Ode to Strat-o-Matic

It was the best day of the year. Better than your birthday. Better than Christmas. Better than the last day of school! We’re talking seriously great day, here.

You’d come home from school, each day more eagerly than the day before, anticipating its arrival. Day after hopeful day would pass. Not here yet.

Then, that one fateful day: you race the bike home from school, and hastily stash it on the back patio. You scamper into the house, ignoring the gleefully tail-wagging dog and the Mom’s cheery, “Hi, honey!” You go straight for the living room, to the pile of mail that’s been delivered today – and there it is. That padded manila envelope. The most beautiful thing in the world.

The new Strat-o-Matic cards are here!

You tear open the envelope and pour the little rubber-banded stacks of cards out, willy-nilly, onto the living room rug. The glorious aroma of freshly-printed card stock fills your nostrils. You grab a stack at random, and peel off the rubber band … which team is this? It’s the Astros! Bob Watson! Jim Ray! Johnny Edwards! JOE MORGAN! Man, he had 11 triples last year! And now he’s a “2″ second baseman!

And on it would go. The most blissful afternoon of the year would be spent poring over every card, discovering every little nuance … who is this Jim York guy on the Royals? And, woah, check out Steve Mong … Mag … Mingori: 31 hits allowed in 57 innings! And a 1.42 ERA!!

My older brother pestered our Mom endlessly, I’m sure, and for Christmas in 1966 we got our first Strat-o-Matic set: the rectangular red box with the pen-and-ink rendering of the right-handed pitcher in mid-delivery. The dice (two white, one red), the little green-and-white cardboard baseball diamond, the orange split cards, the “X FIELDING CHART X”. All marvelous.

But most marvelous of all, of course: the player cards. Everything you would ever need to know about a guy, right there on a little 3-by-5 card. Johnny Callison, 1965 … a “1″ rightfielder. A “C” basestealer, a “1-15″ baserunner. 57 walks, 117 strikeouts. His one-six is a “TRIPLE 1-17, DOUBLE 18-20″.

If you have no idea of what I’m talking about here, forget it. You never will. Don’t worry about it. But if you do, then you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you. You’re of a certain age range and you became enraptured with Strat-o-Matic at a certain point. Your life would never be the same.

I loved Strat-o-Matic. My brother and I played games all the time; we played with “real” teams (say, the ’68 Pirates against the ’70 Tigers), we made up teams (All-Star teams or just random collections), we even played full 162-game seasons. But even more than actually playing games, we just fooled around with the cards: making up lineups, or putting a bunch a guys together in an order that would simulate a plausible “career,” or just basically looking at the cards, studying them, using them as a springboard into thoughts and insights about players, teams, and baseball.

Our first set of cards was from the 1965 season. We didn’t get any cards from ’66 or ’67, but then beginning in 1968, we got them every year, giving us that one magnificent afternoon each February or March when the cards arrived.

In the early ’70s, my brother graduated from high school and moved out. But I still bought the Strat cards every year, all the way through my own high school years, and even through college. All kinds of changes and new interests came into my life: sex, drugs, and rock and roll, to name just a few. But Strat was one constant, happily cohabitating with everyone and everything else. Hal McRae and Robin Trower. Dave Freisleben and Jimmy Carter. Sixto Lezcano and Cheech & Chong.

Ah, well. Maybe, like Puff, the Magic Dragon, Strat-o-Matic lives forever, but not so little boys. My life did actually, finally, begin to get in the way of Strat-o-Matic. I got married. We had a baby. Then another one. I began to get serious about a career. I continued to buy Strat cards into the early ’80s, but less and less often did I play actual games with them.

Finally one year came and I didn’t buy Strat cards. I don’t remember making a conscious decision about it; I think it was more along the lines of I was just too busy and never got around to it. My life was just in a different place, I guess.

I still have every Strat-o-Matic card my brother and I ever bought, packed away in various boxes somewhere in my house. I hardly ever haul them out and look at them any more, but when I do it’s a guaranteed great time. I have countless folders filled with scoresheets and stat summaries from the various teams and seasons I played in Strat. They are of no use or value to anyone except me, but the sentimental significance they hold for me is truly impossible to describe. It’s essentially my boyhood and adolescence, in #2 pencil.

One time when my kids were 10 and 12 or something like that, they kept asking me about all those “Strat cards” I loved to thumb through, and I broke out the old game board and taught them how to play, and we played a couple of games. It was a good time. We share many common interests, my kids and I, and although my fixation with baseball isn’t among them, playing Strat-o-Matic with them that one time was, for them, maybe a nice little window into their old man’s soul. I was tickled that they humored me with the show of interest.

A while ago on Baseball Primer there was a thread in which a lot of posters shared how it was that they initially became exposed to sabermetrics, or what really got them into an analytical understanding of baseball. A lot of the (ahem) younger crowd gave credit to Rob Neyer. Others, probably with a bit more seasoning, talked about Bill James and his Baseball Abstracts from the 1980s.

But I’m afraid for me it goes back well before any of that. What captivated me, and gave me an abiding love, not just for baseball statistics per se, but for what a quantitative analysis of the game can really teach and reveal about how baseball really works as a mechanism, was Strat-o-Matic. It was through Strat that I truly began to understand what the left/right platoon differential is all about, when the sacrifice bunt or the stolen base makes sense and when it doesn’t, why fielding (especially up the middle) really matters, why overlooking walks is to ignore something hugely important, and on and on. Play was learning, and learning was play.

The Strat-o-Matic company has long since gone on to providing a computerized version of its baseball game. I have no reason to doubt that it’s a wonderful product, but I’ve never played it, and probably never will. The old dice-and-board version was great enough for me. To this day, I still view baseball through a Stat-o-Matic lens. I subconsciously categorize all fielders on the 1-to-4 scale: to my way of thinking, Eric Chavez is a “1″ third baseman, and Shea Hillenbrand is a “4.” Juan Pierre is a “1 to 17″ baserunner to me, and Jason Giambi is a “1 to 8.” Strat-o-Matic is knitted, permanently, into my frame of baseball reference.

Give Neyer his props, if you’re so inclined. Honor James with your acknowledgments, as you see fit. The guy to whom I owe the biggest debt of baseball gratitude is Hal Richman, the inventor of Strat-o-Matic. Here’s to you, Hal.

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