There will be home runs and strikeouts, ninth-inning rallies and 9-0 blowouts on Friday. Before the day is over, long series will be swept and split, three-team trades will change the balance of power in leagues and Bryce Harper will be drafted a hundred times in a hundred family rooms and email threads. Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout will renew their quests for the American League pennant and the MVP award on dozens of kitchen tables and computer screens. And there will be dozens and dozens of first pitches, in the form of three dice being rolled and two opponents searching tiny type on blue-and-red cards to determine whether Austin Jackson worked a walk against Barry Zito, popped out meekly or forced a fielding chance for Brandon Crawford at shortstop.
Friday is opening day for Strat-o-Matic baseball, the day the 52-year old game company releases its player cards and software sets for the 2013 season. For tabletop managers across North America, it's the first chance to lay hands on the latest version of the game that spawned the fantasy sports phenomenon, laid the groundwork for the sports video game business and paved the way for sabermetrics and "Moneyball." For Strat-o-Matic loyalists, it's the start of baseball season, days before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, and it is so important that they will not wait for the cards to be shipped. Hundreds of Strat-o-Matic gamers will travel to Glen Head, N.Y., to fetch them straight from company headquarters.
And they won't let a little thing like a snowstorm stand between them and their game.
Neither Snow nor Sleet nor Sandy: Kevin Thomas has a tight itinerary. He will wake up at the crack of dawn on Friday in Wheaton, Ill., drive to O'Hare Airport, and take a direct flight to LaGuardia. He will probably be working his way from the airport to Strat-o-Matic headquarters as you read this: first the Q33 bus to Jackson Heights, then the E-train to the Long Island Railroad station in Jamaica, Queens. The LIRR will take him straight to the modest Glen Head location of the Strat-o-Matic company. Thomas will wait in line with other diehards, collect eight sets of shrink-wrapped cards, store them in a backpack and retrace his steps to Illinois on Friday evening.
Thomas plans to be in Glen Head, snowstorm or not. Getting in should be no problem; getting out (or around Long Island) could be tricky. Thomas is not too worried about getting stranded in New York. "I'm a diehard Rangers fan, so that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world," he said earlier in the week.
Marty Bender has a much shorter trip to collect his cards: just 30 minutes down the Long Island Expressway from Rego Park, N.Y. "It's a labor of love," he said, calling the trip "relaxing," even in bad weather and metro traffic. "Nothing is going to stop me, no matter what."
Tabletop gamers have been visiting Glen Head for decades. Before the Internet age, the pilgrimage was almost a necessity for the serious gamer. Strat-o-Matic was only available via mail order, or in a handful of hobby stores that were lackadaisical about stocking the board game. If you were part of a 10-team league and eager to start playing, the best thing to do was head straight to headquarters. As a bonus, you might meet game creator Hal Richman, as well as dozens of other hardcore enthusiasts from around the country. "It's a happening for them," Richman said of the gamers who queue up at his company's door every February.
Richman tells stories of a grandfather from Canada flying to New York just to retrieve cards for his grandson, another group of Canadian players who rented a hotel room to hold their league draft as quickly as possible after collecting their cards and a gamer from Houston who each year purchased several sets, delivered them to fellow diehards in Philadelphia and Detroit, then flew home.
The trip to Glen Head is no longer necessary, even for the hardcore gamers. Strat-o-Matic's computer game (not an EA Sports-style video game, but a digital version of the board game, cards and all, with some basic graphics) can be quickly downloaded, as can a book of player ratings that gives gamers every scrap of information they need to hold a draft. "The lines are not what they used to be, but the interest is as high as ever," Richman said.
Bad weather is also likely to keep some gamers away on Friday, though nothing stops opening day. Thomas flew into a snowstorm just three years ago; Strat-o-Matic employees kept in touch with him by phone, noting the conditions would not only slow his travel, but could delay the shipment of the cards themselves from the printer. "When I arrived, I saw the truck [from the printer] parked," Thomas said. A storm in the early 1990s also jeopardized opening day, but did not cancel it. "Even if you lived in New York, it was a hassle getting here. But 75 people still got here," Richman said. "It was shocking."
Thomas began playing Strat-o-Matic in 1973 but did not start flying to Glen Head until 2005. "I thought it would be something to do one time, to have the experience of traveling to Mecca," he said. "It evolved into this monster where my league is almost depending on me." Thomas' eight sets will be distributed among the members of his league, a few of whom have continuously played together for nearly 40 years. Thomas and his friends will draft in March and conduct a 135-game season that will run through October, players meeting weekly at each other's homes.
Bender has been making his shorter trip for 25 years. In the past, he strove to be first in line, a quest that led to some ridiculous extremes. One year, he and three friends arrived four hours before the company doors opened, on a 15-degree morning with 15 mile-per-hour winds. "It was brutal. We were like four stray dogs," he said. Strat-o-Matic employees took pity on them, let them in the building, and gave them their card sets on the QT.
Members of Bender's league faced a much bigger weather threat than opening day snow last year: Hurricane Sandy. One gamer lost power for a week and had to take in family members whose homes were flooded. Others found travel difficult because of flooded roads and gas shortages. Bender's league shortened its 120-game season but kept playing. "We play for the enjoyment, and we decided that when we could get back together, we would," he said. The gamer without power played over the telephone, his opponents accepting his die-roll results and card readings sight un-seen, honor among Strat lifers.
While Thomas flies back to Illinois (hopefully), Bender will meet his league partners as a pub in Forest Hills for their annual league dinner. "I will distribute the goods," he joked. Other gamers will arrive home, tear apart the perforated card sets, assemble teams and start playing. Many others will make do with the computer game for a few days. "You have levels of fanaticism," Richman said. "The greater fanatics will be here. The lesser fanatics have the ratings guide and the computer game until the cards come."
Count Thomas among the greater fanatics. He will bring an empty carry-on bag from Illinois to make sure that he does not have to check the cards as airline baggage. "I've never checked the bag, and I don't want to do it," he said. "The game means a lot to me, and these cards are gold."
How Hal Richman Changed the World. Last year's American League MVP debate rages on in Strat-o-Matic circles: Mike Trout or Miggy Cabrera?
The cards and their ratings shed some light on the issue. Trout has a "1" fielding rating at all three outfield positions. When the all-important "Fielding-X" chart is consulted, he can turn doubles and triples into outs. Cabrera, meanwhile, is a 4-e-14 at first and third base, meaning that some line drives become three-run-doubles at his expense, though as Bender notes, a 4-e-14 at the corners "isn't that bad."
Here is Bender again, who owns the rights to Cabrera in his keeper league, consulting the ratings guides before opening day: "As good as Miggy is, this really wasn't his best season. He has more on-base potential against left-handed pitching, but all of that power against right-handed pitching. So I can expect to see a lot of lefty relievers."
Most longtime Strat players talk and think this way. It is incorrect to say that they approach baseball like Moneyballers or sabermetricians; sabermetricans and Moneyballers approach baseball like Strat-o-Matic gamers. Thomas' league started as a high school club in 1973, with some of the teacher-moderators of that club still playing in his Illinois league. Bender was introduced to the game as a college student in the mid-1970s. "I ended up majoring in Strat-o-Matic," he said. "My BS is a Bachelor's of Strat."
Bill James was just starting to mimeograph the "Baseball Abstract" to a tiny audience in those days. Billy Beane was a young teenager (and tabletop gamer). Richman was the creator and owner of the company that produced the most respected sports simulation in America, a card game advertised in the corners of The Sporting News and found in the backs of toy stores that influenced the generation that changed baseball.
Richman began marketing Strat-o-Matic out of his basement in 1961. The game grew slowly until it was a small-but-established part of the sports landscape in the early 1970s. The game's realism and complexity expanded quickly in those early years, as Richman added error ratings and introduced the advanced version of the game, with left-and-right handed player splits, in 1971. In those days, Richman and his small staff had to do all of their research from box scores and play-by-play data, the same labor-intensive work that James was doing in the 1970s to introduce novel concepts to the baseball public: Left-right platoon splits were very real and very large, pitchers had as great or greater an impact on base stealing as catchers, and batting average was a pretty poor measure of player quality.
At a Strat-o-Matic event last year, Richman showed me a 1970s Gene Tenace card, one of the ones which legendarily inspired Beane and helped introduce the world to the importance of on-base percentage. In 1974, Tenace batted .211, but his 110 walks raised his on-base percentage to .367. Factor in 26 home runs and the ability to play catcher and other positions, and Tenace was a great player whose batting average only told a fraction of the story. "At that time, the guideline for being an outstanding player was batting average. These days, it's third or fourth," Richman said. "He was always looked down upon as an offensive player. He didn't have singles. So what?"
Strat-o-Matic has always appealed to a very stat-savvy segment of the baseball market. Richman's staff still does its own research to fine-tune things like fielding range and pitcher hold ratings. In addition to the 2012 season cards, the company launched a 1938 card set this season ("If you are a Yankees fan, you'll love it," Richman said), and software discs for the 1891 season and some Negro League seasons, meaning Josh Gibson, Jimmie Foxx and Kid Nichols are as almost as likely to see some playing time this weekend as Cabrera and Trout.
Because they love both baseball stats and baseball history, Strat-o-Matic gamers tend to be diplomatic about the Miggy-Trout debate. Bender would not speculate on which player he would select if he did not already own the rights to Cabrera. "You cannot deny the MVP to someone who wins the Triple Crown," Thomas said, adding that in a Strat draft, "I'd take Trout."
When pressed, Richman took a side. "Trout had everything. Cabrera is a great hitter, but a barely adequate fielder and a slow runner. It's a tough call, but I think Trout was MVP."
As for Richman's influence, Strat-o-Matic players do not mince words: He was as influential as James, Beane, and the other giants of sabermetrics and the "Moneyball" era, if not more so. "He belongs right up there along with the others," Bender said. The board game was also popular with Daniel Okrent and other pioneers of rotisserie-fantasy sports, some of the founding members of STATS, Inc., and some of the designers of the flashy video games against which Strat-o-Matic must now compete.
Richman does sometimes get acknowledgement from the greater baseball world. "I have had my name mentioned, which makes me proud. It's humbling to have made a contribution," he said. "Bill James was the one who really made the change. He was the motivator."
James was the most influential figure of the statistical revolution. It's just not clear who would ever have picked up a "Baseball Abstract" if they had not already picked up a deck of Strat-o-Matic cards.
Fun, Pride and One-Upmanship. Richman stopped playing his own game as the years went on. "It lost its hobby for me," he said. Still, he shepherded his game and company through troubled times. Tabletop gaming, always a niche market, took a huge hit from the video game market it helped inspire, then the rise of fantasy gaming, then the collapses of major hobby stores and toy chains.
Strat-o-Matic has evolved with the times. The company now offers an online mode that allows players to draft teams, set lineups and play nightly three-game series in just a few minutes. A Strat-o-Matic Express version of the game features scaled-down rules and all-star rosters to appeal to eight or nine-year old gamers. "It's a wonderful tool to learn about baseball, and a great math tool," Richman said. "They are working with numbers and dealing with probability, and they don't realize it."
"It's a bonding thing, for fathers and sons," he added.
Computer games and kids' games aside, the core Strat-o-Matic experience still centers on sitting across from an opponent for a few hours, rolling dice, checking charts and playing whole series in your imagination, especially as adult life brings not just snowstorms and hurricanes, but time commitments that keep friends from getting together and adults from simply playing. Strat-o-Matic players almost never play for money, the way fantasy players do, and their face-to-face time is not limited to a yearly draft. "We play for fun, for pride, for one-upmanship and for managerial capability," Thomas said. "These days, as we get older, it's important to just get together and play the game," added Bender.
For players with 40 years of devotion and a willingness to travel across the country in a snowstorm, it's not whether they win or lose that matters, just the chance to play the game. "We say it every year," Bender said. "This season will be our best season."
Kevin Thomas will be live Tweeting his Strat-o-Matic odyssey on Friday. Follow him @KTsGreyhounds .