THE REPLAY ZONE – APRIL 2015
By Jeff Polman
April ruminations from your trusty Strat-O-Matic replay addict. Check out, “Mystery Ball ‘58”, my new baseball novel, which was inspired by a replay of the 1958 season.
THE ’61 FREAKS LEAGUE PROJECT
You may wonder how I’ve been spending the majority of my replay time lately. Well, after the success of last year’s 1973 Freaks League, my massive Facebook-posted endeavor using 12 “absentee managers”, it only seemed right to try another one this year with a different season—and the first one Strat ever produced.
Now doing one of these “freak leagues” is pretty much a full-time gaming job. I still have room to roll my Culver City Skanks’ 160 contests in the East Coast Baseball Association (with Ultimate Strat Fan Brett Carow and runner-up Larry Fryer both involved), but virtually no time at all to also do a fictional replay blog or finish a solo replay like my offense-heavy Best of ’97 replay, which has basically become a winter luxury.
Because I apparently wanted even less free time, I expanded the new Freaks League from 12 to 14 teams, retained five of the managers from ’73, added nine more from a pool of interested candidates, and selected high-offense 1961 as our featured year to draft the teams from. The actual snake-format draft began on Martin Luther King weekend back in January and lasted quite a while—seeing there were 392 cards to be picked. After the first three or four hours I resorted to an “open draft” format, meaning the managers were free to make their picks online in the same order whenever they could. Which is why the draft wasn’t finished for four days.
When it finally was, though, we had two divisions of 14 clubs ready to do battle using a 1977 American League schedule as a format. Now in the latter part of June, there have been many surprises, the biggest being just an average amount of offense when we were all convinced it would be off the charts. For a while in April, we were on a pace to have around 200 shutouts for the year, until some of the big sluggers who weren’t hitting finally got on track. Camilo Pascual of the Jordannaires threw a no-hitter against the Catch-22s a few weeks ago in the first no-no we’ve had in either Freaks League, but in general, the offense has begun to assert itself.
For me, one of the most fun things about these Freak Leagues has been creating the “fiction” that goes with it. Managers were encouraged to choose team names that reflected the early ‘60s, and with league “promotional director” Rob Price posting great images and commercials featuring some of the players during my weekly Sunday night “dicecasts”, (an event where many of the managers assemble in the comment section for a friendly ’61 community chat), it has certainly made the world of 1961 come alive. Wanderers skipper Mike Lynch even recorded a play-by-play of a Yazernauts/Fairlanes game with me, in which my appearance as analyst “Red Allen” tried to evoke Red Barber and Mel Allen. (Listen here to a sample inning.)
Also, my popular scoreboard, updated daily via Photoshop, has made its return. Here then, are the 1961 Freaks League teams and where they’re at…
West Side Sharks, 40-31
(manager: Dan Lee, park: Comiskey)
A deep, balanced offense and solid starting staff led by Jim Bunning has the Sharks slightly out in front of the pack, despite enduring a recent month-long slump by fourth pick in the draft Hank Aaron.
The Wanderers, 40-32
(manager: Mike Lynch, park: Tiger Stadium)
They had the first pick in the draft—Mickey Mantle—who hasn’t disappointed at all with 31 homers and a .700 slugging pct., both tops in the league, and in the cozy RF of Detroit also have lefty mashers Roger Maris (acquired in a recent trade) and Johnny Blanchard. With Juan Pizarro (8-4, 100 strikeouts in 103 IP) leading the staff and Stu Miller anchoring the pen, I expect them to be in the race for the duration.
(manager: Jim Surprenant, park: Yankee Stadium)
Named after their captain and Jim’s favorite player ever Carl Yastrzemski, the ‘Nauts started real sluggishly and are currently in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, but in between have come on very strong, getting big late clutch hits from Albie Pearson, Elston Howard, Brooks Robinson, and Yaz himself.
(manager: David Jordan, park: County Stadium, Milwaukee)
The only skipper to retain his team name from the ’73 league, the Jordans have been bit hard and often by the injury bug. Sandy Koufax and Camilo Pascual are a formidable 1-2 on the mound, and Orlando Cepeda and Joe Adcock have been hitting great and carrying the offense, but their streakiness has kept them around .500. Having recently won seven in a row, they’ve now dropped four straight.
(manager: Thomas Andrew Jackson, park: Connie Mack, Philadelphia)
Named after the famous Joseph Heller novel of the era, the 22s feature Ken Boyer, Stan Musial, Al Kaline and a high-on base offense, but not much of a bullpen, which despite a current eight-game win streak, is keeping them around the .500 mark like a lot of the division.
Fast Eddies 31-41
(manager: Mike Kaminski, park: Memorial Stadium, Baltimore)
Less of an offense than the 22s but with better pitching so far (Whitey Ford and Bob Purkey). The Eddies have slugger Jim Gentile, but with his .245 average to go with his 18 homers and 54 RBIs, it’s kept them from taking off.
Maulers of Mayberry 30-43
(manager: Rob Price, park: Busch Stadium, St. Louis)
A recent ownership change relocated the team to St. Louis from Fenway Park and changed their name from the Star City Gagarins (named after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin), and they’ve have had buzzard’s luck most of the year. Even with a powder keg of Frank Robinson, Ron Santo, Gordy Coleman, Wally Moon and Yogi Berra in their lineup, they’re big on come-from-behind victories on occasion but haven’t been able to sustain any consistent win streaks..
West Berlin Wallbangers 44-26
(manager: Keith Shiraki, park: Forbes Field)
So far, they’ve been a perfectly designed little-ball machine, built for the spacious environs of Pittsburgh, and without one losing week all season are enjoying the best record in the league. Utilizing the speed of Maury Wills and Vada Pinson and the timely power of Bob Allison and Tony Gonzalez, Keith has been highly organized with his rotation and lineups, and with his style of play adaptable to any park, it may be tough to knock him off his perch.
Whitey Ford Fairlanes 41-29
(manager: John Borack, park: Met Stadium, Minnesota))
The club with my favorite name looks like the best bet to catch the Wallbangers, and they’ll have a big three-game showdown with them in Pittsburgh this week to try and do so. Slugger Norm Cash got off to a miserable start, but his OPS has since inched over the 1.000 mark, and he’s been adequately bailed out by catcher John Romano (.313, 17 homers, 59 RBIs), a major MVP candidate, and generally fine bullpen work by Russ Heman and Hoty Wilhelm. The Fairlanes also have the best home record at 27-12.
Jackie Os 37-33
(manager: Darin Orenstein, park: Griffith Stadium, Washington)
Darin did a nice job of drafting, securing fantastic platoons at first base (Willie McCovey and Frank Howard) and right field (Ron Fairly and Jackie Jensen), along with landing the best starting pitcher in the set (Dick Donovan), a 1-rated shortstop (Luis Aparicio), Roberto Clemente’s -6 arm in center, and one of the league’s best closers in Luis Arroyo. An off year by Clemente (.303 but with just 29 RBIs) hasn’t helped them hit their stride yet, but I see them as one of the West’s dark horse entries.
(manager: Michael Dane, park: Wrigley Field, Los Angeles)
Michael brought up the rear with his Great Danes in ’73, and his new outfit has played far better, largely thanks to an in-season makeover. Known as “Trader Mike”, he has almost completely turned his roster over from the one he drafted with an endless series of deals, including shipping off Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Roger Maris (who he got for Mays earlier) despite picking a massive home run park. On August 15th he can trade no more, so it’ll be interesting to see how he fares the rest of the way.
Freedom Riders 33-38
(manager: Joe Flow, park: Municipal Stadium, Kansas City)
The Riders have played better after a very slow start, and they’re doing it with frequent clutch hits from Eddie Mathews, Leon Wagner and Matty Alou, along with two shut-down relievers in Ray Washburn and Wes Stock (nicknamed “the Washburn-Stock Exchange”). They’ve needed those guys, because “ace” Warren Spahn has been mostly mediocre with a 7-8 record and 5.71 ERA.
Cuban Missles 35-41
(manager: Paul Dylan, park: Crosley Field, Cincinnati)
Defending ’73 champ Dylan assembled what looked like another potent team through the draft, then improved it by landing Willie Mays, Dick Howser, Tommy Davis and Steve Barber in a trade with the Beatniks after just one week. Sadly, none of those players except maybe Mays has made a difference, Davis since being sent back to the Beatniks and Barber banished to the bullpen. The Mays/ Maris swap cost them super closer Terry Fox, which may explain why they’re near the bottom of the league in saves with just eight on the year.
Bomber Squad 29-43
(manager: Donald Gordon, park: Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles)
Winner of our Snakebit All Season Award, the Squad drafted Harmon Killebrew, Rocky Colavito and Jerry Lynch, lead the league in homers (145 in just 72 games) and are second in team OPS, but their pitching has been a frightmare, and they were recently forced to trade Colavito to the Yazernauts for hurler Early Wynn. An odd thing about the Bomber Squad lineup is that nearly every one of their hitters has his big hits in the 3-column, meaning that if the dice aren’t rolling there, they just don’t hit. Still, it doesn’t explain a sorry record in one-run games (7-17) and their 26 blown leads, by far the worst in the circuit.
The rest of the season should continue to be a wild ride, as only the two division winners get to play in the Best-of-9 World Series. Readers who would like to follow the ’61 Freaks League the rest of the way are more than welcome to invite themselves into the group, pending commissioner approval (because we got a little spam-bombed last year). The link is right here!