Of Dice and Men

I first see the line while crossing Fifth Avenue: dozens of grown men in multi-colored parkas and baseball caps, waiting patiently in sub-freezing temperatures to honor their hero.

I won't lie. I'm one of them.

It's Saturday the 12th, the 50th anniversary celebration of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, the highly realistic and defiantly old school board game that turned countless kids into serious baseball fans, that helped fuel the baseball stats revolution before we even knew one would exist, that enabled us to throw Sandy Koufax against Babe Ruth, roll three dice and see what the hell would happen.

Naturally, hundreds of us converge on the Community Church of New York to pick up our orders of new Strat player cards based on the 2010 season, but it's also a special chance to pay our respects to Hal Richman, the gracious, gentlemanly, 74-years-young creator of this consuming hobby, and enjoy the panels and speeches celebrating his company's quietly successful half century.

I've been playing Strat Baseball religiously since 1963, the day my brother's game arrived in the mail when he was away at summer camp and I felt compelled to break the box open. Strat helped pull me through New England winters, baseball work stoppages, college years and a divorce. Their marvelous releases of past seasons inspired me to create two well-received historical replay blogs. I recently made the World Series with the 1931 Philadelphia A's in the Seamheads/Strat Anniversary League, outlasting teams managed by Bob Costas, Roy Firestone, Curt Schilling and Keith Olbermann, among others (before getting pounded in four straight by Baseball America's Jim Callis and his 1994 Expos, but we won't elaborate on that).

Still, despite the game's entrenched place in my life, this is my very first visit to a Strat-O-Matic Opening Day. Viewing yearly photos of the same frigid queues snaking into their modest little office building in Glen Head, NY, have never compelled me to journey 3000 miles to avoid waiting for the UPS truck, but this time it truly is worth the trip. On hand for one panel are stats expert John Dewan and former Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson ("For all you true Mets fans here...let us pray"). Admitted ballplayer Strat-players Len Dykstra and Keith Hernandez aren't there, but ex-Cub, and ex-Phillie Doug Glanville is. So is Glenn Guzzo, author of the book Strat-O-Matic Fanatics, Steve Barkan, head researcher for their brilliant past season sets, while New York radio man Bill Daughtry emcees the event.

Hal Richman gets an expected standing ovation when he first takes the stage from the pilgrimage of over 500 Strat heads filling the pews, but everyone and everything gets applause, even Daughtry's very first set of dice which he pulls from his pocket. Richman recounts how he first started inventing dice baseball games when he was eleven, how he was advised by his mother to "never mention those crazy games you do at night" when looking for a real job because it was considered "bad social behavior," and how at age 25 he finally had to borrow money from his insurance salesman father to get Strat-O-Matic Baseball off the ground.

Richman's company, family-run ever since, has branched out with football, basketball and hockey games and PC versions of all of them, but the baseball dice and cards are still his biggest moneymaker and the backbone of his success. On Saturday, the panels and speeches and questions/statements from audience members certainly bear this out, and the show goes off without a hitch for four hours. After Brett Carow, a Wisconsin guy who began playing Strat at age 10 and launched his short-lived marriage by taking the game along on his honeymoon, is picked from ten finalists to be the Ultimate Strat Fan, the "game room" opens downstairs.

I stop in for a spell to visit buddy Scott Simkus, mastermind of Strat's Negro leagues set. Scott has one of the many partnership tables around the room, peddling his Outsiders Baseball Bulletin "e-zine," alongside tables for fantasy stat service Baseball HQ, STAR Strat Tournaments, a new vendor program for people to sell Strat in their neighborhoods ("Tupperware for guys," says Hal's son Hal Richman), while Glanville and Guzzo are in the back signing copies of their books.

Smack in the middle of the room, though, are ten or so large round tables, where males of all ages are already rolling the first Giants-Rangers exhibition games of the new year. Wait a minute... Could it be? Yes, it's that time. The first lucky souls must have been admitted to the holy Strat card receiving room!

I wedge my way out of the game room and into the waiting group, but it's a slow process. The line to get into the card pickup room runs up one side of a narrow hallway, down the same hallway, and around the corner into a second hallway. Between the parkas, lack of fresh air, man odors and coat hangers digging into us from a conveniently placed rack, it's a baseball freak's version of Das Boot.

Not that anyone cares. Four members of a nationwide draft league that I'm in are somewhere in the building, but I've lost them, so spend the next half hour inching along with Ken from Pasadena, "Mendoza Line" from New Jersey, two guys from Seattle and one from Virginia with a drawl you could spread butter on. New connections are made, rumors of player ratings are shared and argued over, and when the new order recipients emerge from a side door to squeeze between us and form a third line, they are celebrated and razzed simultaneously.

Soon, I finally have the fat manila envelope in my hands. I break open the top, slide out the cellophane-wrapped sheet of cards -- as always, topped by the Baltimore Orioles, the first alphabetical American Leaguers -- get a whiff of their famous fresh printing ink, as sweet as real spring grass, and suddenly I'm skipping out into the cold afternoon like the eccentric child I'm still proud to be.

Jeff Polman is author of two fictionalized historical replay blogs using Strat-O-Matic, "1924 and You Are There!" and "Play That Funky Basebal". His new blog, "The Bragging Rights League", launches in mid-March.