When I was young I was really into playing table top baseball games. It started with "All-Star Baseball". I was four or five years old when a teenaged kid, who seemed like 50 years old to me, brought the board game over to my grandmother’s house for us to play while babysitting my brother and I. The edition was a few years old and guys like Jim Gentile, Julian Javier and Harmon Killebrw were in the box. This was the game with the circular player cards and a spinner. I learned how to flick my thumb and middle finger to make the arrow spin furiously. The outcome of each at bat depended on where on the player’s card the arrow landed. A power hitter like Killebrew might have a large home run area with an equally large strike out zone right next to it.
From there I moved up to "Strat-o-Matic Baseball", "APBA Baseball" and a game put out by a local Baltimore company, Avalon Hill, called "Statis-Pro Baseball".
These games were much more statistically accurate and my friends and I would spend hours drafting our own teams, setting our lineups and playing game after game. We were owners, G.Ms and managers all at once. We even held spring training where we pared down our rosters before the start of the season.
Players really did put up numbers similar to real life. Eddie Murray had a huge numerical "range" for homeruns. So did Reggie Jackson, George Foster and Mike Schmidt. Lou Brock had a "AA" stolen base rating but if you gave him the steal sign with Johnny Bench behind the plate, he was more than likely going to get thrown out. Players were rated for everything. Power, speed, pitching and defense. One year Mark Fidrych was absolutely dominant on the mound before disappearing forever. A glove guy like Mark Belanger could barely bat his weight, nor did he have a home run range, but he might go through an entire season without committing an error.
Still, of all the table top games I played, the one I cherish the most is the one my dad taught me when I was six years old. It was a very simple game called dice baseball. All you needed were two dice. My father claimed he and a friend of his had made it up in elementary school. At that age, anything my dad wanted to do I wanted to do too.
I can still recall one of the very first times we played.
It was the Mets against the Pirates. I always took the Mets. For some inexplicable reason I remember that he pitched Nelson Briles that day. He had guys like Manny Sanguillen, Willie Stargell and Richie Hebner. I had John Milner at first base, Felix Millan at second, Bud Harrelson at shortstop and Wayne Garret at third. The outfield was Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones and Rusty Staub. Jerry Grote and Jon Matlack made up my battery for the day. Normally I would’ve sent my favorite Met, Tom Seaver, to the mound but I liked John Matlack too. I always thought he had a cool sounding name and when you’re six years old, cool names matter. Maybe that’s why I remember he pitched Nelson Briles.
My father and I wrote down our lineups in pencil on a yellow legal pad He had his own way of scoring and the page always had to look just so.
And then we tossed the dice…
1-1 Ground out
1-2 Fly out or Sac Fly
1-5 Fly out
2-2 Fly Out
2-3 Ground Out
2-4 Double Play or Ground Out
3-4 Fly Out
3-6 Fly Out
4-5 Fly out
5-5 Double Play
5-6 Ground Out
6-6 Home Run
Those were the combinations. I’ll forget my own name long before I forget that magical baseball formula. The game seemed perfect to me. Scores were realistic. Home runs came with a frequency approximate to real life. Dice baseball might be the most brilliant achievement of my father’s life. And I played it constantly. It was easy to play alone. All I needed were dice, a pencil and some paper. I played it in school when I should’ve been paying attention to math. At night, in bed, I played it under the covers using a flashlight to help me see. If I was lucky, the Mets were on a West Coast road trip so I could play while listening to a real game on the small white transistor radio I kept hidden from my mom.
My parents divorced in the early 70’s- well before it was fashionable- and I only saw my dad every other weekend. Those weekends were important to me. I couldn’t wait for him to pick my brother and I up after school and take us away. During the summer we went to the beach a lot. When you grow up in Brooklyn, New York you don’t need to drive hours to find sand and water. All you did was hop on the subway or grab a cab and within ten or fifteen minutes you were laying on Manhattan Beach or Brighton Beach.
With wet sand stuck to my body, my father and I would eat knishes splattered with mustard and sip orange drink, all sold right on the beach by a guy with a hairy back who carried the food and drinks around in shopping bags. My brother Andrew was usually asleep next to me on the blanket. Andrew was very fair skinned and whenever we went to the beach he had to wear tons of sun block and a floppy terry hat. The sun used to knock the poor guy out pretty quickly and he would sleep while my dad and I rolled the day away.
My brother never really had a taste for board games. I would beg him to play with me. I’d have to strike deals with him. "Come on, one game and I’ll feed the dog for a week." But my brother was stubborn and never did things if you asked him to. He still doesn’t.
One year,1978, I played a 20 game season using the National League. In my dice baseball World Series, the Cubs met the Giants for what proved to be a thrilling set of games. The Cubbies best slugger Manny Trillo, the "Marc Unger 1978 dice baseball league" home run king, won it in game 7 with a single in the ninth.
Manny Trillo? Home run king? Okay maybe dice baseball wasn’t accurate the way the other games were but Steve Carlton did win my league’s Cy Young posting a 4-1 record with the Phillies.
Today I play Fantasy baseball, Rotisserie baseball and a great computer simulation game called "Diamond Mind Baseball". There’s no dice, it keeps all the statistics and offers players from the early 1900’s to the Present. It’s so realistic sports publications use it to simulate various "what if" scenarios or to get an early read on the upcoming season. Diamond Mind Baseball is a much better baseball simulation than dice baseball- only a fool would argue otherwise. But the excitement of rolling a 6-6 (home run) against my dad and the memories of sand and smiles, knishes and family, can never be touched.