Games of The Game
I recently discovered, thanks to a posting on ESPN’s Sweet Spot pages, that the famous Strat-o-Matic Baseball board game is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Believe it or not, I have never played Strat-o-Matic Baseball. Many were the years during my adolescence where I would leaf through my annual Street & Smith’s Baseball Preview issue and see the Strat-o-Matic ad and mull over the possibility of ordering it, but I never pulled the trigger and made the buy.
It got me to thinking about all the baseball games I’ve played off the field over the past 40+ years of my life. Here’s the full rundown, from 1969 to the present:
The Home-Made Version: My first year of really following the major leagues was 1969, the year of the Miracle Mets and also the year of expansion, with new clubs in Kansas City, Seattle, Montreal and San Diego. Not having the money to buy any kind of a game, I devised my own simple game: Roll the dice to get the score. “My team” rolled first, “Their Team” second. If a team rolled a one, you rolled again. If it was a one again, then it counted as zero runs. Roll a six, you roll again. If it’s a six again, you roll a third time and add it to the six for the final runs scored. If it came up six again, you repeat the process. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!!! I wanted to “build” a team, like an expansion team. So the first year, I’d subtract one from the “My Team” roll and add one to the “Their Team” roll. Thus, if two 5’s were rolled, “My Team” would actually be a 6-4 loser. Year two would see “My Team” still subtract one but “Their Team” would be the actual dice roll. Year three was even footing for both teams. Year 4 would have “My Team” add one and Year 5 would be the opposite of Year One. Now “My Team” added one and “Their Team” subtracted one. This rudimentary game gave me hours of enjoyment writing scores and records on pieces of notebook paper! I’d go through a 162 game season in a night, sometimes two seasons!
Gil Hodges Pennant Fever: Once I got my first paper route, I had some money to
buy a few things on my own. Strat-o-Matic was still a little out of my price range, but I did have enough to go to my neighborhood Toys R Us to buy Gil Hodges Pennant Fever. Despite being a Washington Senators fan, I chose to play as the Chicago White Sox in this one. You don’t play one of these games as your favorite team when your favorite team sucks! The White Sox at the time had Wilbur Wood and Stan Bahnsen as their top two pitchers, while Dick Allen and Bill Melton were their two heavy hitters. Pennant Fever was a combination dice and card game and they gave the formula for how to rate the players. Over the next few years, Pennant Fever was my game. I’d graduated to doing my own box scores and statistics. When the major league season started, I would update my own team with cryptic 6V, 7X or 8Y ratings (these represented batting average and power ranges). I don’t remember the pitcher ratings anymore, but I’m pretty sure they were based on ERA, hits, walks and strikeouts.
Baseball Pinball: When my friends and I went to the local bowling alley (the place with the cigarette vending machine that we could get away with using), we would usually drop a few quarters into the Baseball Pinball machine. I really loved how they put it together to allow for everything from singles to home runs. Nothing beat that feeling when you swung at the ball and it hit the ramp and over the home run wall. I still remember hitting a home run in a haze of bowling alley cigarette smoke while the jukebox played Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4”. The things we choose to remember…
Avalon Hills Statis-Pro: The first baseball board game of my adulthood. I had been introduced to Avalon Hills games in college. They were more adult in nature and I enjoyed a couple in particular. Now that I was a fulltime working man and could afford a good baseball board game, I once again perused my Street & Smith’s, this time for the express purpose of getting a game. As always, Strat-o-Matic was there, but I decided against them because Avalon Hills had a slicker looking ad (let that be a lesson to you marketers out there!). Statis-Pro didn’t use dice at all, if I recall correctly. It was strictly cards. There were play cards, result cards, and individual player cards. This time, I would play as the San Diego Padres- they had Randy Jones pitching and Dave Winfield batting, and again, the Texas Rangers sucked at the time. It took about 20-30 minutes to play a 9-inning solitaire game of Statis-Pro. I still kept box scores and stats (Statis-Pro provided scorecards for the games) and once actually compiled an entire 162 game season. Like Gil Hodges Pennant Fever, my experience was the good pitchers and batters compiled better stats and the others performed worse than expected, so if you were playing with a good team, their record would be better than in real life. Either that or I played the game really well! Statis-Pro also gave you the formula to make your own player cards, but this time I chose to order new cards every year. I think I played this game for about five years.
Baseball Simulator 1.000: In the 90’s I bought my first Nintendo. I bought three different baseball games for the Nintendo and this is one became my favorite. They weren’t real MLB teams, but it was fun. I played with the regular teams, but you could also set up “Outer Space” teams. These teams featured players with special powers. I would play that one for fun, but preferred to do a season with the regular teams. When the Super Nintendo came out, I’d play the Super NES version with my sons. We had one rule- everybody had to pitch straight, no putting curves on the ball, just to make it “fair”. On the other end of the spectrum, one time 17-Year-Ranger-Fan challenged me to a game with the outer space teams. Little did I know he had set up a team full of players who had “Cannonball” abilities- their hits would go straight to center field and send the center fielder into the wall and bounce back. It was impossible to get an out on “Cannonball” guy! Needless to say, I stopped playing the game with him after that!
Mechanical Baseball Pinball: Time to relive the teen years in the bowling alley. A few years ago, my wife surprised me at Christmas with this stand-alone version of that pinball game of so many years ago. I never played this one much, but I loved the thought that went into the gift!
MLB: The Show: That brings us to today. The second game I bought after we got a Playstation 3 in the house was MLB: The Show ’09. Sadly, video games are mostly made for the young. As a 2-player game I can hold my own. As a single player game against the computer, I don’t do well, even set on an easy level. Because of my slower reaction times, I have to decide earlier in the pitch whether to swing or not. Thus, I see the pitch, and oftentimes, it doesn’t start heading out of the strike zone until after I have committed to hitting the swing button! In Road To The Show mode, I don’t think I’ve ever had a player hit over .278. More often than not, my players hit more in the .230 range. Suggestion to Manufacturer: In Rock Band, you can calibrate your instruments to when you see notes hit the fret bar. Can’t something similar be done for MLB: The Show? Or can you come up with a setting designed for the older set? You might sell more games that way! I still have the ’09 version, but am thinking about getting the 2011 update this year (especially if there’s a Ranger on the cover)! Oh, by the way. In this game, I am finally playing as the Texas Rangers!