The Man Behind the Curtain

No, that title isn’t a reference to Joseph Stalin. The curtain isn’t Iron and this isn’t a Cold War reference. Nor is it in any way a reference to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, with all due respect to those who proudly wave the Terrible Towel. Nope, neither of those is appropriate. The reference is actually to The Wizard of Oz.

What – you might ask – does a film almost 70 years old have to do with baseball?

Well, nothing really. But the role portrayed by Frank Morgan in that film, the Wizard himself (aka the ‘Man Behind the Curtain’) represents to me the feeling I get when I am enjoying my main hobby: simulation baseball.

Yep, I’ve decided to step back from my normal ruminations on my job (cool as it may be) to my main passion away from the camera & editing suite, the aforementioned hobby of simulation baseball (and football, hockey, occasionally basketball – you get the drift).

There is a sizeable portion of the baseball-loving population, being of a certain age (say born before the late 70s), that remember playing baseball simulation board games like Strat-o-Matic, APBA, and the like. That was my introduction to the hobby: the old “toss the dice and look at the cards – or charts” world of Strat, APBA or my personal favorite: Pursue the Pennant (or PtP to partisans such as myself). Yeah, it was – and is – geeky, but it was fun. PtP had a field (one with grass, one with turf – it was the 80s after all), and outfield wall strips for each ballpark. You’d put the field and wall strip into the box top and it created a sort of ballpark for you to roll your dice in. Simple, but brilliant design and it added to the feel of the game.

The arrival of computerized versions of these games changed things. No longer was it necessary to meticulously play out each game, pen in hand, keeping score just like I would at Yankee Stadium and then calculating the batting averages, ERAs and so forth. I fondly remember doing just that with a 1988 edition of PtP, seeing if the Orioles would lose 20 straight (they didn’t, but they weren’t good either), how the Mets and Yankees would do (the Mets were very good; the Yanks? not so much) and so on. I remember Orel Hershiser and David Cone being ridiculously good, Canseco being a 40-40 guy and so on. It made the tedium of life in the military (I was in the Air Force at the time) somewhat more bearable.

Computer versions changed things, made it much easier to do replays, draft leagues and eventually, with the internet, have online leagues that let you compete against folks from all over the world. I was with the NBA when I ran my first league as commissioner. It was a basketball league, of course, using a fairly simple DOS-based program, and the participants were all co-workers. I branched out into a net-based hockey league where my competition included a couple of published hockey historians (one Canadian, the other Swedish) and even a guy from Hong Kong (who knew a whole lot about the game despite being a native of HK and only seeing the NHL on tape-delayed satellite broadcasts).

Naturally, the big thing for me was baseball. And eventually I participated in – and then “commished” – online baseball sim leagues. My sims of choice were Diamond Mind Baseball, which started life as the computer version of my beloved PtP and bore that moniker for several years before PtP folded up (in 1994, I think it was), and the other was Out of the Park Baseball. DMB is now on version 9 and is a rock-solid and accurate “replay” style game. That means you can realistically expect players to produce “lifelike” results for the given season. Each season is seperate, and the players are meticulously rated to keep their performance as close to life as possible. OOTP – also now in version 9 – is a little different. It has gradually evolved into a monster sim which is capable (though not with DMB’s meticulously researched, hand-crafted seasons) of doing very solid replays, but also has a career mode, where a player’s career shape can change over time based on usage, injuries and so on.

Currently, over on my personal, sim-sport-devoted website, I have two baseball “projects” going on: an OOTP league which is going to play out baseball history with fictional players and a replay I’ve just begun of the 1908 season. The latter is inspired by Cait Murphy’s book “Crazy ’08” which describes the 1908 season in detail (the book is tremendous, I highly recommend it to anyone who loves baseball).

It’s been 100 years since that wild season, probably best remembered as the most-recent (if that term can even be applied) Championship season for the Chicago Cubs, but also famous among baseball historians for the wild pennant races in both leagues – especially the NL’s between the Cubs, Giants and Pirates which turned decisively one day in September when Giants’ first baseman Fred Merkle earned an ignominous (and pretty much undeserved) place in baseball history.

The reason I decided to write this particular post is due to my five-year-old son. He’s a fan of numbers – the first kid I’ve met who can be entertained by simply handing him a calculator. He loves NASCAR – the cars all have numbers on them, and most products or companies he’s heard of – and he will sit there and watch on TV if I put a race on. Now, I was never much of a fan of motor sports, but it does grow on you. Someday I’ll take him to a race. Sorry for the big digression there – the point is that one of the things I always loved about baseball was the numbers – stats. I love stats.

It occurred to me that my son, with his love for numbers, might grow to love baseball through numbers. So I found that though PtP is gone, there are two successors available. One: Dynasty League Baseball is produced by the guy (his name’s Mike Cieslinski) who created Pursue the Pennant. There’s also a free evolution of the original PtP called Internet League Baseball. So I fired up the old printer, found some dice and introduced my son to my old love – the baseball tabletop game. And, though he can’t read the charts or anything (good thing I can), he enjoyed it – we played Yanks vs Red Sox, so he knew some of the players. After our first game, he took the scoresheet and ran to put it in his drawer with his drawings and art supplies.

Then we went outside and, with my 7-year-old daughter (who’s becoming quite a good hitter – she’s a lefty, like yours truly), played a little tee-ball.

And on Saturday, I won an Ebay auction on a 1986 edition of Pursue the Pennant. Time to introduce the kids to Mookie, Billy Buck and the rest of the gang.

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