Thursday, May 20, 2010

Strat-O-Matic Baseball: Best game ever? Yes

Come on, kids, it's Action Baseball!

By all accounts, Roger Maris was a humble, nice, down-to-earth superstar. The qualities served him well on the field, if not with the New York media. Those aren't necessarily the traits that translate into a great pitchman - he's no Billy Mays. I've never seen an actual version of Action Baseball, though there's probably still one buried in a box somewhere, either in my parents's basement or the old family farm. This game actually looks like a lot of fun. Unlike many board games, in this one you actually control a bat, in a version of pinball as your opponent fires "fastball," a "slowball," and a curve. Fake crowd noise not supplied.

When it comes to baseball games, though, there remains only one king: Strat-O-Matic. My cousin Matt Fury owned a Strato game. Between 1993 and 1997, we must have played hundreds of games, scheming, plotting, and swearing at each other and our other friends who were Strato regulars: Mike and Brandon. On an unrelated note, only one of us had a girlfriend during this time. The ladies of Janesville, Waldorf, Pemberton and the surrounding villages did not go for spending eight straight hours in a radon-infested basement, rolling dice, cursing the fates of the cards and berating the surprisingly lackluster fielding skills of Paul Molitor. Matt owned the 1987 season cards, a great year to play as the season provided a nice prelude to the homer-crazed '90s. George Bell, Andre Dawson and a skinny Mark McGwire all enjoyed dominant years. Wade Boggs, Molitor and Tony Gwynn put together superb seasons at the plate.

One of the more overused sports cliches - and I do realize that's saying something in the "we're taking it one game at a time and giving 100 percent and anything can happen world" - is that [insert sport] doesn't build character, it reveals it. I've heard it said about basketball, golf, football, baseball, soccer, swimming and once about jai alai.

Same thing for Strato. It doesn't build character, it reveals it. And when we played Strato, it revealed that all of us were romantically challenged sore losers with superiority complexes.

Some Strato memories, first of a multipart, potentially neverending series:

* Here's a Strato hitter's card. This is Barry Bonds from his insane 2001 season, when he hit 73 homers. A player rolls the dice. If, in this case, they come up 1-4, it's an automatic homer. The player with Bonds is morally obligated to simply say, "Gone." In the 1987 game, many of the greats had 1-5 as a homer, including McGwire. Some, like Mike Schmidt, were dominant in the three column. So a 3-6 would simply be "Gone." 2-3 means a flyball to centerfield. The A next to it indicates what happens to the runners on the play, whether they tag up, stay, etc. Roll a 3-4 and that means you draw a card, which were 1-20. If it's a number between 1-8 it's a single and the runners advance one base (which is what the Ford Frick honorary asterisk means). See those diamonds in the 1 column? That indicates you go to the cards and bring the stadium into play. All the stadiums had different standards. It was easier to hit homers in Atlanta than, say, San Francisco. Or it might be easier to get triples in Kansas City. Now, Bonds's card is not typical. In fact, it's ludicrous. It would be nearly impossible to get him out if the dice sent the play to his card, so a player had to hope he got it on his pitcher's card.

* The highlight of any Strato night/weekend/month/year was the draft. It usually took place in our basement, a marathon session fueled by Coke as we prayed for access to the top players, many of whom were also fans of coke, though with a small "c." We threw every players' card into a pile - hundreds of cards - then scattered them and brought them together again. We didn't want one team's players congregating together, and we didn't want all the bad players in one pile. The draft usually lasted about 50 rounds. Each player randomly grabbed a card and was stuck with it. But that's why we employed flexible draft rules. It was scheduled to be 50 rounds but could be stretched to 60, 70, or more, depending on if we had grabbed too many subpar players. Accusations of cheating occasionally flew, as some of the more well-used cards stood out, their worn edges giving them away.

* Shortly after each draft, we sliced our rosters down to a 30-man squad. Some cuts were easy. With others, we struggled more than Truman debating about use of the atom bomb. A man could spend 25 minutes debating between Ron Kittle and Jim Rice. Inevitably, we began dealing our guys. In a four-team league, there aren't a lot of trade partners. The most enthusiastic trader was always Brandon, who as a Strato owner was a combination of Branch Rickey, Ted Stepien, the lady owner from Major League, George Steinbrenner, and Mark Cuban. He never met a deal he didn't like. The second he drafted a player, he began contemplating how he could trade him. It bordered on maniacal. One night over hushpuppies and batter cooked to look something like chicken and fish, we sat in Long John Silvers and put together a trade that eventually involved more than a dozen players. The grease made us delirious, especially Brandon, as he sold his entire team just so he could land his favorite player, the man whose home runs he fantasized about: Mark McGwire. It was unnerving. He'd do anything in his power to own Big Mac, who hammered 49 home runs in 1987, his rookie season. Brandon infuriated us after games if he won. He pored over his scoresheet - yes, all the players keep book - with the concentration of a prosecutor looking at Enron's books. He wore a smirk, but was usually silent. Eventually he's softly say, sort of to himself but loud enough so his vanquished foe could hear, "McGwire, 3-for-4, 2 dingers, 6 RBIs. I don't know. Not a bad game." More than once I threw a pencil at him after such a proclamation.

* Numerous players had two cards. If they were traded during the season, Strato created a card for his performance with each team. This often led to Good Card and Bad Card syndrome. For example, journeyman pitcher Dennis Rasmussen was a below average pitcher with the Yankees. But he finished with the Reds, where he went 4-1. The Dennis Rasmussen Good Card made him an extremely effective starting pitcher, a solid No. 2 man, maybe even a No. 1 guy. Dennis Rasmussen Bad Card was putrid, a slug you threw out on the fifth day if you ran out of options. Another guy was Bill "Gully" Gullickson, another journeyman who shared the name of a bizarrely popular Mankato radio host.

But the king of Good Card, Bad Card was Doyle Alexander. Remember Doyle? No. Don't worry, most people don't. Except for Tiger fans from 1987 and the four of us who played 7,678 games of Strato with that season's cards. In 1987, Alexander and his ridiculous mustache started the year with Atlanta. He went 5-10 with the Braves with a 4.13 ERA. Bad Doyle. Very Bad Doyle. Then they sent him to Detroit in a deal involving John Smoltz. With Detroit, Doyle went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA! He transformed into a combination of Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. That was Very Very Good Doyle. If you got that card, you had a No. 1 starter. In real life he sparked the Tigers to the ALCS - where the Twins slapped them around while Kirk Gibson took out his frustrations on the dugout - but in Strato he was nothing short of a god. When someone pulled a card and announced he drafted Doyle Alexander, three other voices simultaneously asked, "Good Doyle or Bad Doyle?"

* Each owner always "named" a manager (again, no girlfriends, active imaginations, time on our hands). Matt always hired Gene Mauch, or, as he called him, Gene Mauch IV. Fake Gene Mauch won much more than the real one. Brandon had an infatuation with Billy Gardner. Mike, strangely, liked Chuck Tanner, one of least charismatic managers to ever wear an ill-fitting jersey. Bizarrely, each of their teams somehow took on the personality of their imaginary manager. My guy was Earl Weaver. The fiery genius. One day I dug through my overwhelming collection of books and found one from my childhood. It was about "Baseball's Greatest Managers." And the chapter on Weaver was called "The Bantam Rooster." What? Guess that was his nickname. I also dug out an old toy of mine, a contraption that made animal sounds when you pulled a string. Dog, cow, sheep. And a rooster. So for a few weeks, whenever one of my guys hit a homer, I'd pull the string and taunt my foe with the voice saying, "The Rooster says, 'Cock-a-doooodle-do.'" I was incredibly proud of finding that toy and converting it into a Strato psychological weapon.

* Each of us had our obsessions. Brandon had McGwire, Mike had Devon White (?). Mine was Nolan Ryan. The Express had a bizarre 1987. Led the league in ERA at 2.76, yet was only 8-16 with Houston. And, of course, he struck out a ridiculous number of players. It seemed like I always drafted him. I loved his strikeouts, I could mentally picture the leg kick, the powerful stride, the little grunt, and the explosive fastball. He had a better strikeout rate than Danny Almonte at the 2001 Little League World Series. Strato pitcher cards have four, five and six columns. Ryan's dominant area was the five spot. My opponent would roll a 5-6 and I'd simply say "sit down," "go away," or "goodbye." Sadly, I never threw a no-hitter with the man who tossed seven of them in his noncard life. He could be hurt by the long ball and always seemed to give them up in a crucial situation. So, just like in real life, he'd go nine innings, strike out 13 and lose 3-1. Damn it.

* Matt's obsession was Eric Davis, the former Reds star who never quite lived up to his potential. Somehow Matt always got Davis in the draft - I'm convinced he knew the feel of Davis's card in the same way a husband knows the feel of his wife's back. He'd pretend to be upset. "I don't even want him. He strikes out way too much." No one bought it. During the Strato season he whined constantly about Davis's strikeouts, and always said Mauch IV would bench him. But he never did. And every time Davis did hit a homer - which was often - Matt complained, "Why doesn't he do that more?" Like everyone he played for in his career, Davis's untapped potential tormented Matt.

* A few of our favorite Strato phrases, which we repeated constantly and drove into the ground faster than Fletch and Airplane quotes.
"Dot?" No, he can go 8." - Each pitcher's card indicated how many innings they could go before theoretically tiring (today, they'd probably let each starter go five innings). There would be random dots on some of the numbers. So if it said flyball, but had a dot on it, the play was actually a hit, because of the pitcher's fatigue. We often accused Brandon of not admitting when his pitchers had reached dot phase. He'd call a strikeout and someone would ask, "Dot?" Brandon always got angry, that his pitcher and integrity were being questioned, and would say, "No, he can go 8." I still think he fibbed a few times.

"Reggie, Reggie, Reggie, Reggie!" - Reggie Jackson was one of the greatest power hitters ever. But not in 1987. He finished his Hall of Fame career with the Athletics. He hit 15 homers in part-time duty. One year Matt drafted him and kept him on the roster, purely as a bench player and for a bit of nostalgia. Who didn't love Reggie? He rarely used him. But one game against Mike - whose team often transformed into the Washington Generals - Reggie brought back memories of his blast in Tiger Stadium at the All-Star game and the 1977 World Series. With his team trailing by a run and a man on base, Matt brought Reggie in with two outs in the ninth. Matt started the chant, trying to rattle Mike. "Reggie, Reggie, Reggie, Reggie." Eventually I picked it up. I could picture Reggie at the plate, wearing his glasses, bat cocked, waiting for the pitch. Matt rolled the dice. Incredibly, improbably, it came up as a "home run thing," the aforementioned diamond that meant you drew a card for the stadium homer. Matt pulled the little pink card and it qualified. Homer. Dinger. Game over. The chants escalated as Mike held his head in his hands. It wasn't quite as exciting as three homers in three swings, but it was close.

"How many more picks should we have?" - Heard on draft night. As I wrote, drafts went on and on and on and on. Someone asked this, others answered, "Five," or "Ten." And then we'd have 20 more.

"I'm stealing." Perhaps the two most-hated words in our Strato league. And only one man, Mike, ever said them. As a high school player, Mike prided himself on being a "quick" guy on the bases and apparently thought that carried over into Strato. No one ever tried stealing in Strato. It wasn't done. Like in slow-pitch softball, it was basically illegal. It involved looking at a catcher's throwing arm strength, the player's speed, the pitcher's ability to hold runners, and a mathematical formula involving pi. It was pointless. Except for Mike and Zombie Chuck Tanner, who believed in a Whitey Herzog version of smallball that had no place in the Fury Strato League. With those two words, we'd grow enraged. We belittled Mike, trying to break down his defenses and bully him into giving up the speed game. To his credit, he persisted. Mike's a purist - he probably hates the DH, astroturf and night baseball - and in real baseball it still has a place in the game, though obviously not like it used to. But there was no place for it in Strato. He usually succeeded with the attempt, but on the rare times when a catcher gunned his man out, nothing felt more satisfying.

* The most dominant Strato player from 1987? McGwire? Clemens? Strawberry? Molitor? Not even close. Tim Burke. Tim Burke, the man who was also the subject of more arguments in Strato history than any other player. Burke was a good reliever with a career ERA of 2.72. But in 1987 he was better than Mariano Rivera. Hell, he was better than Good Doyle Alexander. Burke went 7-0 with a 1.19 ERA. Dominant in real life, literally impossible to score upon in Strato. His card did not allow a hit. Or a walk. In other words, if the dice put the game on his card, you couldn't get on base. Ridiculous. We accused Matt of overuse. It seemed like Burke pitched every game (we liked to keep some reality in our fantasy games; five-man rotations, couldn't use same relievers every single day, etc.). Burke never blew a save. Mauch IV turned the games into seven-inning contests because, under Matt's ownership, they encouraged two-inning saves, the way Gossage and Fingers used to collect them. I hated Tim Burke, who was apparently a tremendous humanitarian who adopted several children. No matter. Tim Burke, unhittable, but highly hateable. At least in Strato.


Mike said...

Ok, I never had much for power hitters, I had to play small ball. I didn't cheat and look for the worn-edge cards. However, if you thought "I'm stealing" was a sin, I can still see the look of disgust on your face when my high school girlfriend, your words not mine, "soiled" the Fury basement. I should have been a heroic figure to you three for breaking the barrier and instead all I got was scorn and ridicule. Is Louise allowed in the Fury basement?

Shawn Fury said...

You had Juan Samuel. Lots of power at second base.

She's allowed, but I don't know if she's spent more than an hour there in one sitting, or even total. She senses that it's not a place for a lady. And an evening of Strato was not a place for a lady. I think Matt might have used the word soiled, as he was upset because he wasn't allowed to curse when Charlie Hudson let him down.

Mike said...

I am lucky I still had a girlfriend after she witnessed 18 and 19 year olds playing a dice baseball game. In my defense, her appearance was only one time in the Fury basement and it was spontaneous, she followed my car to your house and then I had to let her inside with me. I don't know who was more shocked about a girl entering the Fury basement, you, Matt, or Brandon or your mother when she let us in the house!

Harvey J said...

Reading your post about players that had killer cards made me think of Manny Mota. Cant remember if if was 1976 or 1977, but one of those years I think he batted like .390 with at or less then 100 AB. The urge to start or pinch hit him in every crucial situation was incredible.

Good stories. Made me smile.

Shawn Fury said...

Thanks for the comment Harvey. It looks like on your site you're a Strato nut as well. Manny Mota sounds like Keith Miller from 1987. He was 19 for 51 that year in obviously limited duty. His card was incredible. Matt always had him, along with Tim Burke. To his credit, he only used him very, very rarely, because it was almost a guaranteed hit.

Mike said...

Just met my Little League team tonight that I am coaching. You'll be happy to know that there is no stealing or bunting in the league. I hope I remember how to keep book.

StratMaster said...

Embarassed about 18/19 year olds playing a dice game? Are you kidding? I started playing Strat-o-matic in 1970 (before they had lefty-righty cards and many other things you mention here)... and i taught my son to play it as soon as he was old enough (about 7) around 1991.

OK, maybe I am a geek, but it didn't keep me from procreating1 lol

Shawn Fury said...

Does your son still play? When you introduced him to it, was he like, "What are you talking about, dad? Where's my video game?" I've had an itch to have a draft again but rarely get together with our old league members anymore.

StratMaster said...

He did finally gave it up for the video games, fantasy leagues etc. I should mention that my screen name is actually in reference to a Stratocaster guitar, but I thought it appropriate to use it here too.

I haven't played the game in years just due to lack of time. But I think when I am finally too old to play guitar in bands anymore (and that time is approaching soon lol) and my hair turns gray I will buy it again and start playing anew.

Didn't they come out with a computerized version too? If so, have you ever played it and does it have the same feel to the game?

StratMaster said...

Oh, by the way. I also had Strat-o-matic Football and Basketball. I liked the Basketball almost as much as baseball(of course, my favorite team is the Bulls, and the years I played it there were these guys named Jordan and Pippen on the team). Football....not so much. I actually bought another Football board game "APBA football". It was better than the Strat version.

I believe I did, at some point, play the game Maris was advertising, although I wouldn't have known the name of it. I played it when I think I was about 5 years old. The only thing I remember is that bat.

Billy W said...

I grew up playing strat-o-matic each year from 1985-1991 with five friends. It was some of the best times of my life. We also kept score sheets for 162 game seasons by hand. Tim Burke brings back awful memories. Two other players come to mind that didn't get much playing time but had incredible cards were Thad Bosley (a journeyman OF) and Luis Medina's 1990? Cleveland Indians Card. I believe there were 5 automatic home runs and a 1-6 chance for a sixth.

PS we loved the stolen base. I believe that in our league Vince Coleman stole 189 bases.