Everything I Know About Baseball I Learned From Strat-O-Matic
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.]