All-Star Baseball: What Matters is Feeling

(Original game image courtesy of Strat-O-Matic)

There’s a bar here in Athens, Georgia called The Rook & Pawn. It’s owned by my friend Tim Kelly, and it seems tailor-made for a campus town in that it combines two things that college students specialize in: Alcohol, and acting like you’re still a child.

The Rook & Pawn sells cutesy hipster cocktails – “Wookie for Love in Alderaan Places” is tequila accented by muddling lime and mint with a house-made jasmine tea simple syrup – that you drink while … playing board games. For a five-dollar fee you can play board games all day. And they’ve got all of them, from Operation to Outburst to The Settlers of Catan to something called Fact or Crap. Walk in any evening, you’ll find a bunch of college kids sucking down vodka while playing Uno; walk in any afternoon, you’ll find parents keeping their children occupied with Expedition Dino and grilled cheeses. It’s the perfect little quirky place to remind me why I’m so happy to call Athens home.

Tim quit his job as a lawyer to open up The Rook & Pawn board game café in downtown Athens. He also happens to coach my four-year-old son William’s basketball team, and we quickly became friends – largely over our shared love of baseball. I showed up at a practice in a Cardinals Ankiel 66 shirt, and he was wearing an Orioles Pearce 28 one. We were probably destined to be friends.

So one afternoon, I took William to the Rook & Pawn for lunch. Tim brought us to the back, and as William played some game where he tried to throw a teddy bear into a clown’s mouth or something, Tim got a mischievous look in his eye.

“You up for some Strat-O-Matic?” he asked.

It’s perfectly reasonable that Tim would take me for a Strat-O-Matic fan. I write about baseball professionally; I wear t-shirts of long-retired, somewhat obscure players out in public; and I can name you the MVPs of the last 40 World Series pretty much off the top of my head. This is to say: I’m a nerd. I love baseball so much that there’s no factoid too pointless, no insight not worth exploring, no game tickets that can ever be refused. I think about baseball all the time, and when I’m not thinking about baseball I’m wondering why I’m not thinking about baseball. Then I start thinking about baseball again.

But when Tim asked me that, as if we were teenagers looking to sneak a smoke after homeroom, I felt shame. Because when I was a kid, I didn’t play Strat-O-Matic. My baseball board game was All-Star Baseball.

In All-Star Baseball, your players are discs, and you put them in a little spinner, and there are numbers for every outcome of an at-bat from 1 (home run) to 20 (fly out). The edition I had featured “modern-day” players like Cal Ripken Jr. and Ozzie Smith alongside old-timers like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. I used to keep notebooks full of stats from the games and once even played a full season. (I’m pretty sure Vince Coleman stole 220 bases that year.) You can play it against an opponent, but – obviously – I rarely did that. I just drafted a set teams, kept score in my notebook, and went about whittling away my youth.

But All-Star Baseball, as nerdy as it is, looks pretty stupid when you compare it to Strat-O-Matic. Strat-O-Matic has dice and defensive ratings and situational cards and all sorts of madness. All-Star Baseball’s primary weakness is an obvious one: It doesn’t account for the pitchers, which means all hitters are essentially batting off a JUGS machine. All pitchers are the same, all fielders are the same, all defense is the same. It accounts only for offense, which basically turns every game into the NBA All-Star Game. In other words, it’s nothing like an actual baseball game.

Strat-O-Matic, on the other hand, is meant to come as close to an accurate simulation of a Major League Baseball game you can get without actually paying players to stage a live one yourself. Everything is accounted for, even the stadium you play in and in some versions the temperature and the wind. If you want a baseball simulation in board game form you cannot do better than Strat-O-Matic. It’s the game for people who truly love baseball and who truly care.

But I don’t really care about an accurate simulation. I just want my board game to feel like a baseball game. And All-Star Baseball, as dumb as it is, has an actual MLB field as a background (Wrigley Field, in fact); ball, strike, and out counters; pegs for the players running the bases; and, yes, that weeeeeee spinner that provides a satisfying swing sensation when you’re playing. It’s stupid, but it feels more like playing. In Strat-O-Matic, you roll a die, and then pick up a card, then pick up another card, and then just say “Groundout!” All-Star Baseball is just “Flick!” It doesn’t correctly simulate baseball. But it simulates how baseball feels.

So my preference for All-Star Baseball makes me feel like an inadequate nerd in the same way that sabermetrics does. I know, intellectually, that OPS-Plus and Adjusted Win Percentage Added and Range Factor and even this new Statcast business can tell me more about baseball than I ever knew before. I know they’re important, and educational, and an accurate representation of what happens on a baseball field. I read about them, I study them, I know them. I am no Luddite. I read Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs and Beyond the Box Score. These are my people.

But understanding what makes a baseball player or a baseball team better, understanding the best utilization of payroll and personnel resources, understanding how to build a winning team in the macro sense – none of this has anything to do with the actual experience of watching a baseball game. I know everything sabermetrics has to offer us is true and helpful. I just don’t care about it when I’m watching a game. All those advanced statistics can keep me occupied during the long cold sad months when there is no baseball. But during an actual game, I just want to see people hit the ball and throw the ball and run and jump and pitch and slide and all of it. I just want to see action. I just want that “Flick!”

So I had to bum Tim out and tell him that Strat-O-Matic isn’t my game, that it’s one road of baseball dorkdom we wouldn’t be traveling down together. I know I’m wrong about this. I know Strat-O-Matic is a better, more accurate game. But I like my dumbness in the moment. My dumbness is my own.

I bought an old copy of All-Star Baseball and donated it to The Rook & Pawn. Sometimes I’ll go in and play a game while Tim plays Strat-O-Matic at a table next to mine. This is our difference, and that’s just fine. Though to anybody happening to walk by, there’s no difference at all. They just look at both tables and point: “What a couple of nerds.” I’ve made my peace with it.


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Will Leitch is a senior writer at Sports On Earth, culture writer for Bloomberg Politics, film critic for The New Republic, contributing editor at New York Magazine, and the founder of Deadspin. He has written four books, including Are We Winning? about the connection of baseball and fatherhood.