THE FUNK ZONE
By Jeff Polman
July ruminations on my 1977 replay, Play That Funky Baseball (http://funkyball.wordpress.com), and other Strat-O things
Summer has arrived with a big bang in my 1977 replay, as both leagues are featuring five-team pennant races, with the Phillies coming on strong in the NL since acquiring Bake McBride and his exploding hair from St. Louis. I’m also running a special All-Star Series contest. The winner gets two CDs of seriously funky music, so stop by the site for all the entry info.
But I’ll get more into the nuts, bolts, and dice rolls of that world on my next visit. This month, it’s all about Strat heaven in a sleepy pocket of Maryland.
I was the first to arrive at Larry Fryer’s country home outside of Baltimore last month, and my Culver City Skanks were primed and ready to take on his mighty Sabres. We played all ten of our face-to-face games before Mark Gratkowski arrived the next evening with his Maryland Mayhem and odd dice-rolling tower. Next came 68-year-old Al Ringland and his son Warren, having driven up from East Texas with their Sickies and Falfurrias Fightin’ Jerseys, respectively.
After Jim Sebastian and Kevin Fisher flew in from San Diego, their Surf and Mavericks in hand, the Beltz Brothers of East Pennsylvania completed the gathering, Tom with his Bootleggers and Jim with his Trail Runners. Larry’s wife Sandy had cooked up her first few spreads, tables were claimed on various levels of the house, and the week-long ECBA annual convention was on.
The East Coast Baseball Association may not be the oldest thriving Strat draft league in existence, but at 36 years old, it’s certainly in the running. The 12-member group plays a 160-game schedule using the basic side and super advanced fielding, and despite its skippers being scattered across the country, still manages to complete a vast majority of its games face-to-face with raw dice and harmless ribbing, the way the Strat gods intended.
After the Los Angeles-based league I was in for over ten years evaporated in 2005, I was itching to join another large, but more stable operation. I learned of the ECBA through the Strat classifieds, and after a long friendly call with its former commissioner Steve Elia and being put on a waiting list, I knew there had to be something special about this crew. The few home games each manager were forced to play by mail were rolled completely on the honor system.
What’s also special, as I quickly discovered in the debut Skanks season last year and at my first Maryland convention this year, is that the league has a colorful history you could almost write a book about. Most of the managers are longtime friends, and during the league’s three and a half decades have experienced marriages, births, deaths, new jobs and retirements. Through all of that, it has continued non-stop with over thirty conventions in the bank.
Larry is actually the lone surviving original member, and it was back in the Oakland A’s heyday of 1974 that he joined the Greater Continental U.S. Play-by-Mail League, the brainchild of Dan Hoffman, a 14-year-old ninth grader in Elmira, NY. After the inaugural season, the name was wisely shortened to the ECBA, and the dozen young managers from New York, Pennsylvania and Canada were off and rolling.
The legends began to pile up. Phil Niekro’s perfect game. Team names like the Kasaba Melons and Zenith City Zwiefuls. The 1974 season of the Ripp Squad, who went 35-127 for the worst mark in ECBA history. The 1980 season in which the Outcasts swept the Berks Thunderbolts in all 18 face-to-face games. The 1981 minor league draft where the immortal Tim Laudner went #1. The incredible 27-player trade which took three hours to negotiate on Dec. 7, 1981, a true date that will live in ECBA infamy.
The first convention was held in Elmira in 1978, with subsequent ones in Hamburg and Oley PA, a hotel in New Jersey, Tuscon, AZ and San Diego, among other places.
And they’re not just about eating and dice-throwing. Conventions have included softball contests, basketball games, Frisbee baseball, and more recently, wiffle ball games and wiffle home run derbies.
The Maryland heat was far too punishing to play much wiffle ball during my four-day visit, which was fine, because Dr. Dunn had to make some Hoss calls. Adam Dunn is the lone Skanks slugger this year, and while I was playing Larry on my arrival night he started calling him “Hoss” and suggested I yell “Hooossss” every time he went yard. So on his next blast I belted one out the best I could and kind of liked it.
In the fifty games I played at the convention, there were 18 Hoss calls, my strained velvety tones echoing through Larry’s hallowed corridors. Unfortunately, they didn’t inspire my Skanks, who went 22-28 and basically fell out of playoff contention. But I didn’t care a fig. The company was great, each manager with his own trademark quirks. Like Sickie Al’s collection of weird dice, some with alien symbols on them. Like Mavericks Kevin blowing through his games faster than anyone, despite one of his arms being in a sling. Like hilarious Bootlegger Tom breaking for lunch after falling behind 14-0 in the first three innings and declaring “The only thing I can do is roll over and bite the pillow.” Like Surf Jim’s insanely good lineup containing Pujols, Mauer, Utley, Bay and Holliday, earning him the nickname “Evil Empire” from now until the unforeseeable future. Like yours truly’s rotting laminated X-charts, forever dubbed the Dead Sea Fielding Scrolls.
But host Larry’s quirks may be the classiest of all. Not only is he a baseball umpire on the side and avid Strat game collector, his cards meticulously catalogued inside plastic sleeves, but his closets are filled with war strategy board games of every stripe, many never opened, and he has a room featuring nothing but Civil War memorabilia, with old framed photographs reflecting his Union Army ancestry hanging everywhere in the house. As I packed to leave days before everyone else, it brought to mind the last scene of Ken Burns’ great Civil War documentary. It was footage of a Gettysburg survivor reunion, held on the actual battlefield in the 1930s. Really old Union and Confederate veterans with beards halfway down their chest were shaking hands across stone walls and patting each other on the back.
If the East Coast Baseball Association keeps going the way it has, it may yet give that Gettysburg reunion a run for its money.
Like any large play-by-mail league, the ECBA has its share of turnover, and they are currently seeking two new managers to take over established teams for the 2011 season. Anyone able and willing to be part of this very special Strat brotherhood may contact co-commissioners Larry Fryer at email@example.com or Jim Sebastian at firstname.lastname@example.org