Monthly Archives: December 2008

bigPumaLinks: frosty air

bigPUMAlinks frosty air edition

bigPUMAlinks frosty air edition

  • The Astros recently closed their Venezuelan baseball academy. A commenter on Hardball Times provides some additional insight.
  • 2001 article discussing the then-new agreement to stream MLB content, which was accurately predicted to change the way we watch the game. LOL moment: “Video will be available in as little as an hour after the game ends”. Silly inhabitants of the early millenium…
  • The nice-looking cover of a book I’ve not heard of about baseball cards.
  • Awasum Junior gets around with interviews promoting the African Baseball Network and the development of the game in Africa. youtube site, homepage.
  • Hire Joe Morgan
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A Record Should be Simple: context and narrative in baseball media, and silly stats, too

Frank DeFord, who I actually find delightful

Eminent sports opinionist and general Andy Rooney-school curmudgeon Frank DeFord recently posted a column about annoying statistical observations, “The Stupidest Statistics In The Modern Era”, like for example his example: “He’s the first teenager in the last 33 years with three triples and two intentional walks in one season.” Now in fairness he goes on to discuss the concept of “records,” but he starts the column with the tired claim that “we are inundated with sports statistics. Baseball is the worst, of course — but it’s getting harder for the statistics freaks in all sports to dream up anything original.”

DeFord’s opening statement is silly. Nobody is “inundated” with statistics who does not seek them out. We are far more inundated with SPAM email than with VORP email. But to the second point, the esoteric comparisons that finagle with the “sort” function of unimaginable databases somewhere to create the algebraic combinations of circumstance: DeFord is right. Those observations, in a certain abundance, can seem obnoxious, overbearing, needy. Continue reading

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Strat-o-matic: the Amish video game

The game.

Some months ago I bought a copy of the classic game Strat-o-Matic. It came in a long rectangular box, the awkward packaging that seems to have since been jettisoned in favor of the more manageable deep square box. The box lid is decorated with I’d say maybe two-color print (puke brown and black), with text in that now-tired robot kind of font, the typographical suggestion of futuristic advances as seen from 1970 (akin to this).

I bought the game with some little bit of trouble, that being the first time in years that I crossed the threshold of a game-type store, which is millimeters away from a comic book store, atmospherically speaking. The guy at the counter had not heard of Strat-o-matic before, and this was someone who has heard of things before that maybe five max people in the Midwest ever have, some of them probably involving wizardress figurines. I spelled it out for him a few times, dashes included, and he found on his computer a copy in Indianapolis that he’d have shipped down to the local.

I didn’t know what the box would contain, or what manner of “game” Strat-o-matic would be. As I understood it at the time, the game consisted of player cards and dice. The roll of the dice corresponded to whatever was listed on the card, such that the player could simulate baseball games, series, seasons, careers, using his favorite pro ballplayers. He could even, in theory, make his own cards and use THEM. I now know what the box contains, and I’d had no misconceptions of consequence. The game does consist of cards and dice, and I can do all of the aforementioned until my eyes bleed.

Hal Richman, inventor of Strat-o-matic

Hal Richman, inventor of Strat-o-matic

Hal Richman invented Strat-o-matic when he was a kid, him being dissatisfied with the existing simulation game, All Star baseball. The little math whiz created and then honed his set of cards, and tirelessly tested the dice-rolling system until he got it right and found popular audiences in 1963. The result was a system that could accurately simulate a full season of fake baseball–with variations for chance that happen in real life too, steroids notwithstanding–down to the batting average point (why would you do this? one might ask, seeing as how you’d know the result already. For the answer, see the statement on randomization and the unpredictable quirks of probability, which I don’t understand at all).

I picked up Strat-o-matic because I’ve played fantasy baseball online since I was fourteen years old, and I figured it was time to see where it all started. Fantasy baseball is not the exact antecedent of Strat-o-matic in that it capitalizes on the real-world stats of the pros rather than their enumerated tendencies, but the underlying drive to form customized lineups and manage surrogate teams is the same.

I don’t know exactly why fantasy baseball is so satisfying and fun to play. Perhaps it’s the blend of real-world action and imaginary rearranging and strategizing. No one, for example, likes to play a sports video game with made-up players rather than real-life simulacra. In any event, to understand fantasy baseball, you have to already understand the baseball fan’s love of stats, and the human race’s love of numbers in toto.

Marshall McLuhan says that numbers are infused with a sense of the rational; that numbers, like all media, are extensions of our phsyical bodies; that numbers reinforce unity; that numbers have an iconic power. 61, 42, .400 &tc. for quick and obvious examples in the baseball universe. MM: “In every sense, the amassing of numbers statistically gives man a new influx of primitive intuition and magically subconscious awareness, whether of public taste or feeling.” Money, clocks, &tc.

With that weighty mass of information behind me, I cracked the Strat-o-matic box and dug in. There are many pieces of paper. There are charts and cards filled front and back with numbers and more charts. Three dice and booklets and ads and all kinds of crazy crap. I will spare the details of the game, but I’ll say that it takes some reading to know what one should do at all. Essentially, you roll the dice then look at corresponding charts on each card, note the action that it signifies, and chart it on the regular-style scoresheet, like you’d see at a ballgame. Imagination is not included.

Exploded view of Strat-o-matic game

Exploded view of Strat-o-matic game

As punchcards are to the Mac Book Pro, so Strat-o-matic cards are to Yahoo and ESPN fantasy baseball. The hidden mechanisms are revealed in the antique technologies. The labor of calculation and tabulation is passed on to the player, not rendered effortlessly by the machine. Every at bat is a roll of dice and a shuffling of cards, and a shift of attention from one player card to the next and the next and the next until 10 seasons are complete and Hall of Fame voting can reasonably begin. I’ve completed, as of this writing, five games.

To play, Strat-o-matic requires that I first unfold lots of pieces of paper, find the right stacks of cards, sharpen a pencil (pen=bad idea), determine batting orders and fill out the lineup cards for both teams, pick the starting pitchers, clear my day’s schedule out. Then the game begins, as I fend off thoughts of video games and laptop computers and the Internet. It’s a certifiably Amish undertaking, a self-imposed ludditism in which the trappings of modern life are foresaken for a 50s gaming style. And it’s hard. My attention wanders, my mind’s eye strains to create the mental imagery that I feel pressured to imagine, mostly because I’ve spent so much time getting the whole thing going.

The parts and pieces of our creative consumption of baseball entertainments is already provided–video games have perfectly rendered faces and batting stances, fantasy baseball churns out every stat, even the baseball stadium displays a hitter’s stats for the last ten games, &tc. Strat-o-matic gives a little and then asks for a lot. Granted, it was created during a simpler time without persoal computers. But there is a reason that it still exists, that the card sets are updated each year and I can find it at the game store. I don’t know that even typewriters get that kind of respect.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic…

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Marshall McLuhan and the games we play

Games are: “faithful models of a cultures.” [MM]

Who is Marshall McLuhan? He would resist any particular definition, I imagine, and he’d be happy to exist in multitudinous ranges of expression, as a medium himself. He is a student of media theory, questioning the ways in which we translate information and culture through media. Media being the translators, the conduits of Idea. Go look him up yourself, and read the book of his that I read most of.

“Games are dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions.” [MM]

Games, so says MM, echo the mechanisms of the workaday lifestyle in their heirarchies and competitions and rules, &tc. But games are not the working life because in games we can question what we do, and burn it up from the inside. The tensions that we release are the same that we recreate. To play, he states, we have to become puppets of collective demand.

The professional athlete, he claims, is pointless. When the game is the work, there is nothing for the game to emulate. There is no distance for the professional athlete between what he does for a living and what he does for fun. Do athletes start their businesses as a way to escape their working lives. With all their millions, do they in fact invert the usual model of tension relief? For the pro athlete, a business is the emulation of the business of sport. The only way to escape an endless game is to become somehow very serious, to cross the social wires again and again in a tangle of commerce and heirarchy.

If the grass is always greener: the working man plays games, and the gaming man plays work.

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An introduction, mission statement

The baseball iteration that is rich in characters has been gauzed over with discussions of chemical abuses and home runs and stats. The characters remain, though, and continue to wield a mesmerizing unbelieving, the eternal mythmaking process, that such specialists can sustain the common trappings of a quirky personality. We expect, after all, a bomb defuser or a hostage negotiator to be more than a man or a woman, but an amalgam of traits suited perfectly for the job. Spies don’t joke around much and neither should closers, but they both do (I’m guessing, I’ve never met a spy–that I know of).

But there are characters, they are real humans there, though they may be wrapped in the cloth of mythology. Characters perhaps might be the wrong word. Ballplayers are already characters. Humans is the right word.

Blogs and blogs post and repost the repast of the day’s daily journalism, because we are enamored not only by the players, but by the scruffy ruffians who get to be near the players, and to–gasp of all gasps–talk to them. We talk a lot about the death of the newspaper, but then we post and repost everything that any journalist even whispers on his own blog, in italics not meant to be taken for the gospel that they are taken as.

There is an elemental distance between us and what we admire. The money, as exaggerated and impossible as it seems, is only an extension of that distance. We’ll never see that much money in our lives, and we’ll never be able to drive an inside fastball over the left or right field wall. Money is the least abstract manner by which we determine ourselves inferior from the glads. You’ve got a buck in your pocket, and so do I. Put it in a Calvin&Hobbesian transmogrifier and multiply times 150 million, wallpaper your house with it, paper mache it into a fort, no matter what you do it won’t make sense. The game is the money, the money is the game.

Baseball is a medium, as opined by Marshall McLuhan. MM, on what a medium is: “All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms.” There are all kinds of ins and outs, only a few of which I understand and which I hope to explore further. But the most important fact to come out of that quotation is that baseball is a medium. The form of the game, the boundaries, the rules, they all transmit information about us humans in a new way, all the while passing through the other media, the media everywhere, the everywhere media.

An electrical charge vibrates in that space between the baseball game and the fan, between the player and the game, between the player and the fan. All of it hums, as all media hums with the constant work of translation, reconfiguration, recalibration, and self-realization.

I would like this to be a project that explores that distance, and attempts to translate and to place myself–myself representing I think the Common Fan–in the endless spectral rainbow of media and baseball and life and computers, &tc.

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