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Tuesday, March 30, 2004
No more small-ball

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

How much have I missed baseball?

Here at home, we've got a well-constructed picnic table in lieu of a "proper" dining-room table. My wife likes to do things on this table like ... well, like eating dinner. But for the last week we've been suppering in the breakfast nook, because the picnic table is covered (despite Kristien's halfhearted protests) with tiny baseball players. Nearly two hundred tiny baseball players.

I should explain ... A few years ago, WizKids Games released a product called HeroClix. Essentially, they took all the super heroes and villains from the comic books and made little plastic versions, just an inch or so tall, replete with the characters' powers, personalities, and weaknesses. Drop them onto a map, throw in a couple of dice, and you've got yourself a game.

No, it's not quite that simple. But you get the idea (I have the idea because HeroClix is one of the few things my son will voluntarily play with me). Well, now Wizkids has done the same thing for baseball with MLB SportsClix, except instead of Wolverine trying to sink his Adamantium claws into Magneto, you've got Mark Prior trying to strike out Albert Pujols. I've played the game a few times, and without going into detail I can report that it's easy to learn, fun for the kids, and both more and less realistic than you might expect.

More than playing, though, I just enjoy looking at all those tiny players. The game is being marketed with the help of Topps, and a friend there sent me every figure that's been produced. That's a lot of figures: 199, including 167 different players (32 stars are represented by two versions, one version less common than the other). Most of the poses are used for more than one player, though a few unique players -- Hideo Nomo and Ichiro, for example -- are posed uniquely.

When I got all these tiny baseballers last week, the first thing I did was sort them according to their 2003 teams, and then group the teams; first by division, and then by my predicted order of their 2004 finish. After conducting this (obviously) time consuming and (apparently) pointless exercise, I noticed something that's probably self-evident: the better the team, the more the players deemed worthy of a figure (or "toy," if you prefer).

If there's one obvious exception to this rule, it's in the American League Central, where according to this "method" the standings will end up like this:

I'm picking the Twins but I think the White Sox do have a shot, so the top two slots don't bother me much. But the Royals tied with the Indians? The "problem" is that while all five Royals are solid players -- Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, Angel Berroa, Joe Randa, Raul Ibanez -- the Indians' five-man contingent is padded with four players who aren't good enough to play for the Royals: Coco Crisp, Matt Lawton, Omar Vizquel, and Brandon Phillips (Milton Bradley being the fifth, and good enough to play for almost anybody). In fairness, the Indians are shortchanged by the absence of C.C. Sabathia, but it's pretty clear that somebody in the Land of Wiz (or Topps) was a bit overenthusiastic about the Tribe.

And then there's the Pirates. Or rather, the Pirate, singular. As I sit at my picnic table and survey the baseball landscape in miniature, my gaze keeps returning to the National League Central ... and Jason Kendall. The Lonely Buc. There he stands, unencumbered by even a single annoying and ill-paid teammate, waiting perpetually for a high pop that almost certainly will never fall into his mitt. With no logos on any of the caps or helmets, and Kendall's chest protector covering the front of his jersey, there is almost literally no solid evidence, in the game, that the once-proud Pittsburgh franchise even exists. And I worry ... if Kendall is traded this season and Jason Bay doesn't have a good year, will the Pirates simply be erased from this Lilliputian version of baseball reality in 2005?

The Yankees lead the way with 10 tiny players apiece, but that seems appropriate, doesn't it? After all, they have the best players. The Red Sox are right behind, with nine (oddly, there's Damian Jackson, but no Trot Nixon), and six teams are represented by eight players. While the Pirates are the only team with just one player, three teams have only two: the Orioles (Tony Batista and Jay Gibbons), Tigers (Bobby Higginson and Alex Sanchez, and -- surprise, surprise -- the Mets (Jose Reyes and Ty Wigginton).

Worst player in the game? Statistically, it must be Brandon Phillips, but at least he's got a chance to make something of himself. Metaphysically, it might be Damian Jackson, who's so dispensable he lost his job this winter to Pokey Bellhorn. Yes, Phillips and Jackson are both second basemen, and my guess is that they fill a need at the position. But why Brandon Phillips and Damian Jackson rather than Ray Durham and Todd Walker? (These are the questions that keep me awake at night, at least from November through March.)

Best player not in the game? That's easy: Barry Bonds, who apparently thinks he's far too big to be made tiny. (Actually, the problem is that Bonds has removed himself from the licensing agreement in which most players participate, the exceptions being the so-called "replacement players" from 1995. Those guys -- Kevin Millar, Rick Reed, Cory Lidle, roughly a dozen others -- aren't in the union and are left out of all the reindeer games.)

And you know what? It wasn't until this very moment that I discovered Bonds' absence, and it doesn't bother me at all. As I look at these 167 major leaguers, who represent roughly one-fifth of the life-size major leaguers, I'm reminded once again of the vast scope of the game, all those teams and all those players, and I'm reminded that the game is far, far bigger than just one man. It's often said -- by idiots, mostly -- that MLB doesn't "market its players" like the NBA does. Like that's a bad thing. MLB can't market its players like the NBA does, because it's a different sort of game. When you pay your money to watch a baseball game, you're usually there to watch the game and not a particular player or two. Which is, in the long run, a good thing.

How much do I miss baseball? I miss baseball so much that I've spent the better part of a week obsessing over tiny baseball men. And I miss baseball so much that I'm almost glad that Commissioner Bud dispatched the Yankees and the Devil Rays across the Pacific. Because even though I had to stay up all night, I got to see a game -- a game that counts, with life-size players -- six days before I otherwise would have.

And the four-day break between these games in Japan and the other Opening Day, over here? I'll need that time to figure out where to store 199 little big leaguers until next winter.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.