Baseball Fans Stay True to Low-Tech Board Game
Notes from a Former Fanatic
Morning Edition editor Jeffrey Katz spent his childhood immersed in the imaginary baseball world of Strat-O-Matic. He reflects on the lasting allure of a seemingly simple board game:
Sportscaster Jon Miller
ESPN and San Francisco Giants baseball broadcaster Jon Miller discovered Strat-O-Matic when he was around 10. He used the game to develop the phrasing that would make him a sportscaster and learn the ins and outs of baseball stats and strategy. Hear more from Miller:
Miller on How the Game Engrossed Him as a Child
Miller on Developing His Announcing Skills
Miller on How Strat-O-Matic Helped Him Become a Baseball Connoisseur
Miller on How Strat-O-Matic Kept Him Broadcasting Games During the 1981 Baseball Strike
Miller on Playing Strat-O-Matic with Cal Ripken Jr.
Some fans don't wait until opening day for baseball season. They indulge their sports fantasies year-round. Many play video games with splashy graphics. But the most enduring baseball diversion is a humble board game called Strat-O-Matic with an influential and devoted following.
Strat-O-Matic was one of the first diversions for numbers-obsessed sports fans. Launched in 1961, it's a predecessor to the stat-based sports fantasy leagues now attracting millions of participants. For some -- including ESPN and San Francisco Giants sportscaster Jon Miller, who played obsessively as a child -- it was even a tool for self-discovery.
Never a mass-market hit, Strat-O-Matic has nevertheless been a steady seller with unshakably loyal customers, including director Spike Lee, who made the game a recurring theme in Crooklyn, a film about childhood memories.
But that loyalty has been put to the test by sports video games. Creator Hal Richman estimates that of a dozen baseball board games, only a few have survived the video game era. Ironically, one his most devoted fans is Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, the largest video game company. Author Glenn Guzzo says Hawkins even prefers the classic, low-tech version of the game to the updated, computerized version.
Guzzo documents the history of the game in a new book called Strat-O-Matic Fanatic. Read an excerpt below:
Book Excerpt: Strat-O-Matic Fanatics
Stats and STATS
Editor's Note: Daniel Okrent is famous for inventing Rotisserie League Baseball, a form of fantasy baseball named after La Rotisserie Francaise, the New York City restaurant where Okrent first pitched the idea to friends.
Daniel Okrent created Rotisserie Baseball because of a void in his life: He no longer had a Strat-O-Matic partner.
A year and a half after he told Newsweek in 1976 that playing Strat-O-Matic "makes life worth living," Okrent moved from New York City to a small town in western Massachusetts, out of reach of his Strat-O-Matic "other half," literary agent David Obst.
"We had rented summer houses on Long Island a couple of times, where we began to play head-to-head. We had four teams each, selected by draft, and we'd play hour after hour. We could play twelve hours a day without any problem."
This went on for five or six years, until Okrent decided he wanted to write a book and the quieter, cheaper town of Worthington beckoned.
"I chose Worthington in the way a calculating Strat-O-Matic player might," Okrent says in a wry tone. "I wanted to live within a half hour of a college library, an hour of a good airport (he was a consultant to Texas Monthly magazine in Austin, Texas, at the time) and within range of New York and Boston where I had business. So I drew circles on a map, and Worthington was the place those circles intersected."
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the detachment was more powerful than Okrent had intended.
"As I had when I was drafting Strat-O-Matic teams," he recalls, "I was reading the box scores every day, but with no purpose."
After a year without Strat-O-Matic, Okrent sketched out the rules for what became known as Rotisserie League Baseball on a flight from Hartford to Austin in 1979.
Okrent, now The New York Times' first public editor, has done many big things (founder of New England Monthly, managing editor of Life, editor of The Ultimate Baseball Book, and much more), but inspiring the tens of millions who play Rotisserie and its fantasy sports offspring -- and inspiring America's infatuation with sports statistics -- is huge.
Okrent ticks off the reasons why fantasy sports have grown so much larger than its ancestor: "Because it requires less involvement, it's easier to find partners, and it's a less anti-social game. And once the season starts, it's fun to follow the box scores."
The book that cost Strat-O-Matic one of its most devoted souls? It was never written.
Trip Hawkins' Strat-O-Matic league started drafting Rotisserie-style before there was Rotisserie Baseball.
Starting in March 1977, he and his three league partners have picked teams that they would not play until the following year. All season, they follow the box scores and swap players. Then they reconvene, usually at Hawkins' house near San Francisco, to fine-tune rosters with cuts and pickups. That done, they play all day Friday to determine the two World Series teams. They play the World Series on Saturday, then draft again on Sunday for next year.
They are nearing thirty years with three of the original members: Hawkins, Ed Munson (a high school football coach from Palm Springs), and Chris Wilson (a Microsoft Xbox team member in Seattle). The fourth, Rich Hilleman (who works for Electronic Arts and lives in the Bay Area), has been in the league for twenty years.
Convening for an intense, Strat-only weekend in a format that keeps them connected all year creates a lot of memories. "I probably have as much emotional attachment to what my Strat-O-Matic players have done for me as just about anything," Hawkins says. "It means a lot to me that I've won multiple championships with Barry Bonds, my favorite player. But I also had a champion with Bobby Bonds. I think it's wonderful."
In Moneyball, the book that took baseball by storm in 2003, author Michael Lewis described how Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane was ahead of other baseball executives in recognizing the offensive potency of walks, on-base average, and OPS (on-base plus slugging).
Veteran Strat-O-Matic players love the book because they find it so easy to agree with. They cock their heads at the notion that this is revolutionary thinking about how to build a winner. To Strat-O-Matic players, it was, "Of course!" and, "Is there any other way?" -- they have understood this for as long as they have been playing the game.
It may be the Strat-O-Matic player cards that teach this lesson so swiftly. The WALK has always been in capital letters, just like the hits. It's a success chance, and you win Strat-O-Matic baseball by getting the hitters with the most success chances.
"A combination of playing Strat and reading Bill James' stuff in college -- I realized back then [twenty years ago] that guys who were drawing walks were the guys you wanted in your lineup," says John Vuch, the St. Louis Cardinals' assistant director of player development.
"When you coach and try to teach young people, there are a lot of things in Strat-O-Matic that teach the percentages and break the game down," adds Chris Czarnik, head baseball coach at University of Detroit Mercy. "The thing the game reinforces is on-base percentage and your ability to be selective at the plate. That's certainly popular in baseball today, but anybody who has played Strat-O-Matic has known it all along."
"If real managers played simulation games, they'd find out the value of a walk," says John Dewan, co-founder and former owner of STATS, Inc., the company that revolutionized the collection and presentation of sports statistics. STATS has provided analysis to Major League teams for many years. "It's probably the most important single thing I got out of simulation games in terms of evaluating talent. It's getting through now [in the Major Leagues], but why has it taken so long? The realization hit me in 1972, when I drafted my Strat-O-Matic team completely based on batting average. I got crushed. The guys who drafted based on walks and home runs were the ones who did well."
The gamers who order Strat-O-Matic's number-crunching Baseball Ratings Book or the Lamanna Baseball Bulletin hold one number most dear -- on-base chances.
Vuch learned these lessons on his own -- ninety-nine percent of his Strat-O-Matic play has been solitaire. As a St. Louis native whose dad pulled him out of elementary school to attend Game Six of the 1968 World Series, Vuch has replayed that Cardinals-Tigers World Series several times. It took many tries for it "to turn out right, eventually." He still has the score sheets from his youth, and his laptop is loaded for great teams tournaments while he's on the road.
He still has his card sets from the 1970s and '80s too, though there was a close call a few years ago. His wife was clearing out the storage area and called Vuch at spring training.
"I've got these boxes…" she started.
"Don't throw them away! Don't throw them away!" Vuch pleaded.
Vuch thinks playing Strat-O-Matic gave him a head start on a career in real baseball: "It's like a second language -- anything learned at a young age, it becomes an advantage. It's tough for people who come into the game to go back and learn what's important on the statistical side of it. Having that already, it allowed me to focus.
"People in organized baseball who haven't played it don't understand the difference between Strat-O-Matic and fantasy baseball. People in the game try to distance themselves from the fantasy stuff. But Strat-O-Matic simulates baseball very well."
In The Numbers Game, author Alan Schwarz cites his poll of fifty baseball executives in 2002 where he found that "exactly half had learned the game in large part by playing Strat-O-Matic as kids. That portion will only grow."
Czarnik takes card sets on his team's spring trips to Florida. Strat-O-Matic on the road is a tradition since he was with the Atlanta Braves' Minor League team in Idaho Falls in 1988. Then, during a road stop against the Reds' team in Billings, Montana, he and Al Bacosa left the team hotel on a "quest" to find a toy store with Strat-O-Matic.
"It was either that or watch a Guns 'N Roses video," Czarnik explains. "We might have walked a couple of miles in and out of places till we found a Kay-Bee. Six or seven of our pitchers formed a league for the rest of the summer. ESPN was [filming us] on the nineteen-hour trip to Medicine Hat. We played on the bus, the dice fell all over, the split cards were falling all over. The ESPN film was shown on This Week in Baseball."
John Dewan says flatly that there never would have been STATS, Inc. if not for the Strat-O-Matic: "We were looking at play-by-play info, the score sheets from our draft league, when we said, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a complete play-by-play of Major League games?' Then, along comes this book by Bill James and he talks about Project Scoresheet, and I about fell over. I became director of that project."
At the time, Dewan was an actuary ("instead of the statistics of sports, the statistics of insurance"). That gave way to STATS, Inc.
As a gamer, Dewan had started with the fictional players in Baseball Strategy. "I always chose the defensive guys. I was a White Sox fan, and that's all they ever had." Then, leafing through The Sporting News in the summer of 1969, he stumbled upon an ad for a game he had never heard of.
When the UPS truck arrived with his new game, he rushed to the neighborhood schoolyard and interrupted a basketball game. "The new game came -- Strat-O-Matic. Come on." Ten to twelve boys headed to Dewan's house. That became "every morning on my front porch."
He was "Bowie Dewan," commissioner of a neighborhood league of teenagers using the 1968 season cards.
Dewan was hooked on Strat-O-Matic after testing the game to see how well it worked.
"I took Willie Horton's card. He hit thirty-six homers that year in 512 at-bats and had home runs on 1-8, 1-9, and 1-10. To see if the game was legit I rolled the dice 512 times and it came out exactly thirty-six homers. I said, 'Oh, my God, this is my game.'
"I had to hide my stats at the bottom of the laundry hamper. My mom was mad that I was doing it so much, [the game and the stat-compiling], and she threatened to throw them away. I hid them on her before she could hide them on me."
The Unlikely Success Story Of A Game That Became An American Passion
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