Matthew Berry's book sure makes a lousy first impression. The ESPN fantasy guru introduces us to a league where, each year, the last-place finisher is forced to get a humiliating tattoo. Look, I'm all for tribal hazing; I went to seventh grade too. I stop short at the permanent desecration of my friends, however, even in the name of a good time.
Berry's book comes at an opportune time, in the first stirrings of another fantasy season, as emails begin to shoot back and forth about upcoming drafts.
The NFL-based leagues, in which participants choose players from throughout the sport, and win based on their players' real-life statistical performances, usually begin in late August and run through the playoffs. Berry, one of the nation's foremost authorities on the topic, purports to entertain and enlighten us with the hijinks of the leagues and fantasy players he's run across while reporting extensively on the topic for ESPN.
Like fantasy league experiences themselves, Berry's storytelling is a little uneven, sometimes hilarious, other times exasperating, occasionally even cringe-worthy. "The average fantasy player spends 18 hours a week with ESPN. Almost a full day a week!" he gushes.
A former scriptwriter, Berry spends a lot of time making a case for his beloved fantasy world. The book notes that 13% of all Americans play some sort of fantasy league.
To not know someone who participates in this would be like not knowing a golfer, or someone who Facebooks. Now in its third decade, the world of fantasy leagues even includes spelling bees and stock clubs. Part of Berry's purpose here, he says, is to help us understand the worldwide phenomenon.
Not that he does.
Mostly, he makes a case for how a fun hobby, full of friendship and camaraderie, can easily become an addiction. He overpacks the book with stories of fantasy teams becoming an obsession, then warns of the dangers of obsession.
"Don't be that guy," he cautions, while pretty much being that guy. A bit more self-awareness on that front would've certainly paid off.
At times, he just seems tone-deaf to the obnoxiousness of it all, as in this explanation of the pastime's appeal: "College is over and this is our fraternity now," one hard-partying player explains.
I play fantasy football — last year, in two leagues, including a father-son league that we tried to sell to our wives as a fledgling Cub Scout troop. I love draft night, the trade debates, even the end-of-season team banquet where, as the league commissioner, I picked up the tab.
So, you don't have to sell me on the bonding benefits of fantasy football, and all the other fantasy sports options. Just entertain me. And I sure wouldn't mind a few more tips on running backs versus receivers. Or when to take a defense.
Problem is, ESPN has a significant fantasy site all its own, making it uncomfortable or impossible for Berry to talk about the pluses or minuses of alternative sites. Instead, we get case after case of how guys screwed up a wedding because they were preoccupied with picking their team, or how they rescheduled their 7-year-old's birthday party to accommodate their league's draft.
Berry comes into this book with an impressive résumé, having succeeded in TV and movie writing. Throughout "Fantasy Life," there are hints of this earlier skill set, as in his collection of funniest team names — "Luck Be a Brady Tonight" or "Pete Carroll-ine (Bum Bum Bum)."
And he seems to have an eye for the compelling personal story, in the way he describes how the escape and excitement of fantasy leagues have helped individuals overcome serious health setbacks. His own personal comeback — going from the frustrations of script writing to the principal chair of ESPN's vast fantasy empire — reveals someone who took life's disappointments and turned them into touchdowns.
If only there were more of that. Hey, Matthew, be that guy.
Riverhead Books: 338 pp., $27.95
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