Tag Archives: 1970s

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.

How we used to do things

Maybe it’s interesting, maybe it’s not, but daily life has changed on a tremendous scale in just my adult life. And the old everything was not best. Some of the past was better. Quite a bit was worse.

Halloween of old was much, much better.

Halloween drove me to think about this. While it is no secret that I am not very good at relating to small children, I always expected to have my redemption at Halloween. When I became a homeowner, I hoped to have fun, putting on a mask, scaring the kids a little, but always giving out the good candy. No candy corn or apples here. No way.

By the time I was in a position to do Halloween, though, it was gone. No longer did free-range packs of kids have to come up with their own strategies for canvassing the neighborhood and obtaining the maximum quantity of unhealthy snacks. Nope. They’d be escorted by parents in all cases, squired around, and generally would not be permitted to have adventures or be independent. Or they’d be hauled to the controlled environment of ‘trunk-or-treat.’

Because everyone in our society magically changed into a rampaging pedophile or sicko. If you dared let your children out of your sight, before Halloween night was done, they would all be assaulted, traumatized, and/or seriously harmed by the drugs, razor blades, and other unnatural additives The Enemy (by definition, everyone else) would foist upon the poor tykes. It went along with the Rise of Fear. Fear everything! Everyone will harm you! No one is good! Everyone but you is a menace!

Therefore, I buy a lot less candy, because at most my doorbell will ring three times. Even so, I will make sure the electric pumpkin hasn’t picked this year to stop working, and will drag out a long extension cord to operate it. I will have my lights on and will answer my door in my mask, and will give out the good candy. But it got me thinking about how much has changed.

Today, when you want an uncommon book, you comb the online used book outlets for it. And if you forgot its title and author, you do a few searches and find them. In my teens, you combed actual used bookstores for it. If you got absolutely desperate for it, you paid a search service through the nose. I did that once. It worked, but it was a long process.

Today, when you write a college paper, if you wish you can hire it done online, or look at other thoughts online. If you choose to do your own original work, you do it on a computer. In my late teens, you had to mull until you came up with a good thesis for your paper. Then you went to a library to research it, noting reference information. Then you began to type it on an electric typewriter. Often you would retype the paper through three drafts.

Today, when you get pulled over, if you have sense, you behave as if the officer will draw a firearm on you at the first sign that you do not fear him properly. You volunteer nothing. You admit nothing. In my late teens, the officer didn’t treat you like an escaped nun murderer unless you got surly. Honesty and courtesy made a difference.

Today, when you have to meet someone somewhere, you can be in easy touch up to the moment of contact. You can quite literally talk your guests all the way to where they can see you standing on your porch, waving. In my teens, if the person did not show up, all you could do most of the time is wait, wonder, and worry.

Today, public universities consider it their primary duty to ‘build their brand,’ with sports as just part of this ‘brand.’ They have become corporations with partial tax funding. In my teens, public universities’ primary duty was to offer higher education and good football to residents of their states. They would never have admitted that first part, though.

Today, the effort is in the direction of finding ways to make sure people who will vote against one’s side do not vote at all, or will not be allowed. In my teens, the effort was to try and get them to care enough to vote. However, today, a lot of people vote by mail. In my teens, that was called an absentee ballot. For example, if you were at college, and your permanent residence was technically with your parents, you got an absentee ballot. Well, really, you did not. Hardly anyone bothered.

Today you can have, almost immediately, anything you can afford. In my teens, you often had to go find it. Hours on the phone, or driving around. Usually you didn’t find it.

Today, a house with less than three bathrooms is something of a hovel. In my teens, two bathrooms were a bit ostentatious. I wonder what it’s like to grow up never having to hold it in desperation, waiting for a family member to finish on the commode.

Today, the weather forecast for the next month can be accessible from the top of your browser, and it has a moderate chance of being correct. In my teens, the weather forecast for the next day was accessible from the TV set around dinnertime, and you would be lucky if it were correct.

Today, military service is deified, worshipped, sainted, with all uniformed members anointed as automatic heroes, yet we do little tangible for them once their service has wounded them. In my teens, you went in the military if you were an idealist (rare) or saw few better prospects (common), and you were heckled for it. But when you got out, if your service had harmed you, there was a better chance we would help you.

Today, schools’ first priorities are security, avoiding liability, and complying with state-imposed testing standards. In my teens, schools’ first priority was teaching you things, or if you refused, passing you anyway just to be rid of you.

Today, everyone is afraid. The neighborhood is dangerous. The school is dangerous. The food is dangerous. The city is dangerous. The road is dangerous. Other people are dangerous. In my teens, we lived under the fear of a sudden mass nuclear strike in depth that might incinerate all our major cities and destroy society as we knew it. Some of the other dangers were also much greater. And yet we were not so afraid.