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12 February, 2011

Strat-O-Matic: An Appreciation

Note: If you are unfamiliar with Strat and how it's played, 
here is a brief explainer

  The 1980 New York Mets were a very forgettable team. 67-95.
the greatest board game ever!
But thanks to Strat-O-Matic baseball the names of those
Mets, and most of the National Leaguers from that year,  are
burned in my memory forever. In the summer of 1981, as a
14 year old in a world without internet, limited cable TV
and with video games just barely entering my consciousness,
Strat-O-Matic was heaven. I played out the entire '80 season,
scoring each and every game. Managing a team lead by Mark Bomback, Lee Mazzilli and Frank Taveras was more challenging than managing Lindsay Lohan, but I loved it.
In order to satisfy my mom's frequent urging to "get out of the
house on such a nice day," I would often sit on my back porch
and play on a table under the summer sun. Day games!
I remember the younger neighbor twin boys coming over
and looking on, laughing as I made jokes about the Astros
Enos "Cow-bell."
  At a time when following the league was limited to looking
at box scores in the paper and the Saturday Game of the Week
on NBC, I learned a great deal about the players in the
majors from playing Strat. I also really honed my skills as a
scorer of the game and learned how to figure out batting
averages and eras. It also allowed me the opportunity to
practice my play-by-play skills.
  For a young lover of the game, Strat-O-Matic was my Mrs. Robinson.
  The challenge of making your lineup, calling all the
in-game moves like bunts, hit and runs and pitching changes,
forced you to think the game through like a manager.
By the end of that summer, Joe Torre had nothing on me
when it came to managing the '80 Mets.
  When I got to college I learned that I wasn't alone in my
love of Strat. My freshman year I taught my roommate,
Bobby, how to play and soon we learned of many guys in
the dorm who played. My junior year, a freshman, Toast,
walked by my open dorm room and saw Bobby and me playing
and said "Hey, Strat-O-Matic!" Toast and I are still friends today,
but may have never met if not for Strat.
By my sophomore year, leagues were formed and Strat was
as much a part of the day-to-day life as classes were.
College in the 80's was different from today. No computers
in the dorm room, no email, no text messaging.
So getting mail was a big deal. Bobby and I used to compare
the mail we received to an at bat in baseball. A letter from
a friend was a single. Something from home with food or money
was an extra-base hit. When the new Strat-O-Matic set arrived,
that was a grand slam.
We would open the package to find the box covered in
pictures of major leaguers with their logos blacked out because
Strat didn't have MLB licensing. A generically clad Bucky Dent
uniforms were generic, but the
game experience was authentic
turning a DP... an equally generic Rick Cerrone in a
non-Blue Jays uniform, adorned the box.
Once you got the box open you would see all the cards
inside and quickly fish for your team so you could study
the cards and see if "your guys" had good looking cards or not. There was also the careful tearing of the orange perforated 1-20 result cards. "pfffft (carrrrreful)...pfffft (carrrreful)."
One poorly torn card could take the drama out of a
"home run 1-12, double 13-20" in a heart beat.
It was a process that had to be savored.

Then, the games began. Holding the dice in your hands
and shaking them before rolling them was akin to a pitcher
gently jiggling the ball in his hand while checking the signals
and waiting to let fly. The anticipation of the moment! 
Then the role of the dice followed by quick addition
of said dice and the ensuing scanning of the cards
to see the result. 
"one-eight. Ground out to short," "five-eleven. Catcher-card X."

good luck getting '01 Bonds out!

  My senior year at Rollins three of my friends, Toast, Oaks
and Ford, and I drove from Orlando to Gainesville to compete
in a weekend long Strat tournament. The four of us and a
dozen or so other guys all in one room, rolling the dice all
weekend long. Is this heaven? No, it's Gainesville, but still...
Among the things I still remember from that weekend: I
couldn't buy a break and only won 3 or 4 games.
My buddy Oaks winning a game in extra innings when
his pitcher, Bob McClure, got a hit off the other guy's pitcher card.
And this one dude who every time he rolled a homer would
say, in a quasi-Spanish accent, "Keeess it!"
  Thinking about those 1980 cards, 31 years later,  I still
remember the Mike Schmidt card producing a homer if
you rolled 3-6. The 1980 George Brett card was awe-inspiring.
Brett hit .390 that season, including an absurd .437 off
right handers. You just prayed to roll on his card against
the untouchable 1980
J.R. Richard
a righty and it was going to be a knock.
I remember the 1980 J.R. Richard card as
being the most unhittable pitcher card I've ever seen.
Right-handed batters hit just .124 off Richard that year.
He struck out 77 of the 240 righties, 1 out of every 3.1, he faced.
He was untouchable.
  At the 2000 World Series I walked up on ESPN announcers
John Miller, Buck Martinez and Charlie Steiner having a
discussion in the hotel bar. Were they talking about the epic
game 1 of the Subway Series that they had all just witnessed?
Nope. They were talking about Strat-O-Matic, what else?
Jumping in the discussion, I quickly asked Miller what was the
best pitching card he ever saw, fully expecting him to validate
my J.R. Richard opinion. Instead, he offered Orioles relief
pitcher Eddie Watt's card from 1969. Miller described Watt's
Vs. Righthanded Batters side of the card and how there were
only 2 places on it you could get a hit (righties only hit .140 off
Watt that season.) Without missing a beat Martinez, a rookie for
the Royals in '69, said "I got a hit off Eddie Watt that year!"
  Those of you who remember the days of Dan Patrick and Gary
Miller on ESPN's SportsCenter may be interested to know that
Strat was responsible for some of their signature catch phrases.
When the two anchors worked at CNN they used to pass time
by playing Strat. When Miller rolled something on Patrick's
pitcher's card that resulted in a strikeout, Dan would announce
the K to Miller by simply saying "Whifffffff," which he turned
into "the whhhiffff" as a strikeout catch phrase on SC.
Likewise, when Dan rolled a home run off of his hitters card he
would just say "gone," which was his homer call on SC as well.
  John Miller also told me a story about playing Cal Ripken in
a game of Strat in the Orioles clubhouse. Miller played as the
Blue Jays who had the great bullpen of Tom Henke and
Mark Eichorn. Ripken was the O's. Miller won the game and
Ripken promptly picked up the score card, walked it over to his
father, the Orioles manager at the time, and studied it for a
few minutes before returning and proclaiming "OK, I know what
I did wrong. Let's play again."
 It was documented in Sports Illustrated this week that Strat was
influential in both the creations of fantasy baseball and video games:

As it happens, Daniel Okrent, inventor of rotisserie baseball (the original fantasy game), and Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts, whose sports games are the industry standard, both credit Richman's Strat-O-Matic for shaping their ideas.
"If there hadn't been Strat-O-Matic," Okrent says, "I still think I would have come up with rotisserie, but unquestionably it helped."
Says Hawkins, "The real reason that I founded Electronic Arts, was because I wanted to make computerized versions of games like Strat-O-Matic."

So we have Strat-O-Matic to thank for that, as well. 
It's been a long time since I ordered my Strat cards. I wonder
if my boys could appreciate a dice and cards game in a video
game world.  
But I miss those days of going to the mailbox and finding
that package. I miss sitting down across from my buddies,
Bobby, Oaks, Toast, Ford and others, and rolling the dice.
Good times.... good times, indeed.
  So congratulations on 50 years, Strat-O-Matic. Thanks to you,
Alex Trevino,  Pete Falcone and Joel Youngblood are still
ingrained in my memory.
Joel Youngblood, 2-9... Keeeees It!

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