people off to the movie. For the film to really work, they needed to have a likable character. There really wasn’t one. I guess the baseball that nailed Jed in the face is the closest thing they had.

    What does that say about “Expert’s Leagues”? The only way to join is to be a complete prick? I’ll stick with my “unwashed masses” leagues, thank you.

    I don’t hate Jed. I pity him. I can’t imagine what kind of therapy his kids are going to need.

  20. Awesomus Maximus

    Awesomus Maximus says:
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    @Rudy Gamble: Heh… no, I don’t think he warranted a spot in Tout Wars. It just seemed ironic (at the time I was watching it) that Shandler basically said that he wouldn’t be invited back to Tout Wars because he was an interesting subject for a movie about Tout Wars. The response to your question about the casting, however, makes me think that everyone knew he would be a one year experiment for the movie all along.

    @sean: I don’t think Jed was supposed to be like the rest of us… in fact, quite the opposite. I think it was Sam Walker who said in the movie that he didn’t realize this type of fantasy player even existed. And as I touched on in my previous comment (and Rudy talked about on the podcast he posted a few days ago), simply following someone who plays fantasy baseball just isn’t interesting to an audience. You need something above and beyond what “the rest of us” do to make for interesting viewing.

  21. @Fan Death: Well, I’m no Jed fan but he seemed good-natured enough not to warrant the d-bag title. Obnoxious, yeah.

    He’s not a reflection of Expert League players – he’s the anomaly in terms of the ‘hard-court press’ style of trading. I know several people in these leagues and they aren’t much different than Grey and I (aside from the fact that their sites are less entertaining than ours) or even Razzball readers.

    This documentary concept clearly had challenges in terms of opening up the action. You can’t film a guy sitting in front of his computer, poring through Excel and websites, and expect it to be riveting. As he explained in the interview, the director placed his bet on someone who would force the action. This choice made the movie more interesting but Jed’s aggressiveness plus the player visits did, in my eyes, decrease the average fantasy baseball player’s identification with Jed. I don’t necessarily defend the choice but I understand the reason behind it.

  22. sean says:
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    @Awesomus Maximus: We are hardly mainstream fantasy baseballers. Those people have a couple of teams on ESPN or Yahoo and draft Chone Figgins in the fourth round.

    What I meant is that if we were Star Wars fanatics, then we needed Jed to be our Han Solo. If we were chessheads, we’d need Jed to be our Kasparov. That kind of thing. Instead of looking up to him as the fantasy maniac who got his season in the sun, a fantasy baseballer’s hero, he mostly struck me as a petulant child. He was the kind of guy I would have hated to have in a league regardless of skill.

  23. Awesomus Maximus

    Awesomus Maximus says:
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    @sean: I get what you’re saying. I suppose I didn’t have the same expectations that you did for the film or for its subject. I’d read a bit about the film before seeing it and knew that he wasn’t going to represent the “hardcore fantasy baseballer”, but rather the “extremist”. I also know this to be the case with pretty much every “dorkumentary”, so that’s what I was expecting (hell, it was half the reason I asked my wife to watch, “See baby, I’m not HALF as bad as THIS maniac!”).

    I’m sure hundreds of thousands of “hardcore Star Trek fans” were horrified when they watched Trekkies, and felt the masses weren’t represented properly… only the extremists. But like I wrote, showing the norm doesn’t make for a compelling story.

  24. Busy has a B says:
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    would you keep Miguel Tejada ,Carlos Lee, Ryan Zimmerman ,Joey Voto I am think of dropping these players or do you think they will try around .

  25. Busy has a B says:
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    would you trade Carlos lee ,Miguel Tejada ,for Veron Wells

  26. Caleb says:
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    If you go to the tout wars website they dont even list Jed’s name on the past standings. It just says “movie star”. Ouch.

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