Everyone has a story about what happened to his childhood baseball-card collection. Mine involves several thousand cards from the '60s, five dollars and a yard sale. That's about all you really want to know. But for a long time—at least until the day I realized that had I kept my cards, I could now make a down payment on the purchase of a South Sea island—I didn't miss them. Somewhere along the way I had forgotten the romance of having Clete Boyer fluttering away in the spokes of my Schwinn. Besides, I had found something better.
I remember the ad in the 1964 Street & Smith's Baseball Annual. I was only 10, but I wanted to play "thrilling, exciting baseball with Strat-O-Matic," as the ad copy described the board game. I craved players who "perform according to their actual abilities." I hungered to have "real control over all Major League players." You couldn't do these things with baseball cards.
From the day the game arrived at our house in Jim Thorpe. Pa., my life was never the same. I left my room only to eat, go to school and watch My Mother the Car on TV. When forced to visit relatives, I packed up Strat-O-Matic and took it with me. When my little cousins came calling, I hid it lest they find and swallow my dice. And sure enough (with the exception of one aberrant no-hitter by a Met pitcher named Buzz Capra), the players performed "according to their actual abilities." I played game after game, season after season, revising statistics on loose-leaf paper until my eraser rubbed through to the other side. And I've never stopped.
Even now, the game is still played on a stiff cardboard field—no electronic gizmos or flashing lights—with three dice and a set of 520 active-player cards that are revised each year by the Strat-O-Matic Game Co., which has made Strat-O-Matic since 1961. The game has become more sophisticated over the years (and a bit more expensive: I paid $10 for my first set; the current version sells for $37), but the basic rules are the same: You roll the dice, then consult the appropriate player's card, which is customized to reflect the player's actual abilities, to determine the result of the play. Additional referrals to charts may be required, but the elegance of Strat-O-Matic has always been in its cards.
Unlike the back of a bubble-gum card, which merely tells you what has happened to a player, Strat cards, replete with the possibilities of grand slams and triple plays, tell you what can happen.
Strat-O-Matic was a solitary pursuit for me. I couldn't be bothered playing against friends, who rarely understood when to bring the infield in or who didn't grasp the benefit of having a good hunter batting second in the order. But in 1972, when I was 18, I discovered play-by-mail leagues, two of which I participate in to this day. In these leagues geographically dispersed "general managers" draft their teams player by player. The idea then is to simulate general managership and managership of your franchise. You keep the same players from year to year, except for whatever changes your roster may undergo due to player attrition, trades or the drafting of rookies.
Seasons consist of 162 games, in equal numbers home and away. For road games you must put together a complex set of instructions to be used by the home manager in running your team. My instructions, for example, check in at more than 2,000 words; they tell my opponent-host to do such things as "sacrifice with Jody Reed versus lefthanded pitchers if it is the seventh inning or earlier and I am not losing by three or more runs and there is a lone runner on first with less than two outs, or there are runners on first and second only with no outs." Game results are then exchanged and sent to league reporters and statisticians, who put out periodic newsletters. The culmination, after six months, is a league championship series.
One of my teams, the Tampa Beowulf's, opened its title defense in March in a home series against the up-and-coming Olde York Yankees. In a sentimental move I sent Nolan Ryan to the mound on Opening Day. The Wulfs scored some early runs, and Ryan was cruising. By the end of the sixth inning, I realized that all the Yank base runners had gotten aboard by walks and an error. Ryan had a no-hitter going. Every superstition possible raced through my mind: Should I not touch Ryan's card? Should I uncross my legs? Play faster? Play slower?
Let me point out here that outsiders should never, ever compare us Strat-O-Matic play-by-mailers with fantasy-league drones, the quiche eaters of baseball gaming fans. They read box scores: we manage baseball teams. And I, for one, would rather have Herve Villachaize recite census data into my car than listen to some lawyer pontificate about why Gary Varsho was a real bargain at $15.
A good Strat mail league is the Mensa of the baseball game world. A league generally includes folks who have little in common save intelligence and a rare affection for and understanding of the game of baseball. The league I run, TRACBAL, includes a nationally known baseball journalist, a professional storyteller, a Canadian social worker and the executive director of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.