Orioles In Fantasyland

A few weeks ago I finished reading Fantasyland – a book* by Sam Walker of the Wall Street Journal chronicling his quest to win an expert rotisserie baseball league (Tout Wars) – and there were a few Orioles-related parts that I thought were amusing. The whole thing was a good** read, actually.

* I don’t at all remember you sent me a copy, but it was much appreciated. Thanks person from Twitter.

** The movie that came along with the book was decent as well, but I found the main guy – not Sam but someone picked to participate in a subsequent year – to be pretty insufferable.

Walker went around to the different teams during Spring Training, trying to get an inside edge. When he checked in with the Orioles, Jay Gibbons told him he was going to have a good year (2004 was actually a bad year for Gibby; he batted just .246/.303/.379 in 97 games, and his 0.1 WAR was a career low at that point).

Sir Sidney Ponson – just recently knighted – was back with the club, having re-signed after being traded to the Giants the previous season. He showed up to camp out of shape, and his off-season conditioning program was apparently swimming in the ocean near his home. During his auction draft, Walker decided to bring up Ponson’s name in an effort to have someone else buy him – his pitching staff was looking good, and he was looking for a “high-priced pitcher… identified as a turkey, a choke artist, or a surefire flop.” Naturally that meant Sid.

Walker had asked Ponson about how batters had been chasing more of his pitches out of the zone in 2003, and the Punchin’ Aruban said he had been pitching around tough batters – which was a dumb thing to publicly admit and something that was not likely to continue as hitters wised up. Based on his 17 wins from ’03 though, Walker threw Ponson’s name out at $12… and nobody bit. The room full of smart rotisserie baseball players knew that Sid kinda sucked, with Jeff Erickson (of RotoWire) calling the pitcher a “fat hobbit”.

During the season, Walker managed to trade Ponson in a large package deal. When one of the players coming back to Walker’s team – Jose Guillen – was told of the trade, he laughed (“demonically”), and said of the guy receiving Ponson “Dat guy… got a beeeeg old headache rye now.” And that’s coming from someone who knows a thing or two about giving people headaches.

Later on, Walker tried to pull a three-way trade, acquiring Ponson back (for fellow former Oriole BJ Surhoff), and shipping him off for Bobby Crosby. He got the first part done, but not the second one – thus he was stuck with Ponson a second time.

Walker met up with Ponson after a decent stretch and asked him what had gone wrong previously. Ponson said it was mechanical. Jim Palmer – true to form – said “if you have a weight problem, you’re not in sync” and discussed the “problems of rotund pitchers.” While he was doing so, Ponson walked up behind him and… Palmer didn’t seem to really care.

Ponson went 11-15 in 2004, with a 5.30 ERA. Despite pitching worse than he had in ’03, a 4.44 FIP in 215 IP gave him 3.2 WAR that was the second best mark of his career.

Walker also has Luis Matos on his team for a time. This was the season after Matos hit .303/.353/.458, but he had a miserable season in ’04, batting just .224/.275/.333 before missing the last third of the year with an injury after crashing into the outfield wall.

One part of the book that I laughed out loud about while reading – and there were several throughout – was a statement by Mike Flanagan (one of the team’s two GMs at the time) about pitch-counts. “By teaching starters to be more efficient, he said, the Orioles hoped to someday lower the number of pitchers on the roster from twelve to nine.” Current number of pitchers on the O’s 25 man roster? Still 12. Perhaps the “someday” was on a more extended time horizon. Further than the one with Flanny keeping his job, certainly (zing!).

Walker didn’t end up winning the league – or even finishing close to the top – but at least it made a good story. If you’d like to pick up a copy of the book for yourself, you may do so from here.