Glenn Guzzo


Opening Day: A Thing of Beauty (Including the Weather)


By Glenn Guzzo
Typically this is a story of how scores of men (and a few women and children) of suspect sanity brave bitter weather for hours to be the first to get the new Strat-O-Matic baseball cards.
But this time, not long after record cold and ice in much of America, the scores ofpilgrims to SOM headquarters in Glen Head, NY encountered sun, blue skies and mild, 40-degree temperatures. That sort of weather can ruin a good story. It can shatter legends. It can eliminate all sympathy for those who just can’t wait to start playing Strat-O-Matic baseball.
“The nicest weather ever,” according to Strat-O-Matic President Hal Richman, who has presided over more than 40 Opening Day ceremonies since the 1960s.
Despite the great weather, the line was shorter than many long-ago years, before published ratings previews, Internet instant communication to spread the news of what the new cards look like and expedited shipping.
Still, the impatient gamers consumed 84 donuts and 40 cups of coffee handed out by Strat-O-Matic personnel while the gamers waited – some for hours.
As always, the line count understates the number of gamers who get their new cards and computer ratings this way. Many of those in line are fetching products for their whole leagues.
Witness Jim Sarrantonio and Tom Retta of Brooklyn, NY. They were the first in line, arriving at 8:45 a.m. – more than four hours before SOM officially opens its doors on Opening Day. The 15-year Strat gamers secured the pole position on this day because they had a mission: pick up cards for 17 players.
It seemed like forever before they emerged from the game company’s lobby with a box rivaling the size of the bag on Santa’s sled. But then, when it comes to presents, for Strat baseball players Opening Day is the real Christmas.
So a parade of others headed toward the figurative North Pole in Long Island from Delaware, Washington, D.C., Maryland, even Texas.
Perhaps Rich Hayden of Houston traveled the furthest, on behalf of the 20-team RBI League that has been around for 30 years. Hayden’s Strat habit began in 1965, though he broke it for a time before resuming in 1991.
However, Don Decker almost certainly has traveled the furthest to play Strat-O-Matic. While in the Navy, Decker ran SOM leagues on submarines for non-officers in Norway, Italy, Dubai, the Philippines and on an island in the Indian Ocean. Not a man to take his hobby superficially, Decker plays in 12 Strat leagues and describes his wife as “a a Strato widow.”
That’s not to say that women aren’t involved in the hobby. Karen Sandok of the Bronxwas the first female in line.
Opening Day is a great chance for distant league members to convene.
Larry Fryer of Woodstock, MD and Thomas and Jim Beltz of Hamburg, PA are long-time gamers in a play-by-mail baseball league with the board game. They convened in Long Island for face time. Fryer’s credentials as an all-time Strat fan include his complete collection of SOM roster sheets and flyers.
Stan Koczkodaj of Ridley Park, PA, Mike Geles of Woodbridge, NJ and Jim Sorochen of South Brunswick, NJ represented their league. Koczkodaj is a 37-year player who drew cartoons for STRAT FAN magazine in the 1990s.
Opening Day is an extra-special day for Strat players who have more than impatience to explain their presence.
Dan Boyd of Wilmington, DE celebrated the World Series victory by his favorite team, the Phillies, by making his first trip to SOM headquarters. His 20-team, face-to-face league of cards-and-dice players is 29 years strong.
Dave Earls of Erie, PA is a 36-year Strat player now in a 12-man league that started in 1975. Upon leaving SOM, Earls told Richman, he was headed to drive to Washington, D.C. to play a series of games against his 28-year-old son. His other son is a Strat player, too. But the family affair goes only so far. Earls’ wife remained in the car while Earls held the family’s place in line.
As usual, the line included gamers with colorful garb, colorful personalities and colorful stories.
Mike Dunn ofLong Island made it obvious he is a St. Louis Cardinals fan, wearing the team’s cap, which he has also dared to wear at Shea Stadium during Mets games. But then, he grew up in St. Louis.
Scott Smith and Rob Toole of Bear, DE told of fellow league member Mike Simpson, who, in a fit of rage after losing the league’s World Series, torched the card of his pitcher, Livan Hernandez.
Sportswriter Ken Mandell of Yardley, PA, was in line, as was Kevin Thomas of Wheaton, IL, a regular of Opening Days and a 35-year-player in a league with John Dewan. Thomas planned an immediate return to Chicago and brought an empty suitcase to carry the player cards home on the flight.
Larry LaRochelle and Todd Underwood of Woolwich, ME made the 12-hour round trip for their first Opening Day, though they have played the game since the early 1970s.
 “Next year,” they promised, “we will bring lobsters.”
That ought to improve the turnout, though it was not clear if they intended to bring enough for everyone in line.
It might be smarter to plan for the donuts.