The best big league games I've ever seen were played on the floor of my boyhood bedroom. The players were cards inscribed with a series of black-and-red numbers. When those figures were combined with the numbers that came up on a pair of dice and those on a stack of situational charts, I was transported into a world of chance and omens and intricate formulas, the world of APBA.
APBA Major League Baseball was a game to which more than a million Walter Mitty managers—including George W. Bush—lashed their lives. Like fans of Strat-O-Matic (a shallower knockoff), we APBAphiles entered a baseball fantasy world complete with injuries, ejections and rainouts. We calculated averages, oversaw careers, played God. Much of the mystique was in the cards, which reflected player characteristics: White Sox slugger Dave Nicholson's inability to hit a pitch out of the strike zone, Yankees fireballer Ryne Duren's inability to throw a pitch inside the strike zone. "Once you hold the cards," says agent Arn Tellem, an APBA devotee, "you transcend the game and become the players themselves. Each card has its own personality."
APBA is still around, though now it's also available in a computer version. Players can plug in lineups and read the printout box scores a few minutes later, as though the teams were playing out of town. Which strikes me a bit like renovating an Automat into a fast-food drive-thru; the service is quicker and it's sort of the same product, but the flavor is gone.