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This Opening Day Had Secret Heroes

 

By Glenn Guzzo

 

Few outside the halls of Strat-O-Matic headquarters knew it, but the company’s 45-year tradition of Opening Day nearly came to an abrupt halt on Feb. 12, while customers from as far away as California, Texas and Canada waited in line.

 

One of Strat-O-Matic’s proudest moments came so near to an unprecedented cancellation that Strat-O-Matic personnel began calling Opening Day regulars, telling them not to come. Three hours before the company’s doors were scheduled to open at 1 p.m., as usual, the new baseball cards were not on Strat-O-Matic property, much less in the will-call packages that usually are readied the day before.

 

Now, with disaster diverted, the story can be told. And company President Hal Richman acknowledges that this year’s Opening Day happened – on time – only because of the devotion of two non-Strat-O-Matic employees. One is Sheila Richman, Hal’s wife. The other is a Strat-playing shipping manager at Federal Express.

 

For Hal Richman – and for anyone who has ever traveled hours to stand in line for more hours waiting for the first look at the new cards – this is a harrowing story, with plot twists. But those stories are some of the best to tell, so here goes.

 

The tale starts with bad weather – lots of it in the Midwest and Northeast. Snowstorms crippled transportation lines between Strat-O-Matic’s printer in Illinois and the destination in Glen Head, NY.

 

FedEx picked up the truckload of cards on schedule Feb. 5. Strat-O-Matic expected delivery by the 9th, maybe the 10th at the latest – ample time to package the 195 orders that were to be picked up on the 12th.

 

But the FedEx truck could make it only as far as Indiana on Feb. 8 and barely further into Ohio on Feb. 9. Snow wasn’t the only villain in this drama – as significant was FedEx’ decision to give priority to smaller packages so that a higher percentage of deliveries would make it on time, Richman said he was told.

 

To Richman, that meant getting the cards by Feb. 10 was out of the question and Feb. 12 was a long shot. His confidence wasn’t getting any stronger when he called FedEx on Feb. 9.

 

“We were told the truck would reach Pocono Summit, Pa. by Feb. 11,” he said. That would still be past-due, with hours of treacherous driving still to go. “FedEx was maintaining its commitment to smaller orders and said it could not guarantee Strat-O-Matic’s delivery by the 12th at all. FedEx put the chance of delivery on the 12th at no better than 20 percent and even then it could be late in the afternoon.”

 

Richman, a worrier by nature, was so distraught that he felt SOM had to warn its regulars who had called in orders not to come on the 12th. Hearing of this, it was Sheila Richman who said, in effect, “No way! You can’t do this, Hal.”

 

She had a plan. In a stroke of luck Strat-O-Matic desperately needed, Pocono Summit, Pa. is only 25 miles from where Sheila grew up in Hazleton, Pa. And she knew the owner of a trucking company. Now, if Sheila could persuade the Pennsylvania trucker and Strat-O-Matic could persuade FedEx, the cards could change hands on the 11th and keep moving.

 

No good. The Hazleton trucker could handle only one-third of the order. That was more than enough to satisfy the Opening-Day crowd, but it wasn’t enough for FedEx, which would not split the order, Richman said. However, Strat-O-Matic was able to get FedEx to agree to transfer the whole order to an independent trucker.

 

Next, SOM needed to find a bigger trucker, nearby and on short notice. Hearing the can’t-take-no urgency in Sheila Richman’s voice, the Hazleton trucking company agreed to turn the job over to its competitor.

 

Problem solved? Nope. This handoff would involve a huge truckload of heavy boxes before dawn on Feb. 12 – Opening Day. Could Strat-O-Matic possibly deal with a big company’s bureaucracy, emergency weather and early-hour acrobatics far from anybody’s headquarters?

 

 “Fortunately, the FedEx manager of shipping is a Strat-O-Matic player,” Hal Richman reported. “He helped us cut through the red tape and arrange the 6 a.m. pickup.”

 

Nothing like cutting it close: If this were a movie, we’d be watching the clock as a semi raced and weaved over slippery roads for hours – four-and-a-half hours to be exact.

 

Opening Day customers began lining up well before 9 a.m. The cards were not there. Finally, at 10:30 – a mere two-and-a-half hours before the doors traditionally open to those in line – the big truck pulled into the alley next to SOM’s shipping room.

 

 “What a scare!” an exhausted Richman said later.

 

Still, the truck had to be unloaded and the SOM staff had about one-fourth of the time it usually needs to prepare the pick-up orders. But they know the importance of Opening Day to Strat-O-Matic’s fanatic customers and they rose to the occasion. With all hands turning to the improbable task, it was done. And when the doors opened on time at 1 p.m., few people outside had any idea how close they had come to being bitterly disappointed, perhaps disillusioned.

 

 “What could have been a disaster turned out to be a very successful day,” Richman declared.