Joe Olecki introduced me to Strat-O-Matic, a table-top baseball simulation game. We went to Wesleyan together and lived in the same freshman house. Joe drove a big brown Plymouth Satellite – so hideous as to be almost interesting – and worked summers at the now-defunct Hough Bakery in Cleveland with a bunch of hard-nosed union guys (including his dad).
I would describe Strat-O-Matic as the intellectual, abstract, even dorkier (if you can believe it) cousin to fantasy baseball.
It is, simply put, old-school.
Basically the way the game works is you have cards for players that govern what happens when you roll dice. The cards are based on careful statistical analysis (the game was invented by a Bucknell University math student back in 1961) of a player’s actual performances over the course of his career. The better a player’s stats, the greater the chance that player has of doing something positive in Strat-O-Matic.
That’s it. You roll dice and see what happens and keep score. A far cry from, say, using the Wii to hit a virtual baseball by swinging your arm in the air.
Joe and I would play my Mets against his Indians, four-out-of-seven, like a playoff series. Which took up a big chunk of our time while we probably should have been doing things like going to class. I loved that game, though, loved the slowness of it, the need to make managerial decisions, the element of chance, the numbers. Baseball is a game defined by numbers. Ask any fan how many home runs Ruth hit, or the last player to finish a season over .400, and they’ll be able to tell you. Instantly. Stats are intertwined with the history of the game and help constitute its most prized possession – shared vocabulary.
I was reminded of Strat-O-Matic while reading today’s New York Times. The founder – that math kid from Bucknell, Hal Richman – decided to add a set of Negro Leagues cards to the game. It apparently took a lot of effort to uncover the statistics needed since, according to the article, coverage of Negro League games was spotty. But through sheer determination and, ironically, the publishing of more records online, Richman was able to realize his long-held desire to include this important part of baseball’s past.
I may just have to find out if Joe still has Strat-O-Matic and challenge him to a game. This time, we’ll be able to include players like Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige, greats who were unjustly marginalized for so many years.
Pass me the dice.