So, I got home from Sochi — long fascinating trip, tell you all about it later — and this was waiting for me: My own Strat-O-Matic Baseball card. Man oh man did I have a good season.
When I was a kid, I did not play Strat-O-Matic … I played a different strategy game called Statis Pro Baseball by Avalon Hill. I guess Avalon Hill stopped making Statis Pro Baseball a while ago which is too bad because it was a pretty great game, and it was a wonderful introduction for the superior Strat-O-Matic, which I would begin playing in college.
There is a basic similarity between the games that I think gets to the heart of what makes tabletop baseball so brilliant — that is in both Statis Pro and Strat-O* there are “pitchers” and “hitters” cards. I’m sure you’ve played these games so I won’t go into great detail about rules but I think the pitcher/hitter card concept is pure genius. In both games, there is a hitter’s card (which is usually good for the hitter) and a pitcher’s card (which is usually good for the pitcher). The essential battle is to see which card will be used for the play.
*I know a lot of people play APBA baseball and swear by it; I’ve never played so cannot speak about it with any confidence.
The two games do it differently. In Statis Pro there are “Fast Action Cards” you draw with numbers between 2 and 12 (you could also roll two dice). That number tells you whether you are on the pitchers card or the hitters card. And in Statis Pro, pitchers had different number ranges. Terrible pitchers would be 2-5, meaning only numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 would be on the pitchers card. These pitchers would often get lit up because most of the action was happening on hitters cards.
But great pitchers — I remember Goose Gossage was this way — would be 2-9, meaning every number between 2-9 would be on the pitchers card. And because Gossage’s card was a hitters nightmare (seemingly nothing but strikeouts), Gossage was all but unhittable.
In Strat-O-Matic, the system is streamlined a little bit. You use a single die — all rolls of 1-2-3 go on the hitters card (in the corresponding column) and all numbers 4-5-6 go on the pitchers card. I started playing Strat-O-Matic in college, played it a ton when I moved to Augusta to be columnist for the Augusta Chronicle. And it made me look at baseball a whole different way — Strat-O says, basically, every at-bat is a battle for control. The pitcher tries to get the hitter to swing at good pitches. The hitter tries to wait for the pitcher to leave one in the hitting zone. It’s an eternal clash, and it’s fantastic. Strat-O-Matic beautifully demonstrates that.
I’ve written before about my favorite ever Strat-O-Matic game — it was in Augusta, it was between me and Chardon Jimmy, a seven-game series between the 1988 Cincinnati Reds and the 1988 Boston Red Sox. I don’t remember how we picked those teams; Jimmy was a Reds fan and I think I just tried to pic a team with a similar record. I do remember that Jimmy was leading the series three games to one and, in Game 5, had Tom Browning throwing a masterful one-hitter going into the ninth inning. Browning was astonishing — my guys couldn’t do a thing against him.
So the Reds led 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth and seems about ready to wrap it up. Marty Barrett — who for some reason was all but impossible to get out the whole series (while Wade Boggs couldn’t get a hit) — scratched out a single. There were two outs when Dwight Evans came to the plate.
Jimmy at that point very seriously thought pulling Browning about going with Rob Dibble to close out the game. My suspicion — one he won’t confirm — is that he STILL jolts awake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. But he just couldn’t do that to poor Tom Browning (or his card). Browning had pitched his guts out. He stayed in the game.
I rolled the die. I recall the white die being 3 and the red dice adding up to 9, but I could be wrong about the numbers. I’m definitely not wrong about the results. Every Strat-O-Matic fan will recognize the word.
One word. All caps. HOMERUN. That’s all. When you see that word, you know it’s not an ordinary home run (many of the home runs in Strat-O-Matic require a roll of a 20-sided die to confirm) but a monstrous, titanic, Roy Hobbs into the lights kind of blast. I saw flying way over the Green Monster and into the Boston night.
The Red Sox came back to win the series in seven games and through the years, from different points of view, Jimmy and I have relived that home run, what it looked like, what the crowd sounded like, what our post-game interviews were like (the Cincinnati press was not too impressed with Jimmy leaving in a lefty to face Dewey though, to be fair, I remember the number was a HOMERUN against righties too). It remains one of my favorite sports moments ever, even if it only happened in our imaginations.*
*I have several such moments in Strat-O-Matic football too, and there it’s Chardon Jimmy who ended up with the upper hand. All you have to say is “Dan Fouts into double coverage” and Jim will smile happily.
Anyway, getting my own Strat-O-Matic card (one which Adam Rosen and Hal Richman and the Strat-O folks designed without my input or even knowledge) was great on two levels. One, it gave me a baseball identity — apparently I’m a high-average (.390 average!), power-hitting (40 doubles! 30 homers!), Gold Glove third baseman. My season is obviously influenced by George Brett in 1980. We both hit .390 with .454 on-base percentages. I was more durable than Brett — I got about 150 more plate appearances — which is why I hit more doubles (40 to 33) and homers (30 to 24). He had a slightly higher slugging percentage and stole three more bases. Yes, Brett in 1980 — that’s more of less my skill level as a ballplayer.
The second level, this gave me an opportunity to face my favorite-ever great pitcher Greg Maddux. I gave myself 10-plate appearances against 1994 Greg Maddux, which was the Maddux Strat-O card I found. In 1994, Maddux with 16-6 with a 1.56 ERA and he won his third of four straight Cy Young Awards.
So here we go. Me and Maddux.
First plate appearance: Dice roll 3-7. That 3 puts the action on my card (look at the advanced side — that’s the side with numbers for right-handed and left-handed pitchers). Look up 7: That’s a WALK. Hmm. Maddux a little nervous going up against me there. Can’t say I blame him.
Second PA: Dice roll 5-11. Ooh, that’s on Maddux’s card. He got me swinging at his pitch, probably a fastball that drifted away from me outside I lift it to right field for a relatively easy out. Damn. I’ve got to take those pitches.
Third PA: Dice roll 4-11. Yep, on Maddux’s card again. Another fastball drifting away, I’m sure. Another fly ball to right field. He’s in my head.
Fourth PA: Dice roll 1-10. Ah, back on my card … Maddux makes a mistake and left a pitch up and … and I’m overanxious and lift another medium range fly ball to right field. That question mark next to the result means that if there was a man on third, it would be a question whether or not the fly ball is deep enough to score him (depends on the runner’s speed). So that tells you exactly how deep a fly ball it was. I’m not getting anywhere with Maddux.
Fifth PA: Dice roll 1-6. Man, on my card again … and I pop-up to shortstop. Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous, I’m obviously just freaking out facing Maddux here. But wait! I will point out something — you see next to the result there is a horseshoe facing down. If you don’t play Strat-O you might be wondering what that’s all about. Well: That is a clutch-hitting horseshoe. That means that while NORMALLY this is an infield popout, if it’s a clutch situation (at least one man in scoring position and two outs) it automatically turns into a run-scoring single (for some players, the exact opposite effect is true — they might normally hit a single but in clutch situations it turns out into an out).
I don’t believe in clutch hitting as a unique skill as I’ve written about thousands of times here. But I believe in it in my Strat-O-Matic identity. This was a clutch-situation and I’m a clutch-hitting man! I just got my first single off Maddux!
Sixth PA: Dice roll 2-4. I keep rolling on my card … and that’s my first clean hit a nice clean SINGLE. So I’m now 2-for-5 with a walk against Maddux, if you count my clutch single. Which I do.
Seventh PA: Dice roll 6-8. OK, if that first number is a 5 or 6, you know it’s all over. Nobody hits Maddux under those two columns. I ground out to third for the easy out.
Eight PA: Dice roll 4-7. If you are going to get a hit off Maddux’s card, it more or less has to be in the 4-column. That’s by far his weakest one. The exact result for 4-7 is as follows:
gb (2B) B 5-20
That means that I have to roll the 20-sided die. if I get a 1-4 it’s a single, otherwise it’s a ground ball to second for the out. I imagine this being a ground ball up the middle that could sneak by a mediocre second baseman. Rolling the 20-sided die: 15. Ugh. So that wasn’t close. That’s a groundout to second.
Ninth PA: Dice roll 2-7. Oh yeah, clean single. I’m in his head now.
Tenth PA: Last chance against Maddux. I roll a 1 with the white die, so the result will be on my card. Yes! I’m imagining Maddux threw me a fastball off the plate, I let it go, the umpire (uncharacteristically) calls it a ball. Maddux gives an extra glare. He wanted that pitch. He’s 1-0, but he won’t give in — he throws me another fastball in exactly the same spot and I let it go again. Count is 2-0. It’s my time. I’m feeling comfortable against him now. I think I know what’s coming. He’s going to keep staying away from me but he has to bring it in a little bit.
Here’s the third pitch — it’s up and in the zone. I roll 7. Oh yeah. I crack a no doubt SINGLE. So, final results: I’m 4-for-9 with four singles and a walk against Greg Maddux. I wonder if he’ll mention me in his Hall of Fame speech.