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Appreciating the original fantasy game

As the season kicks off, millions of fans are busily participating in online fantasy baseball or placing their orders for the latest incarnation of "MLB 14 The Show." But there are also thousands of folks performing their own rite of spring: They’re busy opening large manila envelopes, separating out perforated player cards and carefully rubber-banding teams from their annual Strat-O-Matic baseball card shipment.

First produced in 1961 by Hal Richman, "Strat" was most likely the first mass-marketed fantasy baseball game. It featured extremely realistic game play with players performing based on probabilities generated by their real-life statistics. Games could be completed in 30 minutes or less, thanks to a minimal need to consult anything other than the player cards for the result of an at-bat. It is a simulation that taught millions about the intricacies of baseball managing and player evaluation, while also bringing families, friends and otherwise total strangers together. Over 50 years later, the game is still going strong, with 600 people attending the 50th anniversary celebration back in 2011.

My own Strat story begins with my parents divorcing when I was 2. My dad's subsequent weekly visits to the house consisted mostly of him plopping himself on the couch and watching the Yankees. I quickly learned that if I wanted to connect with him, it was going to be through baseball.

I followed along, adopting Bobby Murcer as my favorite player on those post-dynasty teams, and then my dad, knowing my math aptitude, bought me my first Strat-O-Matic set. Dad and I played a few games throughout the year, and when he wasn't around I’d break out the set and see if my Yankees could tame those hated Red Sox. From there, I joined a face-to-face Strat league in high school, the only distaff member of a nerdy gathering in Stuyvesant High School. Delighting with classmates over Steve Carlton's usual wipeout card versus lefties or chuckling at the rotations of the expansion Mariners and Blue Jays made for a nice respite from schoolwork.

College brought me to my first "outside" league, thanks to an ad in the Strat-O-Matic Review. The league was made up mostly of board game developers. We'd meet every six weeks or so at someone's house and play six to 10 games as part of our long season. League reports were typed and mailed out, laughs were had, names were called and tantrums were thrown. We watched many folks go to college or get married or have kids or get divorces or just live.

Uber-dedicated fans of the tabletop game go to great lengths to get the new card sets as soon as possible from Glen Head, New York. Fifty-four-year-old Kevin Thomas is a 40-year veteran of the game and as he says, for the past 11 years he has "arisen at the crack of dawn, taken a 6 a.m. flight out of Chicago, trekked to Glen Head, picked up the cards for my league and all its members, and flown back to Chicago by day's end. ... My league members have their cards in hand mere hours after they've become available at Strat-O-Matic!"

Long before Out of the Park baseball and other computer simulations came along, Strat gave you visual cues as to which players had great range but lousy arms, or vice-versa. On-base percentage became instantly apparent, as you saw "WALK" littering the cards of low batting average players like Gene Tenace or Jack Clark. I asked former major leaguer and longtime Strat-O-Matic fanatic Doug Glanville about the details in the cards. "I had Strat to give me a window into the concept of comparative analysis," he said. "Understanding the idea of ratings and measures that placed players in context with the greater game. ... I knew that Craig Reynolds was a great bunter, I knew the power of having Cesar Geronimo in for defense, or how Bob Boone shut down running games. These are not always elements that get emphasized until you see it distilled in Strat-O-Matic form. It shaped the way I evaluated myself, my teammates, my peers, my opponents."

Though Strat-O-Matic has changed with the times, adding PC and Internet-based versions of the game, the physical cards still hold a mystique. Video games offer dazzling colors, fancy graphics and instant replay, but a tabletop card-and-dice game allows one's imagination to take over. The suspense of a die roll. Perhaps a secondary die roll for "split results" on the initial roll, to determine if the ball cleared the wall or was caught, or the fielder turned the double play or let it slip by him. Glanville once proclaimed "if given the choice, I would play the cards and the dice every time, despite my love and respect for the online game." He also says, "The quick-fix culture sometimes forgets the power of taking things one step at a time."

Mark Blanchard, a 30-year tabletop Strat veteran, knows which version of fantasy baseball he prefers: "I want to interact with the game in a way that is deeper than just setting the lineups and watching statistics accumulate."

Blanchard says Strat has helped him understand baseball and relate to his family better. He says it "has been an incredibly fun way to learn the history of the game. ... I learned all about the 1905 Giants (and) 1924 Senators ... and now my kids are doing the same. Not only do I know the eight Black Sox, but I also know their fielder ratings. That makes baseball just a bit more interesting and a lot more fun. Second, it has been a fun way to connect with my two oldest kids and share something we all enjoy. ... It has a fun 'glue' to help create a bond."

Glanville's mother was a math teacher, and she grew to appreciate her son's fanaticism. "She always appreciated the math and my brother and I loved statistics. I kept track of everything and looked forward to tallying up the updated league stats," he says. "It was as much fun as the game play. Made a math teacher proud."

Glanville believes Strat can be used in the classroom. "I like the idea of teaching math through Strat-O-Matic. Connect with the curriculum; make it a class in colleges. You could run with this idea. Our country loves sports, loves baseball and what kid would not take a class called 'Baseball and Math'?"

The folks in Glen Head are already reaching out to younger demographics, especially students, through their after-school program which offers discounted sets to schools for use as teaching tools or recreational activities. The company also just came out with a Hall of Fame 75th Anniversary Edition set that includes every Hall of Fame player, a great way for all generations of Strat fans to have fun.

I myself plan on introducing my best friend's baseball-obsessed 9-year-old son to Strat the next time we get together. I'm quite sure that once he sits down to play, another "Fanatic" will be born.

Diane Firstman writes for the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.