If you’re reading this blog, there’s a fair chance that you know what I’m talking about. For the uninitiated, S-O-M is the most popular and enduring tabletop baseball game. Founded in 1961, the game is played using cards and dice. Each player in the major leagues has his own card featuring three numbered columns, each with 11 numbered results (walk, single, groundout, etc.). The outcomes are based on that player’s actual performance in the corresponding season; if you’re playing with cards from 1993, Chris Hoiles is going to have more hits on his card than Jeff Tackett. You roll a white die and two red dice to determine the outcome of the at-bat. The white die corresponds to the column (1-3 are on the batter card and 4-6 on the pitcher card), and the red dice correspond to the results in that column. Occasionally there will be two or more potential outcomes for that line: .i.e. HOME RUN 1-2/DOUBLE 3-20. That’s where the 20-sided die comes into play and plunges the game even further into geekdom. There are also at-bats that are dependent on the ability of the defensive players, and these (as well as stolen bases, hit-and-runs, bunts, etc.) are at the mercy of charts, and…I’m in too deep. I swear this isn’t as complicated as I’m making it sound, particularly if you play the basic version of the game rather than the advanced and super-advanced (!) versions.
To get back on track, let me tell you about how I discovered Strat-O-Matic. When I was a brand-new baseball fan back in the day (1993-1994), I used to see ads for the game in Baseball Digest, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea of how the game was played. One day we took a family shopping trip to the outlets in Perryville, MD and lo and behold, the Toy Liquidators had the full Strat-O-Matic game significantly marked down. It came in a box that may have been designed in the early-to-mid 1980s, judging from the full-color photos of players in polyester pullover jerseys with the team logos airbrushed out (that’s how unlicensed products did it back in the day, Upper Deck). I bought it without hesitation, and tore open the box in the back seat of the car on the ride home. I contented myself with separating the player cards from their perforated sheets, absorbing all of the names and numbers. Practically every player who took the field in an MLB game during the 1993 season was there; each team had a roster that ran 27 to 30 deep, and there were even two separate cards for each of a handful of players who changed clubs in midseason.
I played a handful of games solitaire-style, and had a good deal of fun determining batting orders and changing pitchers and inserting pinch hitters, and visualizing the simulated game that was unfolding with each roll of the dice. In my mind, there was something authentic and true about the way the game played when compared to the flashier, motor-skills-driven video games that threatened to replace it. But I never really attempted to play with the few friends I had (none of whom were as baseball-and-stats-mad as I was), and lost interest before long.
I still have my Strat-O-Matic game set, including the 1993 player cards and the 1995 player cards that I ordered by mail at a later date. A few years ago I brought the game out on a whim and decided to play out the entire 1993 season for all 28 teams...no, I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time. Why do you ask? Anyhow, I got very gung-ho about it. Mocked up a scoresheet in Excel and began with Opening Day, using the schedules that were available on baseball-reference.com. I played out the games one-by-one, again managing both squads and keeping score. I actually made it through a couple days of the season (in a few weeks of real time) before getting sidetracked and letting the project fall by the wayside. I still have the box scores sitting on my hard drive, and I occasionally wonder how the season would have unfolded. Would the Blue Jays, White Sox, Phillies, Giants, and Braves again be the cream of the crop? Could the streaky Orioles stay in the pennant race with a little more consistency? Might Ken Griffey, Jr. or Frank Thomas make a run at 61 home runs? This inquiring mind still wants to know. I’ve even toyed with the idea of resuming the arrested season and posting game recaps to a new blog, complete with scans of era-appropriate cards of the noteworthy players. Of course, this is a pipe dream at present, as long as I have two blogs and a website to maintain. Then there’s the pesky demands of day-to-day life, what with a full-time job and several hours of sleep and family and friends all requiring considerable pieces of the 24-hour pie.
But who knows? Maybe someday I’ll carve out an hour or two a day for those paper stand-ins of my childhood heroes. Haven’t you always wanted to hear a lottery winner say that he intends to celebrate his fortune by quitting his job and playing tabletop baseball?