Numbering the Days
Memories of Strat-O-Matic baseball
He kept a diary—a friend, a boy we knew when we were young, all those years ago—and at the end of most entries he would assign himself a line from a baseball box score, defining each day as though it were part of some classic pennant race against . . . well, who knows? The general malevolence of the universe, maybe, or the daunting future and his own adolescent doubts, glaring down at him from the pitcher’s mound. June 2—Sue Mercer stopped to talk while I was sitting on the steps, so cute I couldn’t think of anything to say. Read a little, not much. Mowed the lawn. Shot hoops in the driveway; okay but inconsistent. Won at cards with my brothers. Today: 4 at bats, 1 hit, 1 walk, 1 RBI, 1 error.
And then, at the end of the summer, Glen would add up how his days had gone, totaling his box scores to make a card for the season: 512 at-bats with a .291 average. 25 doubles, 5 triples, and 17 home runs. 57 walks and 48 strikeouts. 32 steals (he was always a fast kid) and a .972 fielding average (but a flawed fielder). Quick on the base paths, some power down the alleys, and he kept the ball in play. Too many fielding mistakes, but they weren’t from lack of trying, and his range to the ball made up for most of them.
A good player, in other words, is how Glen quantified himself: not a star, exactly, but the kind of solid hitter any manager could use in his lineup. Several wins above replacement. If he wasn’t headed for the Hall of Fame, he wasn’t about to be sent down to the minors, either. He was in the game.
But the card he made—that was the fun part, because it wasn’t just a bubblegum card: some lifeless piece of Topps or Fleet cardboard, good mostly for clothes-pinning to your bike so the spokes would rattle and roar as you rode along. Or for collecting, naturally, but that was the kind of thing old men like your friend’s dad did, getting angry every time he saw the neighborhood kids handling their cards because it lowered their value—and if he’d had the sense to keep his Phil Rizzuto card untouched in plastic, instead of pinning it to his own bike when he was a kid, it would be worth a thousand dollars now. Or more, he’d always add. Or more.
No, the card Glen would make was a Strat-O-Matic card. Remember Strat-O-Matic? You’d see advertisements for the statistics-based board game in the back pages of comic books, the blurry newsprint of the Sporting News, and those annual baseball previews that seemed to sprout like flowers on the magazine racks early each spring.
Maybe a friend had a Strat-O-Matic set, with its red box and the previous year’s Major League teams, each player with his own statistical card, and you’d go over to battle it out on the front porch. Or maybe you had your own set, and you’d sit up late to play by yourself—Game One of the Red Sox hosting the Reds in the 1975 World Series: Fenway Park spread out on the floor before you, under the light of a gooseneck lamp. Luis Tiant on the mound, and the hard-driven Pete Rose leads off with a fly ball to center, easily pulled in by Fred Lynn for the first out. The incomparable Joe Morgan follows with a single slapped to left, and the crowd groans as the all-star, all-time, all-everything catcher Johnny Bench steps into the batter’s box to try to drive him home.
What brought the cards to life was a roll of three dice, one white and two red. In the basic game, each card had three columns: three on the batter’s card and three on the pitcher’s card. If the white die came up 1, 2, or 3, you looked for the result in the corresponding column on the batter’s card; 4, 5, or 6, and you turned to the proper column on the pitcher’s card. Each column had 11 entries, labeled 2 through 12, and you used the sum of the red dice to find which of those entries to use—one of 216 possible chances for each at bat. The Strat-O-Matic game designers would start with the league average for any given year, and then adjust Joe Morgan’s batting card to give him the results that revealed his skill above an average batter’s. And Luis Tiant’s card to show his skill above an average pitcher’s.