Designated HitterFebruary 15, 2007
Everything I Know About Baseball I Learned From Strat-O-Matic
By Chad Finn

All right, so that title there is a modest exaggeration. Truth be told, my first introduction to baseball came in my eighth summer, when a Rodent Napoleon named Don Zimmer mismanaged the '78 Red Sox into infamy. Despite that cruel indoctrination, baseball's grip on me was secure, and it wasn't long before a certain simple but fundamentally sound board game helped me adore the game even more.

So it was that before fantasy baseball became a national pastime unto itself . . . before Rob Neyer was even a twinkle in Bill James's Texas Instrument . . . before the advent of Baseball Prospectus and On-Base Plus Slugging and Value Over Replacement Player and so many other modern numerical and analytical enhancements to the ol' ballgame, Strat-O-Matic taught me the value of statistics beyond the basics listed in the Sunday sports section.

I learned about the value of WHIP, K-Rate and the lies-and-damn-lies nature of a pitcher's won-lost record from Nolan Ryan in 1987. In games played in the National League, Ryan pitched 211.7 innings, allowing just 154 hits, walking 87, and striking out 270. Dazzling numbers by any measure, yet his won-lost record for the offensively limp Astros was a wretched 8-16. But in games played at my family's kitchen table, Ryan, armed with one hellacious Strat card and a considerably more supportive offense, rolled to a 24-5 record and struck out 349. (I know this because I still keep my stat book tucked away in the desk in my home office. And somewhere, my wife mutters: "Nerd.")

I learned that home runs per at-bat could foreshadow a power hitter's potential, thanks to a large (and largely anonymous) Toronto Blue Jay who clubbed 14 homers in 175 at-bats in '87. When Cecil Fielder, after a rejuvenating detour to Japan, returned stateside and promptly walloped his way to cult-hero status, blasting 51 homers for the 1990 Tigers, I considered it little more than a case of life imitating Strat. After all, he had totaled 44 homers in our league three years previous.

I learned about the tremendous value of bases on balls and on-base percentage to an offense from . . . well, my dad, who as a Strat manager played Earl Weaver to my tragicomically inept Maury Wills. Some of my earliest memories are of dad playing the game with my uncle, and after incessant pleading, badgering and whining on my part, I was permitted to make my Strat debut at age 10. Let's just say I might have been rushed to the majors. When dad and the dice would conspire to deal me a particularly galling loss, I could throw a hissy fit that would make Kevin Brown blush. Let the record show I never took a Louisville Slugger to the light fixtures, however, and a few stints of solitary confinement in my bedroom taught me to handle defeat with the appropriate grace.

Now, I assume my recollections of Strat heroes past aren't terribly different from yours. It seems to me that just about every baseball-mad kid of any pre-PlayStation generation dabbled in one baseball board game or another, be it Strat, APBA, Ethan Allen (the game with the spinning dial mom got you from the Sears catalogue), or perhaps some homemade concoction made from, say, Topps baseball stickers, index cards, and dice. But for the uninitiated, I should explain how Strat is played. I'll spare you the complexities and stick with the fundamentals: Each batter has an individual card composed of three columns (numbered 1 through 3), with 12 numbers representing potential outcomes in each column. Each pitcher has a card with columns numbered 4 through 6. You roll three dice - one of which determines the column and the other two combining to determine the number within that column. So, say, 1-7 would be a home run on Jim Rice 1978 card for example, or 4-11 might be a grounder to short on Luis Tiant's card. Basestealers earned ratings from AAA (think Rickey Henderson in '82) down to E (think Steve Balboni since birth), while fielders were graded from 1 (think Ozzie Smith in his backflipping heyday) to a 4 (think Butch Hobson in his 44-error breakdown for the '78 Red Sox). To this day, I catch myself judging defensive players by the Strat system. Alex Gonzalez? The Reds shortstop is a 1 for sure. Derek Jeter? Ask me, he's a 3. Okay, maybe a 2.

The Strat formula is as flawless as David Wells's delivery. In fact, the game is so user-friendly that it achieved significance in pop culture, and occasionally, the ratings would become a source of humor within a big-league clubhouse. Steve Wulf, the esteemed sports writer, confirmed Strat Geek, and ironically, one of the forefathers of rotisserie baseball, wrote a stellar feature for ESPN the Magazine a few years back on Strat creator Hal Richman. Wulf relayed the story of how several Phillies fans once berated the leather-challenged Gregg Jefferies by hollering, "You're a 5, Jefferies. You're a 5!" As Jefferies looked on quizzically, Phillies center fielder Doug Glanville convulsed in laughter. Turns out Glanville was an avid Strat player.

Given a proper introduction to the game, who wouldn't be? It was just. . . fun, for reasons both statistical and sentimental. The anticipation of sorting through each season's new cards, discovering whose defensive ratings went up or down and which sluggers had the coveted 1-7 and 1-8 home run numbers, was the closest thing I knew to Christmas morning. And there was much satisfaction to be found in the whims of the dice, for while the game was remarkably accurate in replicating the players' real-life accomplishments (or failures, Mario Mendoza), there were always a fortunate few mediocrities that always seemed to get the benefit of the roll.

You could be excused for having long since forgotten Terry Harper, a nondescript reserve outfielder for Atlanta in the mid-'80s. But I fondly remember him as someone whose good outfield glove, decent speed, and adequate home run rate inexplicably translated to Strat superstardom. A good friend and fellow boyhood Strat junkie reverentially speaks of a season played three decades ago, when a second baseman named Rodney "Cool Breeze" Scott, he of exactly zero home runs the previous season, inexplicably began going deep like he was a BALCO client. And marginal big-leaguers who put up distorted numbers in a small sample size were fair game in our game, which occasionally meant the less-than-legendary likes of Broderick Perkins (.370 in 100 at-bats for the '80 Padres) would achieve the stardom in our world that eluded them in real life.

Our greatest delight, however, was the annual rookie draft. One summer dad and I played a grueling 130 games per team in our 12-team, All-Star format; in other distracted years, we played as few as 25 or 30 games per team. But it would have taken an act of Congress - or of my mom, I suppose - for us to miss our yearly draft. That was the Event, capital E. I did more draft prep than Mel Kiper Jr., often at the expense of a homework assignment or three. The diligence wasn't always rewarded. My old man still needles me about the time I snapped up a young Red Sox outfielder named Todd Benzinger with the No. 1 overall selection. Benzinger was a player of some promise, though I'm not sure he would have gone No. 1 overall in his own family. In retrospect, I may have overestimated his skills for the fact that he once genially tossed my cousin his hat after minor-league game. I'm presuming Theo Epstein isn't so easily coerced.

For all of these indulgent flashbacks and anecdotes, though, the truest value I found in the game was both personal and palpable: it brought me closer to my dad. In darker times for my family, when maybe I didn't see him as much as I'd have liked and my teen angst prevented me from telling him so, the game always seemed to be there as a catalyst for repairing our bond. It is not an exaggeration to say the game made my young life easier.

Dad and I retired unceremoniously from Strat a dozen years or so ago, in part because my first real job and real responsibility took me to another state, in part because the old man was finally hooked by the lure of fantasy sports, but mostly because I was wary of immediately revealing the female-repelling depths of my baseball dorkdom to my girlfriend, who would someday become my wife. You might say one true love was swapped straight up for another. But damned if Strat is not still part of my fiber as a fan today. When a player submits a transcendent statistical season, I'm still in the pleasant habit of pondering what his Strat card might look like. McGwire in '98, Pedro in '00, Bonds in '01 . . . man, those must have been cards to behold.

I'd never dare suggest an imaginary game could properly replicate the nostalgia of an idyllic summer Sunday spent at, say, Chavez Ravine. But sitting at kitchen table with dad, hoping Ryan or Fielder or - god bless them - Terry Harper or Broderick Perkins have just a little bit more magic in the cards. . . well, those fictional baseball memories are tucked away neatly in my mental scrapbook, right there alongside the cherished recollections of the real thing.

I have a little boy of my own now, six months old, a genuine bonus baby. This won't come as breaking news to my wife - she long ago realized the truth, yet stays the course in spite of it all - but I'm already daydreaming of the day when I can share with my son the baseball lessons my dad, and a certain board game, taught me. One roll of the dice at a time.

Chad Finn is the founder of Touching All The Bases, a blog that takes an irreverent but passionate look at Boston sports. In real life, he is a sports copy editor at The Boston Globe. He lives in Wells, Maine, with his wife Jennifer, their children Leah and Alex, and a cat named after Otis Nixon.

[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Think Factory.]


I wish I had kept my notebooks! The problem I had was finding someone to play with. I generally had to operate my leagues by myself, like Henry Waugh in Coover's novel. But I remember quite fondly the hours and hours I spent playing the games myself.

Chad, that's honestly one of the greatest essays about baseball that I've ever read. What a treat!

I think all of us can relate somehow.

Perhaps other may think it cute about the "Rodent Napoleon" part what with so many people referring to Don Zimmer as a gerbil and all, but who the the Hell are you, Mr. Finn, that you have the right to insult someone like that? Being a sports copy editor gives you this right, huh? You are free to do this in your sphere of friends, but this is a public forum. I am really, really glad that my father at the very least never stated something like this in public.

Damn, Chad. That was fantastic.

Wow. What a great essay on some fond childhood memories of my own. My friend John and I spent entire summers playing out full season All-Star game schedules. One card I particularly remember was Ellis Valentine, sometime in the 70s. He could absolutely CRUSH lefty pitching, and I remember setting up my rotation to deal with him alone.

Great writing... Thanks

Great piece - I remember strat-o-matic teaching me OPS after someone who fleeced me on a trade showed me how to count the walks and singles on a card as one, doubles as two...

It's great that you were able to share that interest with your father. Hopefully you can also share it with your son.

I enjoyed the piece, and it brought back a lot of memories, like the excitement every year when the UPS truck stopped in front of the apartment to deliver the new Strat cards.

Back in college, I learned a card rating system, and can still multiply 17 times 6 in my head because of it. (HR 1 to 17 at 1-7 is 102 HR points. Hey, it helped to know that stuff.)

Somewhere in the basement, I have Oscar Zamora's infamous '75 card with his autograph: N-HR vs. LHP at 6-10, 6-9, 6-8 and 5-7. And 1 to 2 at 4-9... yep, those were the days.

It's funny but me and my friends always thought that Strat-O-Matic was kind of crude due to their use of only 6 sided dice. We were fans of Pursue The Pennant as it used 10 sided dice (1000 possible numbers instead of a paltry 216) and color on the player cards.

Great story! I also remember playing my summers away with high school friends on the weekends setting up All-Star leagues. But as tom said, we enjoyed the 10 sided dice of Pursue the Pennant. I have since started playing Strat and have gotten my children involved playing "dice" baseball, as we refer to it.

Great essay. My boyhood was spent playing literally over 1000+ games (solo)and many more with friends, of Statis-Pro Baseball by Avalon Hill Game Co. They used a Fast Action Deck of cards to play. One of my favorite memories from Statis was one season getting the new player cards, and on the back of one of the cards was scrawled #11 Curt Schilling from his Baltimore days! One night my best friend and I spent hours just trying to have a No-Hitter. We picked the worst hitter cards and used the best pitcher cards and as soon as someone would get a hit, we'd start a new game. You couldn't *force* destiny and we were not successful. I'm happy to report I finally DID pitch a no-hitter my freshman year at Syracuse University, playing Strat-o-matic with none other than Nolan Ryan!

Aaaah, Strat-O! Where Tom Niedenfuer dominated, Gary Lavelle starred and Duane Walker was a stud. But perhaps my favorite Strat-O memory was when I along with buddies Lee and Pels couldn't wait for the 1983 set to reach our local stores so we drove out to Strat-O headquarters in Glen Head, New York.

Giddy with excitement, we headed to Glen Head expecting Strat-O headquarters to be a cross between Oz and Heaven. We were dumbfounded to find no gleaming spires but a tiny, unkempt brick building on the side of the road.

We knocked on the door and were astounded to see a sea of boxes and cards from what seemed like every year in Strat-O-Matic history. We hurried and paid and headed back to devour the 1983 set. We grew up that day, wiser from the experience.

I'm not familiar with the Strat game, but for a younger generation like me, it sounds a lot like MLB Showdown- a game played with hitter and pitcher cards full of stats and 20 sided dice. My brother, father, and I set up a six team league and played fifty game seasons. It was perhaps the pinnacle of nerdiness. And, for some reason, Darin Erstad was a tremendously valuable centerfielder. Go figure.

I hear ya'. I played APBA, Pursue the Pennant and Strat growing up; I was hooked after visiting a friend's house whose dad collected all things baseball. No, my parents didn't understand. (My dad didn't care for baseball after his overbearing father pushed his brother to the Big Leagues and ignored his other children.) No worries, I've loved baseball since I was a kid.

I've come back to Strat around the birth of my first (and now second) son. Even though I only play against myself and only from time to time, I've started to collect the seasons: 2002, 1997, 2000 (on sale this winter); the Hall of Fame series just to have the legends; the recent 2005 and 2006 seasons; and 1967, 1978, 1954. Next up is 1971.

Great stuff.

From Strat? I confirmed my belief that Darrell Evans was really good while my friends laughed at me.


Thanks. Far beyond the usual nostalgic look at the table-game experience, the piece spoke to and for me about how much we knew about baseball through Strat. Bill James and friends went beyond Strat in the 80's, for sure, but for a while, the confidence that we knew baseball (and had an "impress your friends" knowledge of every ML team and player) was an unspoken but tacit elment of enjoying the game. I still play, as do a lot of guys our age, and it is hard to extricate Strat from my love of baseball itself. The two are entwined, and have been since 1969 for me.

Drafts with nephews and then huge leagues in college are my best memories, but (nerdy to say it) nothing besides Shakespeare has given me as much pleasure as Strat. Thanks for writing with depth and insight about it.

Joe Earls

Chad - I was 9 in Boston the year the Gerbil and teammates lost in the one game playoff. Strat grabbed hold of me 3 years later, and has never let go. Geez, I even started a website strictly dedicated to it (shameless plug). Great piece, glad to know I'm not the only nerd out there!

Mike SC

Great article, well written, if you havent played strat you need to before you die and then you will know what baseball heaven is like.

Greetings Chad!
Super memories!
Play Strato every day and keep your sanity at bay!!!
The connection between your Dad , Uncle and now your own child through Strato speaks volumes!!
I'll Email you the images of the McGwire , Pedro and Bonds cards so you can show them to the unfortunate masses that not only do not have them , but have no idea what they are or are used for!! :)

If the first paragraph didn't give it away immediately, Chad's warped perception of Jeter's fielding rating uncovered that he's a Red Sox fan. So, I have to hate you Chad, even though you wrote an awesome essay.

You brought back some great memories of Strat-O and baseball addiction before computers.

A friend won a big Strat-O tournament with the '69 Orioles. He held back Clay Dalrymple to pinch hit with the bases loaded in a tie game. The opposing manager laughed out loud at Dalrymple's puny .204 AB (10 for 49) while ignoring Dalrymple's 16 walks and unlisted .400 OBP.

The dice were tossed, and - surprise - the winning run walked home. That was an indelible lesson in the value of walks and OBP.

Don't forget the "Nameless Player" Cards. Since a given Strat-o-Matic season came out the spring following its conclusion, anyone interested in more than replay, could adjust rosters to reflect the most recent roster changes...and use these Nameless Player cards to include rookies or the prior season's injured players.

Arguments in March over, say, what Larry Hisle's 1981 card should look like, or in a given June over what a hot rookie's card should look like, were almost as fervent as grumbling over full-time use of, say, George Zeber 1977 or Rick Monday 1981 or Joel Youngblood 1981 or Dan Gladden 1984, or even the abuse of Rich "Goose-eggs" Gossage's 1981 card.

I too love the strat. Good story. I learned to play in HS because my buddies HS had a Strat club! Very Nerdtastic. Anyway, that led me years later to actually work at the and actually the Online Stratomatic. While not as in-depth as the table top version, its a good way to have a look at the cards and play. Its worth it, and I SWEAR, no one paid me to do this!

Great article. I've always thought that Strat-O-Matic Baseball and The $10,000 Pyramid were two of the best games ever invented!

There is nothing like playing the Strat-O-Matic re-created prior seasons to gain an appreciation of the game of baseball and the men who have play it over the years.

The experience is enhanced even more by taking the time to read up on whatever era you're playing. Learn about the people behind the numbers.

It's like putting together a huge puzzle. You come across one name, and that leads you to another. I was exploring the background of the consecutive-games record holder back in 1920 (Fred Luderus).

It turns out he was replaced by Gene Paulette in the Philly lineup. Paulette played just one season in Philly before being caught up in Kenesaw Mountain Landis' game fixing dragnet. He was appropriately banished. So now, I have another piece of that puzzle.

Did you know that the biggest of today's modern ballparks is practically a bandbox, compared to the original home of the Red Sox, Huntington Avenue Grounds? Tris Speaker patrolled a center field that extended to 635 feet!

Braves Field actually went years between over-the-fence home runs. Opened in 1915, with dimensions of 402/550/402, the first such blow was hit in 1917 by Walton Cruise. The next was hit in 1921...again by Walton Cruise.

Baseball has such a rich history, and a game like Strat is incredibly helpful when it comes to gaining an appreciation of that history.

Last year, I purchased the CD collection of Lawrence Ritter's The Glory of Their Times interviews. Wow.

To be able to listen to Sam Crawford talk about growing up in a small town, remembering when they got their first street light. Getting the town team together, hitching the mule to the wagon, and riding off to play other town teams in the area, hoping against hope that perhaps a scout might see you play. Then, getting to experience Sam Crawford in Strat.

It's not just baseball, it's history. And Strat helps makes that history come alive!

Thank you for the wonderful essay, as I start my 21st season of playing, while admittingly there are times I wonder "why?"....I realize in the words of Roy Campanella: "There has got to be a lot of little boy in you".....Strat will always hold a soft spot in my heart, and if there is a drawback, it is that more baseball fans do not take advantage of the "worlds greatest board baseball game"...........

Wonderful essay! Yes, my cousin and I were Strat enthusiasts and actually replayed an entire season for every team in both leagues, in 1967. That was the year Yaz was a superstar and Boston couldawouldashoulda won the Series. Sadly, the Reds knocked off the Tigers in Stratomatic land that year, if I remember correctly.

I understood much of what Bill James had to say based on my youthful managerial experience with Strat-O-Matic. Strikeout pitchers allowed fewer opportunities for errors and base advancements. Guys who walked a lot and hit for power were more valuable than the .300-hitting slap hitters. Slow guys were a hindrance on the bases. Bad fielders were less harmful in left field than they were at shortstop. Sacrifice bunts were almost always useless by anyone other than a pitcher...

I learned the formulas and made my own cards for seasons I didn't have. Yes, I was a geek! Now I play fantasy sports but I still have a Strat game and bunches of old cards and about once a year I drag them out and play a few games, keeping score of course. How could you play baseball without keeping score?!

Yes, the 2000 Pedro card was great as attested by the large trophy, Cy Young, and no hitter score card collecting dust in my garage, the reward of a season of strat pitted against several of my best friends.