Strat-o-Matic: my chronic illness

No, it’s not as bad as diabetes. It only now and then costs me too much money for too little product which, even then, delivers me enjoyment out of proportion to the dollars spent. It’s probably not classified as an addiction, mainly because I can go for years without engaging in it. But it’s always still there waiting for the next outbreak cycle, like malaria or elective politics. I prefer to think of it as a chronic disorder.

The 1970s: a time when baseball cards were toys, not investments. The era in which kids read comic books rather than investing in them. The era in which we thought American government could not possibly get more corrupt or evil than the Nixon administration.

Even our adults had naive, childish notions, didn’t they?

Then again, in those days loaded open-end mutual funds were taken seriously as investments by persons who could do arithmetic.

In those days, if you lived in an isolated place, the Sears, Ward, and Penney catalogues were your nearest approximation to something like Amazon. Companies seeking kids’ money had to advertise where the kids were looking, and that meant comic books. The most common ads:

  • An offer to get catalog rewards by selling seeds. “Send no money…we trust you!”
  • Sets of cheap plastic toy soldiers in some theme: Revolutionary, Roman, modern, etc.
  • “Sea monkeys,” essentially brine shrimp, which in the flesh didn’t look much like the joyful anthropomorphic nudists in the ad.
  • BB Guns. I try to explain this to kids today, and they don’t believe me: we had BB gun wars. No aiming high–you could blind someone.
  • The Charles Atlas transformation exercise manual (I think it was a book), with the proverbial nerd getting sand kicked in his face and girls rejecting him until he kicked some ass.
  • Strat-o-Matic Baseball.

I have no idea what they marketed to the girls, but I’m sure it was sexist. Back then, life was sexist.

When I first saw the SOM ads, circa about 1972-73, I had no idea how the game could back up its brag. All major league teams, with players who played significant time, performing realistically? Before that, my sports simulation mind had involved spinners and kiddie games. Still, $10 (or whatever it was they wanted) was a hell of a lot of money, almost a couple months’ allowance. It would buy a lot of baseball cards and comic books, known quantities of enjoyment. I didn’t go for it. You couldn’t be too careful; you knew most of these ads were a load of bullshit.

We moved, and before he became a mortal enemy, I got to know the neighbor kid as sort of a friend. He had Strat-o-Matic, the 1971 season. Turned out it was completely legit: every player got a card, reflecting his performance. Half the results came from pitchers’ cards, half from batters’ cards, so that would average out. Sophisticated stuff, big-boy sports gaming. I absorbed the homebrew pen-and-paper scorekeeping method that I would desire to use (but not even dream of trying) when I would one day be an official scorer for a local baseball league. I had to have my own game, of course, and in 1975 I sprang for the current (1974) set. A few years later, my enemy sold me his 1971 cards for a song, one of the few times I got the best of him.

I didn’t buy or need any more annual card sets in my youth. I attempted ill-fated season replays with statkeeping, a ludicrous proposition with pen and paper solitaire. Even though I never even came close to finishing one, it kept me somewhat sane through seven years of hell. Between D&D, Strat, and books, I avoided doing all the retributory things that were morally justified but would be life-limiting.

Come the 1980s, I escaped to college, and my chronic SOM pattern continued: remission, outbreak, remission, outbreak. Remissions lasted a year or two. Then I graduated, and I had real money and was independent of my parents, and could buy whatever the hell I felt like. I bought the then-current cards, 1986. They still looked just like what I’d known as a kid: comforting, clean, often irregularly cut, black on white with blue on white reverses (the reverses were for if you were playing with the lefty/righty rules).

Here my memory gets a bit hazy, but sometime around 1990, Strat came out with a computer version of its baseball game. Adult time is different from kid time: even with my Atari ST and a pirated spreadsheet program to calculate batting averages and ERAs, it just wasn’t practical to replay whole seasons with the cards and dice. I lived in Seattle, worked six days a week, spent thirteen hours per day working or commuting, slept maybe seven hours a night, leaving four hours each day to call my own. When the computer version matured a bit, I bought a copy. I had assumed there would be Great Evolutions.

Nah.

I came to realize a thing about SOM, a mighty strength and crippling weakness all at once: it was hopelessly, comically, defiantly retro. When SOM wanted to make computer games, it hired a programmer. Not multiple programmers; a programmer. He’s still working there, same guy, all this time. Unfortunately, the game reflected a user interface only a programmer could love, but I had learned that was what happened when one let programmers design the UI. In the programming mind, if there is a way to do it and it doesn’t crash, that’s good enough; on to the next issue. In spite of an amazingly clunky setup relative to other computer games, I still enjoyed SOM’s computer baseball. I could replay past seasons and let the game record the stats. It had zero arcade quality, but arcade games were for the insufficiently hardcore.

The boardgame finally did away with a deck of twenty numbered cards, in favor of a twenty-sided die à la D&D, about twenty years after D&D came out. I marvel that they got around to acknowledging the Internet before 2000. Just. Barely. Before. 2000. But they did, fair’s fair. They liked it a lot better when it gave them a better form of copy protection, and Strat is all about the copy protection.

Came the CD-ROM era, and several years into it–when the CD-ROM had since became the norm on all DOS/Windows PCs, SOM breathlessly announced its great innovation: CD-ROM Baseball! It was sort of like being the last car company to market a hybrid vehicle, and making it sound as if they’d invented the concept. Now, this was a spendy game. If you didn’t want the cards as well, it cost about fifty bucks a year, two-thirds that if you kept upgrading every year. Past season disks cost about $20 each. Want modern color ballparks? That’ll be another $20. Want past season ballparks? Another $20, please. Buy both of those plus three past seasons, and you’d lay down $100.

About this time, SOM changed the cards’ basic look. Reverses got blue and red sides for the handedness. Ink on the front went a horrible dull navy blue, harder to read and uglier than a clutch of bigoted facial expressions. No more mis-cut cards–they came in sheets of nine, and you had to separate them yourself, though at least they were all the same size. I looked at these cards and realized my days of wanting new physical cards were over. These weren’t SOM cards, at least not for me. The ones I liked, they no longer would make.

How’s that for comedy? For once the ultra-conservative, change-resistant company makes a legitimate change, and now I don’t like that either? Honestly, I’d have been fine had the fronts stayed the same. As a kid, I’d only played with the fronts anyway.

I settled into a pattern that continues to this day. Every few years I’d miss SOM, and spend some money for a new copy of the game. As the Internet came along, SOM developed very stiff copy protection, requiring your machine to contact their server and authenticate the program and any features in use. I’d have to relearn the clunkiness of the whole UI all over again, at least for starting new seasons, but I would bull through to relearn it. Now and then something would go wrong, and I learned that what one did was write a real letter to Mr. Hal Richman, owner and founder of the company. I always received a fair resolution. SOM is old school in every way, including the potential to write politely to the top person and make one’s case.

Must I even mention that they’re still in the same building as ever on Lon Gisland? Don’t laugh. Every year, when the new cards come out, there are people who go to Glen Head, NY and freeze their butts off waiting in line for Opening Day–the day they can pick up their cawd awhdahs.

And yet for years, and I think still to this day, Strat refuses to fix its weaknesses, or to get with the times. The guy working shipping seems indifferent. They charge by the minute for phone tech support. You can email for tech support, but I didn’t get any answers either time. Worst of all, since seasons are installed from the current version’s CD or from the website, a legitimately purchased past season may become incompatible with the current game. That may force one to purchase that season again. Which may then force one to update the game, in spite of the cold reality that the annual updates deliver less value for the dollar than one can find outside Microsoft (where updates provide negative value and thus the company should actually pay users to accept them). The UI has only minimally evolved in all this quarter century. They were lauding the “VGA Ballparks” as a big deal long after VGA became a bare minimal display standard. If you hate change for the sake of change, fair is fair: SOM is your kind of outfit. It may teach you to ask yourself how much you really do hate change for the sake of change.

And I do. I’m change-averse enough that some of what I’m presenting, which sounds to most people like faults, comforts me. At least with SOM, when I have to relearn everything after a few years off, the everything I must relearn will probably not have changed much; it’s my memory that is the weak point. Far as I know, the arcade action is still limited to watching the flight of a ball in one of several designated azimuths/trajectories tailored to the ballpark image in use. If there is a company in this world that is not going to fix what is not broken (except for that horrible blue ink; that’s broken), it’s Strat-o-Matic.

I’ve still never had a no-hitter, never had anyone hit for the cycle. I read recaps of big tournaments where they talk how so-and-so threw a no-no and such-and-so hit for the cycle. Guaranteed one of each per recap, it seems. I don’t believe them. Never have. What do they take me for? Someone fudged, that’s what I think. It’s a shibboleth, but I don’t much care. What are they going to do?

So here we are, and after all these years I’m still experiencing the chronic condition that is Strat-o-Matic. In a couple of months, it’ll go into remission. By the next acute outbreak, I’ll have a new computer, which will mean I didn’t formally recall the authorization from my old one, which will mean I have to write to them and beg to have my codes reset, which will mean that by the time I install it, some of my past seasons will no longer work because they’ve updated them, which will mean I’ll be annoyed, which may or may not mean I decide to repurchase them, and which will at least shorten my outbreak because it’ll irritate me. Solely because it reminds me of youthful joy, with SOM I tolerate obstacles that would make me dismiss nearly any other company.

The core people at the company have been the same for so long that it’s hard to imagine life without them. Hal Richman must be 80. Everyone else has to be at least looking at retirement sometime in the reasonable future. And yet they’ve brought on some very worthy help. Glenn Guzzo, a fan as long as I have been and a really nice fellow, is working there now. So is Chris Rosen, a longtime secondary market vendor of SOM stuff, great reputation. One supposes that eventually the firm will pass into their hands, and that one day I’ll have my outbreak and find that the company has begun to evolve at a swifter pace than metamorphic rock formations. Both are historic innovators who got things done. I can see them doing that at Strat.

I had an attack earlier this morning, but it’s under control now. It’ll probably hit again this afternoon. I’m replaying the 1956 season as the Boston Red Sox, because I wanted to find out how hard it would be to manage a team whose shortstop (Don Buddin) couldn’t field, bunt, or hit in the clutch, and without one single legit pitching ace. The answer: it’s frustrating, especially when we lose to the Kansas City A’s, but I’m at least seeing what they went through, experiencing a variant of baseball history.

This is without question the most anomalous vendor relationship in my world. Forty years in.

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2 thoughts on “Strat-o-Matic: my chronic illness”

  1. You put this one right in my wheelhouse, JK. A great read. I started playing a simple board game in grade school and continually tweaked for a decade. I played several seasons with my own teams. I tried all the different SOM games over the years but was never satisfied. In the late 80´s, I discovered a fantastic simulation NHL game. More tweaking. Unlike SOM, there were complete+ rosters for each season. 30-35 players per team.
    Along with almost all of my other belongings, I left the game in the states when my ten-day visit to Chile turned into 16 years and counting. On another 10-day trip, this time back to Minnesota, I sold my house and almost everything inside to a neighbor. Crazy days.
    Anyway, I decided to give Dynasty Baseball a shot about ten years ago. Dynasty is the best board game ever. I play it in spurts. I’m replaying the 2012 Giants season right now. The 2012 season was my latest purchase, and they threw in the ´99 season for a few bucks more. I’ve played through the Cardinals and Twins full seasons, and I’m 70 games into the Giants season as I write. The results are incredibly accurate. The game is very detailed, but it’s smooth once you get the hang of it.
    I tried their computer sim on a one-week free trial. Same basic game, but it runs in real time. I prefer the board. You might want to give it a try.
    http://www.dynastyleaguebaseball.com/Main.aspx
    .

    Like

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