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Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Joys of Strat-o-Matic

I received a holiday mailer from Strat-o-Matic the other day, and I figured I would share my recollections of this wonderful game that I played endlessly as a kid with you. Who knows, you might find it a worthwhile gift for a middle schooler who wants to feel more a part of the game than what he can while playing a simulated game on a Play Station?

Strat-o-Matic has one of those nifty, retro names that stirs memories of the Veg-o-Matic by Ronco commercials that populated the airwaves several decades (or more) ago. What the name belied, especially for its time, was a sophisticated game that you could play at a few different levels. We used dice and cards numbered 1-20 to figure out what a batter would do under certain circumstances, as personal computers were far off into the future.

We played the advanced game, one which broke down how pitchers and hitters fared against lefties and righties. Fielders were rated, and outfielders' arms were rated as well. Players were rated for their abilities to bunt, hit and run and steal, and pitchers were rated as to their effectiveness -- how far could a starter or reliever go before tiring. Pretty sophisticated stuff, and the strategy called for could be intense, especially if you took it seriously in the heat of a mid-1970's summer, which we did.

I don't recall precisely when the new game cards came out for a season, but we awaited them with great excitement. We shared the cards and did our own scouting on them, basically to determine which pitchers yielded the lowest on-base percentages (this guy, who's not a Hall of Famer, was among the best) and which hitters had the highest on-base percentages (this guy and this guy, both Hall of Famers, were among them, as was this guy, who wasn't appreciated in his time but who would be today). We didn't draft according to batting average or ERA, but according to what percentages were yielded.

Little did we know that that type of thinking didn't come around, really, until Michael Lewis wrote about it and this guy became a General Manager. As for the latter fellow, Lewis wrote about the GM's reliance on nifty stats like the stuff we relied upon. While Lewis didn't mention this in his book, I do recall an article in which Beane said he had played Strat-o-Matic in high school (perhaps the only world-class talented athlete to do so; the rest of us who played did so presumably because we couldn't get it done on the field but wanted to know what it was like to manage a team that did). To make the world even smaller, my best man, who played minor-league baseball with Beane, used to argue with him on occasion about whether you really needed a 5-tool type of player (which Beane was) or simply a guy who could make the plays (which Beane was not). As Lewis pointed out, Beane in his GM role seeks out the latter and not the former, or, put differently, Beane seeks out the "anti-Beane", as Lewis wrote.

We were just geeky kids, I suppose, so I doubt any GM would have listened to us if we wanted to espouse our theories. After all, everyone knew that Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan were great players, so what difference would it have made if we truly pointed out why? Probably not much. But play we did, into the wee hours, and my parents took comfort that I was at the house of good kids with interests like mine and didn't care if I occasionally got home after midnight (one of those kids ended up clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, for what it's worth). We drank Coca-Cola out of glass bottles, needing an opener to flip off the caps, and we listened to Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn broadcast the Phillies' games on the radio. Listening to them, both Hall of Famers, and hearing about Schmidt and Steve Carlton, well, it couldn't get much better than that.

We also tried to keep everything real, and one year we kept stats to make sure we weren't overusing guys. We adopted a rule that said you can't play a player more than ten percent of his innings pitched or plate appearances, and we enforced the rule. That meant, for example, that if you had Andy Kosco after the 1973 season (when he hit 9 homers in 118 at bats -- a great ratio), you couldn't play him full-time and have him hit 45 home runs or so (especially because the precise reason he was a part-time player was that were he a full-time player, he would have fared much less well). Kosco was, however, very dangerous in pinch-hitting situations for the team owner that drafted him in a mid-to-late round that season.

Strat-o-Matic helped increase our analytical skills, our use of statistics, and our love of the game. To show that the appeal of the game isn't limited to the athletically challenged, during my senior year at Princeton I joined a league with a bunch of football players, one of whom loved the game so much that he climbed through my first-floor window at midnight to awaken me to play a series against his team (we drafted teams then, so it wasn't as though I had the Phillies or Yankees, but a combination of players drafted from throughout Major League Baseball). While I was dead tired, so amused was I by the prospect that he climbed through my window to play, that we played a series until about half past two in the morning.

Now, I'm sure you can get the game and play it on a computer, but I'm not so sure that it has the appeal of rolling both regular dice and the 20-sided "split card" dice that tells you whether your average baserunner actually can stretch a single into a double or whether your below-average shortstop can turn the double play. There was something about having your team's fate in your hands, with the dice, as opposed to depending on the click of a mouse. Progress is great for many things, but I'm not so sure that taking away the dice rolls adds to the fabric of what makes Strat-o-Matic so great. I'm sure the computerized version is great, but buy the board game if you want to capture the feel that the rest of us did decades ago.

I talked with a colleague at work the other day about the game, and I told him of our summer adventures. He smiled, because he said that he and his friends would cut school on occasion to play the game. He's a pretty successful guy, and at a young age, too, so I'm sure that he didn't miss too much class, and I'm sure that he learned a lot from playing this game too.

I don't like to look back on life that often, really, and when I do and write about it, it's often of found memories of shared experiences with people I really care (or cared) about. I try to maximize the present as much as possible, but when I do look back, I reflect upon enjoyable times that helped enrich my life. During those hot, humid summers, these late-night Strat-o-Matic sessions taught me a lot. I can't put my finger on exactly what, but all of it was good.

If you're looking for a good game for a post-third or fourth grader who is into baseball, this is definitely the game for him (or her). Buy a set and play it together. You'll be glad you did.

Who knows, perhaps you're raising the next General Manager of the Oakland A's -- in 2035!


Anonymous tim in tampa said...

Some great memories there. I used to play with the son of the crazy Yankees fan down the street, whose den was built to the exact dimensions of Yankee Stadium.

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