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Fans live out diamond dreams through tabletop baseball game

 

January 9, 10:24 AM Arizona Baseball Examiner Rodney Johnson
 
 

In a world where the sounds of rattling dice equate to the crack of the bat colliding with a baseball, the line between fantasy and reality is slim. To Strat-O-Matic players, the games played on their kitchen tables are as real as those taking place at Yankee Stadium or Chase Field.

 

Strat-O-Matic is a tabletop baseball board game that uses individual cards for each player, four dice and a couple of charts to simulate real big league games. New player cards representing the previous year’s major league season are produced each year . The game company, based in Glen Head, New York, has also released a number of past seasons including 1927; 1930; 1941; 1961. Their computer version is available for every season since 1901. The Strat player is the manager, base coach, general manager, and team owner.

 

In 1961, Strat-O-Matic’s first year on the market, only 350 games were sold. Glenn Guzzo, author of Strat-O-Matic Fanatics: The Unlikely Success Story of a Game That Became an American Passion (ACTA Sports, 2005), estimates that today there are more than 100,000 Strat-O-Matic players. Guzzo, former editor of the Denver Post and a Strat player since 1963, says that the game has a cult following. “It’s a very large cult, but players are cult-like in their passions for the game. They speak their own language and can relate to their shared experiences.”

 

Game creator Harold (Hal) Richman gets great satisfaction through the reactions he hears from gamers. “I remember going to an event in Akron, OH where people lined up one after another and told stories about their experiences with the game.” said Richman.. “It is very gratifying to know the place it has it people’s lives.”

 

Jim Jasper of Chicago, IL and a winter visitor to the Valley of the Sun, described his fascination with the game in a post to Startournaments.com, a website devoted to Strat-O-Matic tournaments;

 

“Strat is a baseball game played by wannabe managers who know the guys managing their real-life favorite teams are morons who can’t count to twenty with their shoes on. We all know our team would win the World Series nine years out of ten if only we were the owner, general manager and manager rolled into one.”

Gamers can enjoy Strat-O-Matic in either solitaire fashion or against an opponent using either the board game or computer version. Some replay their favorite teams season(s) while others take on recreating an entire league. Yet others play teams across seasons or eras to perhaps find the greatest Cardinals or Dodgers team ever. “Playing stock (actual) teams is how most players use the game” said Guzzo. “But the highest level of competition comes in face-to-face draft leagues or tournaments.”

 

In January (2006), Jasper, along with 66 other would-be big league managers, traveled to Las Vegas, NV to vie for the title of Strat-O-Matic World’s Champion in an event organized by STAR Tournaments, an independent group of gamers not affiliated with the game company. The group holds tournaments in various U.S. cities across the country including a visit to Phoenix each March. Jasper honed his drafting and playing skills by participating in eleven tournaments in 2005. In all, he is a veteran of 77 tournaments.

 

The ‘Worlds’, as it is known, is the culmination of a nine-month schedule of STAR tournaments.

Competing for a top prize of $6000, the 67 players at the Worlds spent two grueling 16 hour days of drafting, dice shaking and keeping score. For those fortunate enough to advance to the final round, the third day of the tournament was just as long. For others, the trip home started early. Jasper, who like every player in the tournament, paid a $200 entry fee, made it to the final eight only to lose and drop into the third place bracket. He didn’t lose again until that bracket’s finals and took home $800 for his efforts. Wayne Cannon of Oklahoma City, OK earned the top cash prize as well as the right to have his name engraved in the trophy as the 2005 Worlds Champion. Cannon ended the weekend with a 33-14 record. His top picks in the draft were Johan Santana (Twins) and Todd Helton (Rockies).

 

Six Arizona gamers were among the tournament participants. Terry Sheridan of Scottsdale has been playing Strat-O-Matic since 1980. “The attraction of tournament play to me is the competition and the thrill that comes with playing against the best players in the country.” said Sheridan. “Everyone starts on equal footing and I have a chance to see how I match up against the best. It is a real adrenaline rush.” Sheridan travels to about three or four tournaments each year.

 

Among its’ players, Strat-O-Matic has spawned a great eccentric passion sometimes bordering on obsession. At the Worlds, one cardboard player was found floating in the toilet after drawing the ire of its’ human manager. Another card spent the night in the freezer of its manager’s hotel suite after blowing the lead in the ninth inning of a key game.

 

Gamers spend hours upon hours studying card probabilities and playing games. The hobby can become all consuming. With this kind of passion and more than 100,000 players, why were there only 67 entrants at the Worlds? STAR Tournament organizer Stan Suderman talked about the contradiction in Strat-O-Matic Fanatics. “It’s those weekends away. I think we’d have more (players) if people were not allowed to marry and have kids. Our biggest competition is wives and kids.”


For those looking for a less frantic pace there is league play. Players have an annual draft and play a full league schedule at their own pace. Lou Mikita of Queen Creek founded the eight-team Greater Scottsdale Strat-O-Matic Baseball League (GSSOMBL) more than 25 years ago. Mikita, who turns 60 in March, learned a valuable lesson early on. Each manager in the league built their own stadium to roll their dice in. After an unlucky roll cost him a game, Mikita picked up his wooden stadium and hurled it across the room. It crashed off of the front side panel of his television, narrowly missing going right through the screen. “After that I learned to tone down my temper or at least watch where I was throwing things.” said Mikita.

 

As a former newspaper editor, Glenn Guzzo is always looking for a good story. He thinks he has found one in Strat-O-Matic. “There is a story beyond the game that really needed to be told,” said Guzzo. “The story of Hal Richman is akin to that of A Beautiful Mind. It is the story of a flawed genius who overcomes his demons to become successful. That’s really why I wrote Strat-O-Matic Fanatics.”

The genesis of Strat-O-Matic dates to 1948 when, as an 11 year old boy, Harold Richman became frustrated with another board game, All-Star Baseball. He had spent many hours playing the game and keeping score, but worn out spinners and unrealistic results led him on a quest to create a better game. Using a pair of dice and a handful of blank cards, the sixth-grader began to devise his own game. After weeks of seclusion, he came up with the first version of Strat-O-Matic which he called simply Dice Baseball.

 

Taking his new creation with him to summer camp, Hal organized a league with four of his friends. The boys each played 40-60 games at camp, keeping score of each game. That summer provided the first test period for the game.

 

Over the next decade Hal and his friends continued to play Dice Baseball as Hal made revisions to make it more accurate and realistic.

 

Eventually the game evolved by changing from a dice activated format, to cards, then back to dice, finally adding a third die allowing for a greater number of possible outcomes.

College separated Hal from his boyhood friends, but he found himself working even harder on perfecting Dice Baseball while attending Bucknell University.

 

Out of college and hoping to avoid going to work at his father’s brokerage business, Richman tried unsuccessfully to sell his game, by now called Authentic Baseball, to Parker Brothers, Hasbro, the Brooklyn Dodgers and The Sporting News.

Richman became convinced, after seeing the success of APBA, another baseball game that used dice and player cards, that he had a better product and he decided to market the game on his own through mail order. The Strat-O-Matic name came to Hal after looking at variations of the word strategy in the dictionary.

The first two years (1961-62) were tough. Those early sets didn’t include every team and sales were weak. Then in 1963 Richman released his first full set including all 20 teams of 20 players each. Hal and his friends collated the 400-card sets on the ping pong table at his home. When school let out for the summer, sales took off.

Originally the province of 11-15 year old boys, Strat-O-Matic is now played by mostly men aged 35 and older. Flashy video games have largely captured today’s youth market for sports games.

Adult players who want a higher degree of sophistication continue to find Strat-O-Matic’s realism, level of detail and ease of play irresistible.

Through the years, the game company has continued to make improvements by adding features such has right and left handed pitching and hitting ratings, individual ballpark and weather features and clutch hitting. Such improvements have added to the game’s realism without sacrificing ease of play. Richman says that the innovations were triggered by both competition and suggestions from gamers. The result, he says, is a perfect game. “I really don’t see anything else we can do to make the game better” said Richman. “We still have the basic side of the cards for younger players, and we have gone as far as we can go with the advanced version without sacrificing playability.” Along the way, Strat-O-Matic has added football, hockey and basketball games to their offerings.

 

In 1986 Strat-O-Matic introduced their first computer version. “A computer version was mandatory because of the impact computers had on the industry.” said Richman. “Our audience demanded it.” Richman says that the board game still outsells the computer version, but the gap has narrowed. “Most people still like to hold the cards and roll the dice. The cards give a picture of the player and the dice offer some kind of control. Our board game, and board games in general, are a much better head-to-head product than computer games.”

 

Those esoteric aspects aside, the computer version has several advantages over the board game. The most obvious is that it allows for gamers to play full seasons with the touch of a button. The computer manager also provides an opponent for solitaire play. The program is capable of generating an incredible array of statistics which would be prohibitive for board game players to compile on their own. It is ideal for full season replays and playing mixed seasons using teams from various years. “Computer play offers a level of detail that can’t be matched by the board game.” said Guzzo. “Features such as pitch count are included in the computer version but would be too cumbersome to add to the board game.” he adds. Every season since 1901 is available in the computer game format.

 

Among the great attractions of Strat-O-Matic baseball is that it allows great teams and players of different eras to compete against each other. Have you ever wondered how Randy Johnson would fare against Babe Ruth? How about Barry Bonds vs. Christy Mathweson? How would the 1927 Yankees match up with the 1975 Reds? Could the 2001 Diamondbacks knock off the 1972 A’s?

 

Over the next few weeks, we will use the accuracy and realism of the Strat-O-Matic computer version to answer some of these questions and attempt to determine the greatest team in baseball history. A series of leagues comprised of World Series winners by era will separate the best teams. These 11 league winners and five wild card teams will compete in a 16 team bracket for the title “The Greatest Team of All-Time.”

Follow the tournament here on examiner.com to see who is crowned baseball’s best team.