March 19th, 2010

Fantasyland Movie Serves a Dose of Reality

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Let me start by saying this: I’ve never met Jed Latkin, but after watching Fantasyland, I feel pretty safe in saying I would not enjoy playing in a fantasy league with him.

Latkin is the central character in the feature-length documentary released Friday via and Hulu. The movie — inspired by Sam Walker’s 2007 book of the same name — finds Latkin selected from a group of applicants to fill one of 12 slots in the 2008 AL-only Tout Wars league.

He doesn’t come across as a bad guy in general, but Latkin does strike me as potentially one of the worst possible leaguemates — more annoying than the guy who goes dark after the draft and winds up with two disabled-list players sitting in his starting lineup by June.

Latkin epitomizes the obsessed fantasy player. He estimates that he averages 2-3 hours of sleep a night during baseball season. He stares intently at the computer as his wife is talking to him about getting everything together for their trip to the hospital to have twins. He sits in the living room of his in-laws and talks about how he could manage other teams in the league better than the owners currently doing so.

The really annoying part, though, is the trading. I love hitting the trade desk as much as most folks, but Latkin started making offers before people had left the draft site. He hounds leaguemates on the phone like a used-car salesman (which he’s compared to in the movie) about to lose his job. In the most extreme example, he shows up unannounced at the doorstep of Ron Shandler’s house — a mere 7-hour, 40-minute drive from his place in New York.

“That was the most freakin’ bizarre thing I’ve ever seen,” Shandler says after this Tout rookie spends probably a couple of hours trying to talk him into a trade for B.J. Ryan. Yeah, Latkin made a 15-hour round trip just because he wasn’t satisfied with Shandler’s e-mail answers to trade offers.

All that said, it’s not hard to see why the Fantasyland folks chose Latkin for the spot.

He’s a compelling character, somewhat in the vein of the famous Howard Stern trends we’re all familiar with. (You know: The average Stern fan listens for an hour and 20 minutes; average Stern hater listens for 2.5 hours — both because they want to hear what he’ll say next.)

It’s like that with Latkin. Some obsessive fantasy fans (at least those who can click away from FanGraphs long enough to watch) might be able to relate. The rest of us will probably have trouble believing the extent of his madness.

Fantasyland is well constructed and does a very nice job of playing up and playing off his fantasy eccentricities. My favorite segment cut back and forth between Latkin at a Tigers game and Sam Walker with his family at a park.

While Latkin has left his wife behind in New York with twin infants to go chat up some of his players at Comerica Park, Walker strolls from his place to a playground with wife and two kids. As Latkin slips deeper into depression with each fantasy failure for his team, Walker gives us lines like, “The nice thing about Jed … I feel a little bit more normal.”

This all becomes even more amusing when Walker finishes the season with the highest score ever recorded in an AL-only Tout league, while Latkin finishes somewhere toward the league’s middle.

I won’t give away any more details on the league standings, so as not to ruin the movie’s central plotline, though I will say that Latkin at least accomplished his stated pre-draft goal.

The key thing to take away from this documentary — especially if you’re not overly familiar with fantasy players — is that Latkin does not represent anywhere near the norm. There are certainly other players like him, but the large majority of us are relatively normal folks who just enjoy building teams and trying to beat our peers. Just look at the way this league of fantasy professionals reacts to the new guy.

And you should take something away from this movie, because it’s worth watching for anyone who’s into fantasy. Aside from the entertaining storyline at the center, the film is well packaged, with sidebars playing up aspects from the book (”Stories from Fantasyland“) and fun little quips such as the “fake but potentially true stats.”

When I first heard that a Fantasyland movie was on the way, I expected some sort of adaptation with an actor playing the part of Sam Walker. The documentary, however, proves that even when it comes to fantasy, reality can give us characters too strange to have been made up.