In Praise of Bad Teams

 By Glenn Guzzo

            I am as susceptible as anyone to favoring the great teams – I have the great-teams tourneys, the all-star leagues, the World Series/Super Bowl/Stanley Cup/NBA Finals replays to show for it.

            But as I mature (well, maybe that’s not the right word since Strat-O-Matic keeps bringing out the little boy in me), I’ve come to appreciate the contribution that bad teams make in Strat-O-Matic’s full-season sets.

            Here are some of the reasons:




            When Ernie Banks won the NL MVP awards in 1958 and 1959, his Cubs had losing records. When Steve Carlton won the NL Cy Young in 1972, his Phillies were a pathetic 59-97 (32-87 without Carlton’s 27-10) and in last place. The 1959 Senators were, typically, a cellar-dwellar when Harmon Killebrew tied for the league lead with 42 home runs.

            Did you know that Pete Runnels led the AL in batting average in consecutive seasons? You do if you played the inept 1961 and 1962 Boston Red Sox.

            In the 1961-62 NHL, fourth and fifth-place Detroit and New York, both with losing records, had Gordie Howe, Andy Bathgate and nine other future Hall of Famers. Bathgate tied for the scoring title (and won it in my full-season replay, while Howe was runner-up in goals).

            In my 1958 NL replay, the top four teams finished in order exactly as they did in MLB. But my bottom three teams – Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis – produced the league leaders in batting average (Richie Ashburn, Philly), home runs and RBI (Banks). Four of the league’s top five batting-average leaders came from these teams (Ashburn, Ken Boyer, Alvin Dark, Stan Musial).

            When the 2015 Strat-O-Matic Pro Football teams come out soon, teams with losing records will give us exciting ratings: Blake Bortles (35 TD passes) and two 1,000-yard receivers for Jacksonville; 1,400-yard rusher Doug Martin and 4,000-yard passer Jameis Winston for Tampa Bay; Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley for St. Louis; All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas for Cleveland.

            Same story for the 2015-16 NBA and NHL. In leagues where more than half the teams make the playoffs, the post-season didn’t have hoopsters Karl Anthony-Towns (rookie of the year), Anthony Davis, John Wall, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose or DeMarcus Cousins and ice stars Drew Doughty (Norris Trophy winner), Anze Kopitar (Selke Trophy winner), Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Brandon Saad and many more worth playing.




            In a league of great teams or all-stars, individual stats are depressed: What else would we expect when facing nothing but top-notch competition? To get the gaudy stats and record-setting performances, let the stars fatten their numbers with a full schedule of good foes and bad.

            Elusive no-hitters, cycles, five-TD games, 60-goal seasons and 30 ppg averages are likelier against bad pitchers, goalies and defenses.  So are milestone seasons, such as when 1930 Hack Wilson topped his then-NL-record 56-homer season in my replay.

            Similarly, when bad teams play, good teams win more. It’s no coincidence that the 1961 Yankees won 110 games and the 1969 Orioles won 109 in expansion seasons.

            The 1954 Indians (not enough offense), 1961 Reds (not enough pitching and defense), 1982 Brewers (lackluster pitching) are examples of pennant winners that have tough times in leagues of great teams. So, too, with World Series winners like the 1960 Pirates (lack of depth and bullpen), 1976 Reds (pitching again) and 1984 Tigers (Lance Parrish hitting .237 in the cleanup spot). After all, somebody has to lose in such a league and clubs with a glaring weakness get exploited. But place these teams in the context of their league seasons and watch them dominate.




            Tournaments and short seasons are fun – and maybe more practical for time-stressed gamers. But coaching teams and players who are trying to live up to – or overcome – their reputations takes on rewarding dimensions when playing a historic full season.

            The long-haul endurance of MLB, NBA and NHL seasons give teams and players time to develop their tabletop personalities and for us as coaches to understand every strength and weakness. The every-game-is-crucial tension of a football season is every bit as dramatic in Strat-O-Matic as it is in the NFL and NCAA.

            Even inconsequential season finales can be exciting as individual batting titles, rushing titles and scoring titles are on the line. In my 1961-62 NHL replay, the last game – Chicago at New York – had no bearing on the standings. But it decided whether Bobby Hull could equal his real-life total of 50 goals, at the time a rare accomplishment (he did) and whether Stan Mikita or Bathgate would win the scoring title (Bathgate by one point thanks to the goal he scored in the finale).





            In all-star leagues there are fewer weaknesses and therefore less need for compensating strategy. But take a team with obvious flaws and it’s a worthy challenge to get everything we can out of the talent we’ve been given.

            In competitive leagues, I’ve had the satisfaction of winning with highly favored teams – and the greater satisfaction of winning, or almost winning, with underdogs. My 1964 Tigers, fourth and 14 games out in the actual season, did not miss out on the replay pennant until the final game of the season, when the White Sox completed a sweep at home of lowly Kansas City. A 1986 draft-league team I inherited when the original owner quit after 20 games of frustration had no 20-homer men, no 20-game winners, no 20-save closers. Steve Sax and Ron Darling were the best players. Running aggressively and manipulating every pitching matchup I could (think Ted Power, Joe Price, Jim Deshaies and Frankie Williams), the power-challenged and appropriately named Walla Walla Bing Bangs had the tying runs in scoring position when we made the last out in World Series Game 7.




            Conversely, taking the clear underdog against a Strat-O-Matic newbie can give the beginner the satisfaction of winning without us having to hold back. That naturally leads the new gamer to want to play more.

            Hal Richman demonstrated an uncanny understanding of this when he tried out his earliest version of Strat-O-Matic Baseball on his teen summer-camp friends. Always the underdog in his mind, young Hal experienced uncommon joy when his friends celebrated their success against Hal’s less-talented teams. Hal saw that others loved to play his game.




            My formative years collecting Topps cards and watching sports seriously – beginning in 1959 – remains as vivid for the role players as the superstars. I remember Al Kaline and Kansas City’s Roger Maris at my first game in Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, but I also remember starters Rocky Bridges, Gus Zernial, Lou Berberet, Wayne Terwilliger, Joe Demaestri, Kent Hadley and the rest.  Ted Williams wasn’t in that ’59 Topps set, but his Red Sox teammates, Runnels, Frank Malzone, Don Buddin, Pete Daley and Gene Stephens were.

            When I played that 1958 NL on the computer, it was as much a thrill for me to see the ’59 Topps card images of Clem Labine, Vern Law, Roy McMillan and Bill Bruton pop up as it was to see Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson, Sandy Koufax and “Bob” Clemente. And I still got a kick out of seeing Gene Baker, Moe Drabowsky, Don Cardwell and Gino Cimoli.




            Casual fans know the stars. They know the home team. Strat-O-Matic players can name the offensive linemen, backup catchers, penalty killers and 18-minute role players on other teams.

            Though I’ve made myself a student in team-sports history, the learning began – and continues – with Strat-O-Matic. When I think about who should be in a Baseball Heroes set, or an all-time franchise team, I’m remembering Strat-O-Matic cards first and encyclopedia entries later.

            And it’s only because of Strat-O-Matic that I’ve been able to help new acquaintances recall players I’ve never seen in person, such as 1930 Phillies first baseman Don Hurst, or 1930 Senators third baseman Ossie Bluege, or to answer trivia questions when the correct reply was Pumpsie Green, Billy (not Tony) Conigliaro, Ray Kremer or Jim Barr, Elias Sosa and John D’Aquisto.

            Are those conversations important? They became so when they led to friendships.



            All this has given me one more reason to appreciate Hal Richman’s genius in creating Strat-O-Matic, which has done more for my sports education than anything else.