Take Me In To The Ball Game

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You know what’s wrong with sports video games? They weren’t around when I was growing up. No Madden NFL, no NBA Jam, no MLB The Show. Damn.

I would have loved those games. Because I loved sports. I loved to play sports, I loved to watch sports, and I loved games that simulated sports.

It all started with electric football. There was something so promising about the shiny metal field – it looked perfect as my brother and I lined up our plastic players for the kick-off. And then with a flick of the switch, everything went to hell. Players slid unpredictably to electric football’s relentless hum, or locked arms in a gridiron square dance. Every pass was a Hail Mary, and forget about attempting a field goal. No wonder we ended up cranking the vibration screw as high as it would go. That’s what electric football was good for: simulating earthquakes.

Bobby Orr Hockey was in a different league. The table-top game put control of all six players at your fingertips. The overhead scoreboard dropped pucks for center ice face-offs that rewarded good eye-hand coordination. Sure, the action could slow to the pace of a Fischer-Spassky match when one of us tried to line up a pass from flat-metal Johnny Bucyk to flat-metal Phil Esposito – very unlike real hockey, to be sure. But the game was fun to play. Lots of fun.

The only problem was, you needed two people. What about those mornings when my older brother was off working at the Y and my younger brother was still sleeping? I needed a game that I could play solitaire.

My cousin Steven took care of that. When he got a new Strat-O-Matic Baseball Game in the late 1960s, I was the recipient of his old one. Lucky me.

Strat-O-Matic calls itself “The ORIGINAL Fantasy Sports Games!” According to The New York Times, “For youngsters whose thoughts are turned more to spring and baseball than summer and camp, there’s an array of cerebral board games that keep the mind limber with batting averages, earned-run averages, and fielding percentages. The most ingenious is a card-and-dice game put out by Strat-O-Matic.”

I spent the summer rolling dice, consulting charts, keeping box scores, adjusting standings. My house league consisted of the Cardinals and the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Tigers. Even now, the line-ups are fresh in my mind: Brock, Flood, Maris, Cepeda…

Strat-O-Matic Baseball was my “video” game, with the action playing out in my head. But it didn’t keep me from going out to play. Nothing could do that – well, nothing but Mrs. Gordon. She was our next door neighbor on River Avenue in Providence. Mrs. Gordon’s husband had a heart condition. He needed to rest in the morning, she said. So Mrs. Gordon asked that we refrain from whacking Wiffle balls off the side of her house until 9:30. Mrs. Gordon was nice, but in a no-nonsense way. I wasn’t going to cross her – or my mother, who assured Mrs. Gordon that we would comply with her request.

*     *     *

In the early morning light, the Wiffle bat stands untouched in the back hallway. Inside, I sit on the den floor amid charts and dice and Pop-Tart crumbs. Through the magic of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, I keep company with Bob Gibson and Denny McClain and Mickey Mantle and Yaz… Periodically, I run into the kitchen to check the time on the stove clock. 8:30… 9:00… 9:25… YES!

Out I bound into the backyard.

“Good morning, Mrs. Gordon!”

My best friend Chris walks up the driveway, as I scribe the backyard dirt with the knob of the Wiffle bat: a perfect batter’s box and home plate.

Play ball!

With thanks to my cousin, Steven Paulson, for the hand-me-down Strat-O-Matic Baseball years ago and for recent research support.

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