Monday, March 25, 2013

No. 437 – Bang the Drum All Day

Performer: Todd Rundgren
Songwriters: Todd Rundgren
Original Release: The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect
Year: 1982
Definitive Version: none

I got my first baseball board game—Ethan Allen’s All Star Baseball by Cadeco—when I was a kid. I never played it. In 1977, my new friend Jim introduced me to Superstar Baseball by Sports Illustrated. It was cool but limiting in that it was just Hall of Fame players. In 1978, I got a game that featured current players called Longball, but it was complicated and boring.

Finally sometime during my freshman year at Wabash, I saw an ad in The Sporting News for another baseball board game: Strat-o-Matic Baseball. The ad showed a sample card, it actually said things like Home Run or strike out instead of 6-C or some code that I wasn’t interested in memorizing.

There was a special offer running at the time where if you ordered now you would get the game with 1981 cards and the 1982s as soon as they became available. That sold me. I cut out the ad and gave it to Mom to put at the top of my Christmas list.

At Christmas 1982, my wish was answered. Almost immediately, I set up a league of eight teams and divided the cards randomly, playing a season of 72 games and keeping the stats, of course.

Strat-o-Matic Baseball became my No. 1 time waster for the rest of the decade. Whenever I didn’t have to study at college or was out with Beth or at work, I was playing Strat or compiling the stats. When it was time to order the new season of cards, I’d do so and hang on to them until I finished the previous season. Then I’d parcel out the new cards of the old players and distribute the new ones and start anew.

In computer science class, I wrote a Pascal program that would take statistics entered into a database and run a set of baseball formulas, such as runs created and Total Average. When I got my first personal computer in 1986, I was devastated to learn that the Pascal was different from the program at Wabash, so I couldn’t just transfer my files over.

I learned a lot about baseball from playing Strat. I saw right away that the theories espoused by Bill James about walks vs. speed or relief pitchers were correct, because the same patterns followed in Strat. Teams that had guys who walked more scored more runs and won more games than guys who had better batting averages but never walked. Also, it didn’t matter in which order you brought in relievers as long as they produced outs.

Before long, I could play a game in less than 30 minutes and a series of four games in less than 2 hours. Strat fit in with my addictive and introverted personality. By my junior year at Wabash, Beth started calling me J. Henry, after the infamous title character in the Robert Coover book about a guy who is just a tad obsessive about this little baseball board game he creates.

I finally read the book, The Universal Baseball Association, in 1987, and I saw no resemblance. Sure we both played baseball board games, in lightning-fast fashion, all available hours of the day, but J. Henry’s game was totally made up, including invented players. Strat used real players. All the difference in the world.

Although the protagonist’s life eventually was sucked into his game, a funny thing happened to this J. Henry Waugh: I stopped playing Strat-o-Matic cold. This wasn’t after reading the book; it was years later in Flint. Because I tried to compile stats for everything, even fielding, it took a really long time to do so. It got so it was more work than play, and in 1990, I quit in the middle of the 1989 season.

Part of that might have had something to do with Bill James quitting his Abstracts in 1988. After that, I wasn’t as interested in compiling my own statistics without some new formula to use to measure performance. But I think a larger reason was I had found something more fun to feed my compulsive nature—my baseball-card collection. As I mentioned, my newfound friendship with Dave in 1990 and going to card shows reignited a passion that had been dormant since high school.

I stopped playing Strat-o-Matic at about that time and never went back to it. In fact, when I moved from Flint, I threw out or left behind bags of old seasons of Strat cards. I still have the game and several old seasons of cards, and I can’t believe now that I threw out those cards. I NEVER throw out anything related to baseball.

That I did goes to show you I definitely was done with Strat-o-Matic baseball and ready to move on.

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