Why I Play Fantasy Baseball
I miss Rick Steiger. I am pretty sure he doesn't miss me. Odds are, he never really wanted to be my friend. He was stuck with me as a result of decisions his father made. So he made the best of my presence, and we spent many long afternoons and evenings playing a game I still adore, Strat-o-matic baseball. When I die, should I escape Hell, I hope to be permitted to play infinite games of baseball, and, more to the point, to keep statistics in spiral-bound notebooks. I hope to see Rick again.
Rick's father, Herbert Steiger, chose to open his heart and home to me as part of the Big Brother's program. Those of you who wonder whether such things can make a difference take heed: The silent influence of the Steiger family changed my life. For several years I would spend a couple of weekends a month at their home; we went to baseball games, auto shows, went hunting for pheasant, went bird-watching, watched sports on television, and ate unending pounds of pasta that Mrs. Steiger would cook and watch disappear with an astonished sort of smile as I shoveled one plateful after another into my mouth. Visiting the Steigers was visiting another world: I came from a lean place in Detroit; they had a lawn and room to spare in Grosse Pointe.
Rick was a year or two younger than me, but close enough in age for us to have similar interests. I'd sleep in his room when I spent the night. We were boys and then young teenagers together. We grew apart when our social worlds began to take shape. I was awkward and he seemed to be filled with precocious possibilities I could not imagine. I recall hanging out at his house one night when a girl he liked was there. I sat stunned in slack-jawed awe when I saw him kiss her. He was younger but his world seemed filled with possibilities I dared not even imagine could be my own.
The times I recall best were spent sitting on the floor of his bedroom playing Strat-o-matic. He excelled at baseball and won more often than not regardless of the teams we put on the field. I was better at football. I am not sure what that said about us, but I remain convinced that his was the subtler intelligence, and that I, when pressed, resorted simply to brute force of will. He was a thinker; I preferred the bold stroke.
For those of you who do know know Stat-o-matic, it works something like this. Statisticians compress a given year's performance for each baseball player in the major leagues on to a card about the size of an index card. A hitter's performance will be pressed into 33 tiny squares, three columns by eleven rows. A pitcher's performance is similarly pressed into three columns and eleven rows. The roll of dice determines which intersecting row and column to consult. Thus, a home run hitter has a greater chance of hitting a home run than someone who rarely reaches second base.
When a given pitcher faces a hitter, something like verisimilitude results on the roll of three dice: One die determines which among the six columns to consult; two other dice determine which row in a given column to go. A roll of all three dice yields an outcome for an at bat. (There is more, much more, to the game.) Each year, you can purchase an entire year's performance and pit the teams and players against one another in endless combinations.
Amazingly, this simple method yields results not too far removed from a player's actual performance in a given year. I know this because we used to keep statistics. Play enough games and the players will perform more or less as they had in the past. What's more, the game permits you to purchase teams from years long gone by: Want to see how Lou Gehrig would fare versus Nolan Ryan? Done. We did many such games. I liked having Babe Ruth in my line up, strike outs and all.
I recall the year Mr. Steiger gave me my very own copy of the game for Christmas. The box was red and I cherished it, even when the edges of the box frayed and then disintegrated from being carried around like a talisman. I learned the solitaire version of the game and sat home many long evenings playing one team against another, and keeping my infernal statistics. I played the game even when Rick and I grew apart.
Years have gone by now and I have lost track of Rick. Last I heard, he had transformed a love of the saxophone and jazz into a career as a radio personality. I have not spoken to his father in years. My life has taken so many unexpected turns I've long since lost track even of the thread I used to lead me through the maze. My efforts to interest one of my boys in Strat-o-matic were not successful. He got the principle, but seemed indifferent. Perhaps that explains why he is now in medical school: He's a serious kid not easily distracted.
Several years ago a good friend introduced me to a variant on Strat-o-matic, fantasy baseball. I am in a league. A too long Saturday each Spring is devoted to the draft, where we grim-faced adults choose our players and assemble our teams. I pore over baseball magazines for a week or two before the draft feeling like a kid again trying to learn who is playing and how well they are expected to do this year. But I am still a Strat-o-matic man at heart; I can't help but pin my hopes on last year's statistics, the ones I can read and sort in columns.
Each morning during baseball season I check the statistics for my fantasy baseball team. I am still bad at baseball. Today my team is ninth in a league of twelve. I am too busy now to really work my team, or to keep track of the players' performance in the league of flesh and blood. Somehow the virtual league reported on my screen seems more real.
I miss Rick Steiger and the simple pleasure of two boys with the door closed and world at bay, rolling dice and hanging their hopes on the chance-driven intersection of six columns and eleven rows. A home run was either ecstasy or despair depending on where you sat. I even learned a little about the futility of certain kinds of prayer playing this fantasy game: to whom would God listen as the die rolled, me or Rick? We had contrasting hopes.
This morning, when I checked my fantasy team, I was in an instant 11 years old again. I wanted to pump my fist in the air, and talk to Rick. But times change, people move on, and now, well past the mid-point in my life no matter how optimistic I pretend to be, I know there is no going back.
If you're out there, Rick, thanks for all the fun. And thanks to you, Mr. Steiger. You introduced me not just to baseball but to a world of settled expectations I might never have sought and believed could be my own had you not had the decency to share your good fortune with me.
Each morning, before the day really breaks into discordant chaos, I check on my team. This morning I realized I was doing far more than that. I was going home again, home to a place I know I cannot return, but to which I will always respond with a contented sort of longing.