My summers were filled with baseball as a youngster. When I wasn't playing it or listening to it on radio, I was immersed in a world of baseball all my own.
This world was built around a game called Strat-O-Matic. It's a deceptively simple game, where the outcome depends on two red dice and a white one. Each at-bat is determined by the roll and a quick check of the batter's or pitcher's card. The company sells new player cards every year, intricately based on the performance of batters and pitchers the year before.
So great was its hold on me that the mere anticipation of new cards would send me into a frenzy. Whenever they arrived in mid-winter, my younger brother and I would rip open the package and rejoice. Spring had officially arrived, no matter what the calendar said.
The game could be played alone or by two people. There wasn't much of a choice in our house. My brother Michael and I could barely have a catch outside without getting into an argument. So it was impossible for these two sports-minded brothers two years apart to peacefully play a board game together. We're best friends now — but back then we retreated into our separate worlds based on Strat-O-Matic.
I loved playing baseball — the real thing — but this dice and card game enabled me to elevate it into something more than a game. It was a device to create an imaginary enterprise.
I divided the players into 16 teams, along the lines of modern-day fantasy leagues. Each team represented a different city with a nickname and logo of my creation. They not only had managers, they had coaches and a front office of executives — all of whom could be fired if their teams performed below expectations. I imagined entire cities being swept up by pennant fever. Elsewhere, fans booed teams that disappointed. I even had a couple of franchises relocate because of poor attendance.
I broadcast every game. Each at-bat brought a description of the play, crowd noise and even some scoreboard sounds. Across the country in San Francisco, a kid named Jon Miller did the same thing at a similar age. It became a springboard for his career as arguably baseball's best broadcaster.
I never made it to a major league broadcast booth. But my Strat-O-Matic experience had some real-world applications. This was an era before cheap calculators, and I'm convinced that keeping statistics for the game helped refine my multiplication and division skills. My notebooks for each season chronicled not only the results of each game, but injuries, trades and annual awards. No one had any interest in them, and I had no desire to share them.
Across the hallway, my younger brother was into his own league. We had little interest in how one another was faring, but he must have been as engrossed as I was. One year he injured his knees sitting cross-legged on the floor playing the game for hours. A doctor ordered him to play while using a chair and card table for a while. Luckily, he never had to go on the disabled list.
I played the game from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, my interest finally dwindling halfway through college.
Today, my kids don't quite share my enthusiasm for sports. I didn't share my daughter's interest in dolls — or my son's newfound interest in Pokemon cards. Most of the time, I can't figure out their games any more than they can comprehend baseball. But I understand the appeal if these pursuits fuel their imagination half as much as Strat-O-Matic fueled mine.
Jeffrey Katz is an editor at Morning Edition. Next month, he will become the senior supervising producer at NPR Online.