Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Brief History of Russball--Part 4

I'm only three days away from the big Las Vegas reunion and Russball marathon (36 games in two-plus days), and there's a joker in the deck. I have been prescribed prednisone for the next week or so, and I'm advised that this drug can make you feel (presumably at different times) "invincible" or "suicidal." Well, so can an average Russball season. "Every win a miracle, every loss a blow" is a formula for alternating elation and despair. So how will they know if it's the prednisone?

It is all too ironic that I'll be on steroids during a dice baseball season. In honor of that aberration, I am activating Roger Clemens (who was voted out of the league a couple of months ago), and will be making cards for Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, et al. (That is, I threatened to. Stew replied, "You are joking, right? Barry Bonds isn't allowed in my house until he throws out Sid Bream.")

Before I head west (old man), I do want to write something about the actual on-the-table history of Russball. I've told you all about why we kept playing, how the game originated and evolved, and the formats we used. But I've written very little about how the seasons actually went. So as part of my preparation for Thursday night's draft (and Stew has already informed me that he spent the entire weekend preparing), I'm going to take a closer look at who did what over the course of our 24 regular Russball seasons.

In the late 1990s, I compiled a very thick looseleaf notebook for each of us. Essentially it's an encyclopedia of Russball, including the standings and league leaders for each season, logs of shutouts, double-figure strikeout outings, stolen bases, and pinch-hitting, and an extensive record book containing individual and team records for an array of batting and pitching categories. Here are some of the managerial highlights:

  • Tim has the best overall record at 441-423. I went 383-373, followed by George at 409-419 and Stew at 423-441.
  • George won the most pennants with eight (plus the last reunion in 1998), followed by Tim and Stew with six apiece and me with four.
  • The best record was 26-10, by George's Dirt Sox in our inaugural season and my Gabe Sox two years later. The worst record was 9-27, also shared by George's Corsairs and Stew's Blue Chippers (also in that first season).
  • I presented each manager with a certificate for winning the "Manager of the Year" Award, as each of us dominated one calendar year. George was the first winner, taking two of the three seasons in 1989. In 1990, Tim ran roughshod over us, winning four of five seasons, with the Carson Show, the Badgers, the Gothams, the Bandits, and the Timberwolves. In 1992, Stew was the king with three straight pennants, winning with the Moody Stews (he's a fantastic Moody Blues impersonator on the karaoke circuit), Alexanders (his son Alex was born late in 1991), and Baskin A's. My turn came in 1993, when I won two of three campaigns with the Cards and the Reds.
Next up, some league leader highlights and one-season records:
  • Ted Simmons is the only three-time batting champ, with averages of .366, .425, and .392. Tony Oliva and Kirby Puckett also had .400 seasons, while the lowest average to win a title was Pete Rose's .326.
  • Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt top Russball with seven home run crowns apiece, with Aaron holding the one-season record with 16. 
  • Aaron and Willie Mays have won half the RBI crowns, Aaron with seven and Mays five. Mays holds the record with 39 (in 36 games), while 38 has been achieved four times--twice by Mays and twice by Mickey Mantle. 
  • With no limits on stolen bases, it usually takes 25-35 to win the title, and Joe Morgan holds the record with 41, topping Rickey Henderson's mark of 39.
  • As I've noted, Mantle has had a lot of bad seasons, but when he's hot, he produces. He told the record by scoring 40 runs in a season, though Mays has the most runs titles with nine.
  • The hits title is always one of the most hotly contested. The usual candidates have prevailed, with Wade Boggs leading the league six times and several guys winning three titles: Roberto Clemente, Rod Carew, and Kirby Puckett.Two-time winners include Pete Rose, Willie Mays, Tony Gwynn, and Hank Aaron.
  • Starting pitchers are limited to nine starts per season, making it quite impressive that Warren Spahn and Nolan Ryan are the only seven-game winners (Steve Carlton and Gaylord Perry also won seven times in the lone 48-game season). Tom Seaver and Juan Marichal have each led the league seven times.
  • Usage of relievers is unlimited (and their wins are a separate money category), making it not-so-astonishing that Dan Quisenberry won nine games in the long season, while Bruce Sutter has won eight games twice. 
  • As a result, relievers have led the league in innings pitched in 11 of the 24 seasons. Sandy Koufax has led five times, the top figure, but Bob Gibson put up an amazing record of 88 2/3 innings in nine starts one year. He completed eight starts, matching Koufax's earlier record.
  • Gibson also set the strikeout record that season with 102, beating Bruce Sutter's record by one. Gibson also led the league with 107 Ks (in a dozen starts) in the 48-game season.
  • Starters and relievers have split the ERA titles (36 inning minimum), with another even split between ERAs under and over 2. Tom Seaver leads with three ERA titles, while Dennis Eckersley and Tug McGraw share the all-time low figure of 1.45, just edging out Nolan Ryan's 1.46.
  • Losses can pile up quickly in Russball as well, though nobody has touched Goose Gossage's record of nine in a season. Sparky Lyle lost eight once, while Don Drysdale is the only starter to lose seven times in nine starts.
  • Oh yeah, Nolan Ryan has led the league in walks allowed 11 times, including six in a row. Shocking!
Looking through the career pinch-hitting and stolen base figures, plus other batting miscellany, I found these interesting items:
  • Russball is deep in outfielders and first basemen, and they hold most of the top pinch-hitting marks. Cecil Cooper has 96 hits (with a .291 average), followed by Keith Hernandez's 87 (and a .335 average). Two left-handed members of MLB's 500-homer club are tied with 16 pinch-hit homers in Russball: Willie McCovey and Reggie Jackson, with Willie Stargell next with 12. But the top RBI figure belongs to Al Oliver, with 73 in 317 at-bats (and a .293 average). 
  • Rod Carew has the most four-hit games with 21, followed by Pete Rose with 20, Wade Boggs with 18, and George Brett with 17. Boggs also has the most three-hit games with 94, while Roberto Clemente is second with 82.
  • Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench share the record with four grand slams, with Aaron doing it three times in one season for my Ducks.
  • Rickey Henderson tops Russball with 575 stolen bases, followed by Lou Brock with 545, Joe Morgan with 508, Maury Wills with 482, and Tim Raines with 393.
  • Frank Robinson has been hit by a pitch 64 times, way ahead of runner-up Ernie Banks' 27.
Moving right along, here are some assorted pitching achievements:
  • Don Drysdale has a big lead in hitting batters with 77, nearly as many as the next two guys combined (Sandy Koufax and Tom Seaver). I don't know how many times Drysdale hit Robinson, but I can tell you I spent half my childhood listening to Reds games on the radio, and Robinson never batted against Drysdale without being hit or at least knocked down.
  • Both Koufax and Nolan Ryan have 49 double-digit strikeout games, five more than Seaver. But Bob Gibson has the top mark for striking out all three batters in an inning: 23 times. 
  • Three relievers have struck out 12 batters in a game: Bruce Sutter, Dick Radatz, and Goose Gossage. On 13 occasions, a reliever has struck out 10+ hitters, seven of them by Radatz.
  • The record by a starter is 19, by Ryan of course, with 16 reached five times and 15 four times. 
  • Don Drysdale holds the record of 25 consecutive batters retired, one more than Warren Spahn, and three more than Spahn and Juan Marichal.
  • There have been four complete-game one-hitters, two by Ryan and one each by Seaver and Marichal. Twice the hit was the first batter of the game, and the other times the hit came in the second inning. Ryan has 18 shutouts, followed by Seaver's 14 and Steve Carlton's 13. 
Okay, how about some single-game batting records next:
  • Two times we've seen six hits in a game, first by Hank Aaron and later by George Brett. George was managing Brett when he did it, and George wanted to make it extra special, so he tried to get Brett to steal around the bases after a single for his sixth hit. He did it, too.
  • We've had five sluggers with three home runs, include twice by Willie Mays and once each by Johnny Bench, Joe Torre, and Kirby Puckett. Puckett's were all three-run blasts, giving him the Russball record with nine RBI in a game. Hank Aaron has driven in seven runs twice, and Torre once.
  • Tony Gwynn and Ryne Sandberg are the two players who have hit for the cycle.
  • Paul Molitor holds the record with nine straight hits.
  • Joe Morgan once stole seven bases in a game, and both Rickey Henderson and Maury Wills stole six in a game.
Finally, I'll give you some of the one-game records by a team. Some of these are truly prodigious.
  • Three teams have scored 17 runs in a game: the Storm, Thumpers, and K's.
  • But my Grizzlies did something even more impressive, setting the record with a 12-run inning (in the tenth inning!). They also set the record with a dozen hits in that inning, including five in a row TWICE by Joe Morgan, Wade Boggs, Frank Robinson, Don Mattingly, and Dave Winfield.
  • It was another of my teams, the Ducks, who set the mark with nine consecutive hits. Both the Uncles and Neon Sox had 23 hits in one game. 
  • Tim's Thumpers are also the only team with four home runs in an inning: first Keith Hernandez, and later consecutive round-trippers by Mickey Mantle, Kirby Puckett, and Tony Fernandez.
  • They also stand as one of four teams with 11 extra-base hits in a game, joiend by the Deacons, Gothams, and Snakes. 
  • The Campers and Desperados share the record with six home runs in a game.
  • We've had four 16-inning games in Russball and three 15-inning games.
That will give you some idea of what appeals to us about the game itself. It is full of great players--the superstars we've watched all our lives and the mere stars--doing great things. I'm proud that I created the cards that allowed the cream to rise to the top so often, though of course they've had their flops as well. Baseball is a zero sum game, and for every immortal who bashes a grand slam, there's another Hall of Famer with a rising ERA. That's why we're all so eager for Thursday's draft, to see it all unfold again in the intensity of 36 games in 54 hours. When we're done, I'll let you know how it turned out. Thanks for joining us..

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Brief History of Russball: Part 3

I probably should have done this part of the story last time. It's the part about how Russball became much more than a table-top ballgame, as various such games have taken on great significance to aficionados who enjoy extended competition. I thought the origins needed to come first, and then I got sidetracked in the second blog about which players would get drafted. If anything, I should have posted the entire 117-player list and invited readers to do their own mock four-team drafts.

It would be interesting to see which players would be chosen without knowing what their cards looked like or what past performance suggested they might do this season. For one thing, Mickey Mantle would almost certainly be drafted third. The cards were based more on peak value than most board-game games are, which would make Sandy Koufax a good choice for the fourth first-round draft choice. As things are, Mantle's mediocre track record--a few good Russball seasons, mostly bad--will make him about a third-round pick for us, with Koufax going a round or two later.

See how easy it is to digress? Back to my subject. A Russball season generally took a couple of months. We met almost always on Friday, after work, gathering by 5:30-6PM. The goal was to play a three-game series with each other guy in each session. Most series were done in two hours, and we took a pizza break after the first series. The intoxicant of choice was pot, not alcohol (and half the managers gave even that up along the way). Playing Russball until 1AM was a perfect way to unwind after a long day (or week) at work. Over the years, we became more flexible, more prone to playing two series a night instead of three, or playing different numbers of games with the other two managers left to catch up when they could.

As much fun as it was to play each game in the roller-coaster ride of a 36-game season, it turned out that the simple existence of the league was more important. It was the excuse for much-needed group therapy. I won't go into the details, but the four of us have married a total of ten times (we're all married now and appear happier than ever). From 1989-1995, I was the only one with a harmonious home life. That's because I took the precaution of having no life. I was happily divorced and not seriously involved with anybody. That's why I hosted the league wherever I was living, which for most of that time was my ex-wife's place (another story I'll spare you here).

George and Stew had a very tough time with the collapse of their marriages. Children were involved, as was much acrimony. The break-ups happened gradually and the breakdowns all at once. The final fact of note was that in the divorce settlements, both fathers got custody of the children. With all this turmoil on the home front, George and Stew needed more and more time to unwind before they were ready to disappear into Russball's haven. "You think that's bad? Listen to this!" And the brainstorming would begin as we tried to figure out how to help these two bastards get through all the mayhem. Meanwhile, Tim engaged in a whirlwind romance that quickly turned into a mistake which he undid before the rest of us could blink.

I sailed through it all, dispensing perspectives and laughter, glad to help and glad it wasn't me in those pickles. In 1989, I was George's boss at the Sam's Town poker room, my one fling with management. Sometime in 1990, we switched jobs. In 1991 I went to Cooperstown for a year, launching my second career as a baseball historian, and while I was gone, George took over as the cardroom manager. Oh, I had my moments of existential despair during the Russball years, but mainly I was like the blithe Jackie Gleason tending bar and listening to his customers' troubles. Or maybe like a smart-ass Jewish confessor.

As time went by, there was more talking and less playing, and that was fine. Nine games in one evening is pushing it (in May, we'll take more than half a day to play 15). It felt more relaxing to give everyone a chance to debrief and unwind, play a series, attack a pizza, play another series, and whoever finished first would kibbitz over the final game of the night. More talk, maybe the key perspective that had been brewing in the back of someone's mind all evening after some seed was planted in the pre-game talk.

Some of those problems were quite urgent, and I also got a couple of middle-of-the-night calls to help out during severe crises. A lot of support was needed. That's why it helped everyone to know that Friday evening was coming up, when they could let off some steam, maybe get some help, and marvel at the games. Of course, we might all be shaking our heads the whole time at the latest development, helpless in the face of stark reality.

That six-hour slice of time, five or six or seven times over a two-month period, was a guaranteed escape if it was desired, a support group if needed, and a mental challenge as soon as you picked up those dice. In 1990, we played five seasons, our busiest year, and Tim won four of them. Two years later saw four seasons, with the first one played before my return from Cooperstown. In every other year, we played three series, taking a month or two between seasons. There were also more nights when someone couldn't make it or would be late, dealing with something awful.

The constant became that the gathering itself had a power beyond the fun of the games. It certainly bonded the friendships. Of course there were some contentious moments, most memorably (to me) our last shotgun season in 1998. Midway through the weekend, I got pissed enough at Stew and George to storm out of Stew's house and drive off somewhere for an hour or so to blow off steam before resuming the season. It has taken us a mere 16 years to gather again.

I talked to Stew on the phone last night, a half-hour psyche-up discussion about the upcoming season. He persuaded me to add four more starting pitchers, to give us more than five in the "minor leagues" (we'll draft four starters apiece, and I had 21 starters in the set of 117). We can make roster changes through the halfway point of the season; trades are allowed in the first nine games, and there have been some blockbuster deals. When George and I talked recently, he reminded me of the worst trade he ever made, back in the old Diceball days, when he got so disenchanted early on that he dealt the two players after whom he had named his team. Away went Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey of the Iron Dicks.

So I'm going to post this and make cards for a few more pitchers: Luis Tiant, Jack Morris, John Candelaria, and Mike Cuellar. All but Cuellar had cards in the original set made back in 1986, as did many pitchers whose Russball fates have fallen by the wayside--Orel Hershiser, Mel Stottlemyre, J. R. Richard, Mickey Lolich, Frank Viola, Jerry Reuss, Sam McDowell, and Dave McNally. The set I made in 1998 included a few more contemporary starters like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Randy Johnson, but we voted to play this next season with the more "traditional" Russball stars.

Someday I'll make the definitive set of Russball cards. Thanks to the website retrosheet.org, I now have complete breakdowns vs. right-handed and left-handed pitching for the batting cards. I didn't have those when I made the current cards, and a quick sampling of a few players tells me that there will be some big changes made. For instance, Billy Williams mainly platoons in Russball against right-handed pitching, but I see from Retrosheet that he batted exactly .290 against both righties and lefties.

Those cards to be named at a later date will be quite different, but the game will remain the same. So will its importance in our lives.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Brief History of Russball: Part 2

Thank you for joining me for part 2 of four or five concerning Russball, the greatest table-top baseball game ever. The last part will cover the big reunion season in Las Vegas to bring in May with a bang. But I want to go through the players who make Russball so vivid for those of us who came of baseball age in the 1960s and 1970s.

I mentioned last time that it is near-death to draft third in the four-team league. It took 23 seasons for a team to win after drafting third, and as George Steedle pointed out when we talked yesterday, his team won the 24th season (after I moved to California) after drafting third in a three-team league. That hadn't happened before either.

Partly it's because third is generally the worst position in the kind of "snake" draft we use, with the order 1 2 3 4 4 3 2 1 1, etc. Those double picks seem to be a big natural advantage (they've won 16 of 24 pennants), but especially so because the top two Russball players--Willie Mays and Hank Aaron--are a notch above everybody else. The next dozen players are great, but they're lumped together a notch below Mays and Aaron, who are almost always the first two draft choices. If one of the Pittsburgh guys drafts third he'll almost certainly take Roberto Clemente. Tim and I have actually been known to skip Roberto in the third spot.

Those double picks are effective for jumping the gun early in the draft on a single position.Often in Russball, the first three or even four rounds are all hitters, and the first manager to pull the trigger on starting or relief pitchers tends to produce other picks in his wake. If you have the balls to leave more great hitters unclaimed and hang your hopes on Sandy Koufax and Tom Seaver, it's a good bet that three or four of the next half-dozen picks before your next turn will be starting pitchers. Likewise with the top relievers. There are plenty go around, enough for each manager to have at least two stud starters and top relievers. How do I define that? An average Russball (four-man) rotation would consist of Seaver, Steve Carlton, Don Drysdale, and Jim Palmer, with Rollie Fingers and Sparky Lyle anchoring the bullpen.

There's a lot of platooning in Russball, where there's much depth at nearly every position. First base and the outfield are the deepest of all, so a common first-base platoon might involve Orlando Cepeda and Keith Hernandez, or Carl Yastrzemski and Al Kaline. Since we have few restrictions on pitchers, we generally make do with an eight-man staff, nine at the most, leaving more spots on the bench for platoon starters and pinch-runners. There are three runners with the top stealing rating of 5: Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, and Maury Wills. The very-dangerous 4 rating belongs to four players: Tim Raines, Joe Morgan, and two shortstops who are used mainly as pinch-runners: Bert Campaneris and Luis Aparicio.

Three of the four top catchers--Johnny Bench, Joe Torre, and Ted Simmons--play just about every game, while Yogi Berra is often platooned with someone like Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, or Thurman Munson. The top third baseman seldom miss an at-bat in Russball. That would be Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Wade Boggs, and Paul Molitor, though Molitor spends a lot of time at other positions. Likewise the top second basemen: Morgan, Pete Rose, Rod Carew, and Ryne Sandberg. Shortstop is probably the weakest overall position, yet it still features Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith, and Alan Trammell.

I can tell you more or less the top dozen outfielders who make up the four teams' starting trios, but from season to season their draft order changes. Mickey Mantle should be the third outfielder drafted, but he has been not so fine in Russball, possibly because all those walks take away too many hit numbers. Here are the top dozen: Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Mantle, Frank Robinson, Tony Gwynn, Kirby Puckett, Raines, Yaz, Jim Rice, Willie Stargell, and Henderson.

Seven starting pitchers appear to be a notch about the others, or about two per team. That formidable list has four righties and three southpaws: Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Koufax, Carlton, and Warren Spahn. Nine other Hall of Fame starters are available in Russball, but not a long-time Russball regular (though I wouldn't draft him) who was voted out of this year's league: Roger Clemens.

The relief corps also features seven long-timers who are clearly superior, but no two managers would agree about putting them in order. Take your pick from Fingers, Lyle, Hoyt Wilhelm, Tug McGraw, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Dan Quisenberry.

So we'll get to Stew's around 9pm on May 1st and conduct our draft. It will take about two hours and will be full of hilarity and high drama. We roll the dice to determine the drafting order, with the highest number going first. Sometimes, a manager will announce his team name before drafting, and when he drafts the team captain he has in mind, he'll announce that, too. Quite often, we don't decide on a team name until after the draft. This time around, a couple of the guys have sent out e-mails in which they thought out loud about what they might name their teams.

The team name is a big deal--usually personal and with some connection to recent life events. So we have a lot of catching-up to do not only in our conversations but also in naming our teams.I have a name in mind for my team, but I'm not advertising it. It depends largely on whether I'm able to draft according to my master plan. I've targeted two dozen or so players I want on my team, and if I'm able to draft enough of them to fill more than half my roster, I'll go ahead with the team name. My captain is targeted for the second round. Once the season begins, most of us come up with a clever name for our ballpark, befitting the team name. My favorite goes back to Diceball days, when Pittsburgh native George called his team the Arrows and had them play at Three Quivers Stadium.

A list of our two dozen pennant winners will give you an idea of the cross-section of team names: Dirt Sox, Painters, Carson Show, Badgers, Gothams, Heepers, Bandits, Timberwolves, Gabe Sox, Heroes, Dead Cowboys, Moody Stews, Alexanders, Baskin A's, Thumpers, Goodfellows, Cards, Reds, Snowmen, Sharks, Strangers, Canos, Blasters, and Snakes. I hadn't made the connection before that three of us have won pennants with teams named after ourselves. Favorite names of non-winners include my "Grizzly Berras" and "29ers" (I had just learned that my father was in the Class of 1929 at the University of Cincinnati), Stew's "Great Ones" (with team captain Roberto Clemente), Tim's "Say 'Ahey' Kids" (he had just moved and his new street name was "Ahey") and "Bull Shotz," and George's "999 Wildcats" and "Sharp Teeth" (his baby's first ones had just arrived).

Often, the playing area will be festooned with some object of symbolic importance to the home team. It could be a Topps card of the team captain, a bunch of cards for the whole team, or some family-related charm. In one of our early seasons, Tim decided to name Earl Averill, a Diceball bench-warmer, his honorary team captain. For home games, he tucked Averill's Diceball card under the big game board, in deep center field. Late in the game, when Stew finally got the tying run to the plate, he rolled the dice wildly. One was about to sail off the table--making it a foul ball--but it landed on Averill's card, which was hanging well over the edge of the table. So the result counted: an outfield fly out that saved the game, the Russball equivalent of "The Catch" made by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series.

The draft will be full of surprises and other expected events. We each have our favorites, our "lucky" players who always seem to show up on our best teams. When in doubt, we'll take one of those guys. For me, it's Yaz, Ripken, and Drysdale. Stew can usually be counted on to draft Banks, Goose Gossage, and Fred Lynn. George favors Willie McCovey and the speedsters. Tim seems to like Raines, Keith Hernandez, and Ozzie. There will be a lot of cursing, too, when the guy in front of you takes the guy you were about to nab. You always have a chance to return the favor after the wrap-around, and the draft isn't complete without a few "fuck you"s.

Then there's the money. We started out putting $20 or $25 on a season, winner take all. But over the years we started investing more per season and dividing the money more widely. The last time we played, we put up $55 apiece, with second place getting something back and $10 apiece for ten individual stats. The hitters competed for home runs, RBI, stolen bases, hits, and batting average (72 at-bat minimum). The pitchers go for wins (separate category for starters and relievers), ERA, (36 innings minimum), strikeouts, and winning percentage (four win minimum). It looks like we'll pony up $50 each this time, with $100 for first, $40 for second, and $10 each for six stats. We'll be too pressed for time for me to do the full-scale stats that I used to do in between our weekly sessions. I'll just track the six easiest: home runs, RBI, hits, wins, strikeouts, and ERA. One betting tradition should remain intact: unless I win the pennant (which I did just three times in 23 seasons), I will lose money.

In a 36-game season, we find that Russball allows for more extreme short-term aberrations in the dice results than Diceball. So the one-season records are quite impressive. The highest batting average belongs to Ted Simmons, who hit .425 in 80 at-bats for George's Campers. The other three batters to top .400 also did it in fewer than 90 at-bats: Ozzie Smith .422, Tony Oliva .407, and Kirby Puckett .402. Roberto Clemente and Rod Carew share the hits title with 59, while Hank Aaron is the only man to reach 16 home runs, followed by Ernie Banks' 15. The RBI title belongs to Willie Mays with 39; he also drove in 38 runs twice, as did Mickey Mantle. As for stolen bases, they're pretty important in Russball and there are no limits on attempts, so Joe Morgan holds the record with 41.

Only two starting pitchers have won seven games in a season (we do have a maximum of nine starts per season, with no more than three against any single team): Nolan Ryan with Stew's Heepers, and Warren Spahn with George's Chiefs. Bruce Sutter won eight games in relief twice, for my R-Acles and Stew's Yesmen. (Goose Gossage bottomed out at nine losses for George's Buccos. The lowest ERA figure of 1.45 was matched by two relievers: Dennis Eckersley for George's 999 Wildcats, and Tug McGraw, also for George's Strangers. The best for a starter with Nolan Ryan's 1.46 for the Buccos, another team managed by George. But the strikeout record belongs to Bob Gibson, with 102 for my Red Fox, a season in which he logged 88 2/3 innings in his nine starts, completing all but one start.

One final thing before I put a lid on this blog. To get an idea of the season-to-season fluctuations in Russball success, peruse this career summary for the most consistent run-producer, Hank Aaron. A two-time Russball MVP, Aaron won the award with the Gabe Sox (sharing it with Frank Robinson) and the Goodfellows. He has reached double figures in home runs in half the seasons, no mean feat with 36-game seasons. In nine seasons, he drove in at least 30 runs, and 13 times he maintained an RBI pace equivalent to 120+ in a major league season. That's what Hank Aaron ought to be doing.

Bull Shotz Tim 134 19 43 5 3 8 31 .321 .397 .582
Outfielders  Stew 144 25 35 5 1 16 37 .242 .278 .625
Uncles (48G) Stew 194 21 48 10 2 5 18 .247 .295 .397
Masters George 146 22 41 1 2 10 28 .281 .331 .521
Yesmen Stew 157 31 54 3 3 11 32 .344 .398 .611
DieHards Tim 134 21 33 4 3 10 29 .246 .336 .545
Deacons Stew 158 28 57 8 3 2 19 .361 .392 .487
Grizzly Berras Gabe 149 22 42 7 1 10 22 .282 .305 .544
Gabe Sox Gabe 151 28 42 11 1 11 35 .278 .335 .583
Storm Tim 152 23 38 8 1 8 31 .250 .296 .474
Parrotheads Tim 141 19 44 8 2 13 31 .312 .366 .674
Moody Stews Stew 150 21 38 4 1 6 18 .253 .313 .413
Sundogs Tim 154 21 38 6 1 12 34 .247 .261 .532
Sharp Teeth George 152 19 45 5 1 10 20 .296 .344 .539
29ers Gabe 151 26 52 7 3 7 18 .344 .373 .569
Goodfellows George 150 29 52 6 2 14 35 .346 .388 .693
Cards Gabe 147 25 42 7 0 7 14 .286 .331 .476
Chameleons Tim 144 17 40 8 3 5 19 .278 .342 .479
Twins Gabe 146 25 46 8 1 13 27 .315 .363 .651
Apples Gabe 146 18 31 2 0 8 18 .212 .258 .390
Hermits  Gabe 146 15 33 3 1 7 20 .226 .261 .404
Ducks Gabe 149 27 45 7 2 14 37 .302 .342 .658
Rocks  George 144 18 39 4 2 8 15 .271 .300 .493
Chiefs Tim 150 18 39 5 0 6 22 .260 .293 .413
TOTALS 3589 538 1017 142 39 221 610 .283 .329 .529

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Brief History of Russball: Part 1

On May 1, I will be flying to Las Vegas for the first Russball season since 1998. That makes it a very big deal to me, and I'd like you to understand why. Over the next three weeks, as I prepare for the three-day Russball marathon, I'll write about the origins and history of the game. It should take three or four posts, and by the time we're done you'll know about the Lefty Grove Rule, the Drafting-Third Jinx, and why long-retired Earl Averill made the greatest catch in Russball history. More importantly, you'll see why the game has meant so much for so long to its participants.

I was introduced to this game more than 30 years ago, a year or two after I moved to Las Vegas. My first friend there, George Steedle, played the game along with his pal and fellow Pittsburgh native Stew Baskin. All three of us were born in 1951, and they moved to Las Vegas as soon as they graduated from Penn State in 1973. I first set foot in Sin City the day after the 1979 World Series ended.

They called the game Diceball. The table-top game was officially named "Superstar Baseball," an Avalon Hill  product originally marketed by "Sports Illustrated" in the 1970s. I had never seen it before they showed me how to play. I was an APBA freak during childhood, memorized the eight game boards and everything, played with friends and by myself (an only child), and had dabbled with other games. But from the first, Diceball was the most interesting version of indoor baseball I ever played.

Like Statis Pro, but unlike APBA, it gives the pitcher the first chance to decide a batter's outcome. If the pitcher doesn't hit one of his "out numbers," then the batter gets to swing. It was fun to put together lineups of all-time greats, to send the likes of Honus Wagner, George Sisler and Hank Aaron up to bat against Walter Johnson in the first inning and go from there. We played occasionally and informally, usually joined by John Jurewicz, who had first introduced the game to George years earlier. John was from the Chicago area, a star pitcher in high school, and liked to spit tobacco juice into a paper cup between innings. George and Stew didn't play high school ball, and their chief baseball-related joy was idolizing Roberto Clemente. Like me, they had begun their Las Vegas lives as poker dealers, but Stew had soon switched to a career as an investment broker. I had met George in 1980 when we both worked in the poker room at a little casino called the Bingo Palace. John worked for a company that leased slot machines.

Inevitably, we evolved from one-night showdowns into leagues that took much longer to finish. That meant drafting teams, getting more organized, and playing a lot more often. We settled on a four-team season of 36 games, consisting of four three-game series--two home, two away--against each team. More extensive play revealed the essential flaw in the game's design. We noticed first that a lot of very good pitchers didn't have a lot of "out numbers," leaving them chronically vulnerable. Only a few starters--Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Sandy Koufax--seemed consistently capable of dominating the opposition. It didn't seem right that Cy Young and Bob Feller did well to get through five or six innings.

One reason they didn't log that many innings was that relievers had better cards, most notably some old-time starters who pitched a lot in relief. By far the best card belonged to Lefty Grove--as a reliever. So the favored strategy was to draft Grove in the first round and use him in every game. It never occurred to us to put a limit on how often a pitcher could be used. We did eventually create the Lefty Grove Rule, which limited any pitcher to 108 innings per season, or three innings per game. In addition, the starting pitcher had to give up a run before he could be replaced, or log three scoreless innings. Grover Cleveland Alexander wasn't far behind Grove in out numbers, and we played a lot of games in which they entered in the first or second inning and went the distance. Carl Hubbell and Ed Walsh were two others who worked chiefly out of the bullpen during the old Diceball days.

We could live with that aberrant deployment of a pitching staff, but more troubling was the discovery, over time, that a lot of great hitters were steadily poor performers. Even though they had plenty of chances to swing off their own cads, there seemed to be a scarcity of high-occurrence good rolls. If Willie Mays, Eddie Collins, Hank Greenberg and others had trouble hitting over .230, something was out of whack.

The result was a lot of low-scoring games, not in itself a bad thing because in a 2-1 or 3-2 game, every baserunner is crucial and exciting. Diceball turned into the Deadball Era, with only occasional three-run home runs and .300 hitters. But we wanted more hitters to do well. When Duke Snider went 1-for-39 one season and Jimmie Foxx couldn't buy a hit against right-handed pitching, it was time to take a closer look at how those cards were made.

I played with the numbers and soon figured out the basic flaw in the card-making formula. "Superstar Baseball" uses three dice, giving 216 possible results (6x6x6). Automatic outs by the pitcher occurred roughly 25% of the time. But the hit numbers on the batters' cards didn't take that into account. They were calculated as if every result came from the batter's card. There were different results against righty and lefty pitching, which was fine, but hit numbers landed only 30-40% of the time. In effect, Ty Cobb would barely hit over .300 against right-handed pitching, and it was tougher for everyone else. The most extreme case was Jackie Robinson, whose card I remember well; he had 46 hit numbers against righties. But they would get him out on an automatic number 54 times out of 216, so his card came into play on 162 of every 216 at-bats. That determined the actual probability of his getting a hit. Taking away 25% of his hit numbers meant just 34.5 hits per 216 at-bats, or a .160 average. That's why Jackie Robinson didn't play much in Diceball.

Once I figured out the arithmetic, I knew I had to do something about it. The catalyst for change was the birth, in 1986, of George's son Russ, his first child. I decided to produce a new set of cards which would provide a baseball legacy for Russ--hence, Russball. The Diceball cards didn't have any players later than the 1970s, of course, so I decided to go in the other direction. I would make a set of cards consisting only of players that George and I could describe to Russ from having seen them play. That meant going back only as far as the late 1950s, giving me a three-decade period from which to draw. That was plenty. I had no trouble putting together a set of 125 players.

Of course, my key aim in making the new cards was to give every player a chance to excel, not merely get by. The pitchers had to have more out numbers. When Koufax or Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver was "on" in reality, nobody could hit them, so I had to design cards that would enable them to get hot. Conversely, if they were cold--if they couldn't roll their out numbers--they should get pummeled, as even the Hall of Famers did on occasion. So batters had to have a lot more hit numbers. (For instance, the highest number of hits on a Diceball card was Al Simmons vs. left-handed pitching, 92 numbers out of 216, hence his Diceball nickname "Death To Lefties". The highest number of hits in Russball is Rod Carew's 107 vs. right-handed pitching.) Russball batters are victims of automatic hits more often (roughly one-third of the time), but when they do get to swing, they're much more dangerous.

Over the years, some new players have been added, others dropped, and the numbers have been revised and refined more than once. The result is just what we wanted: Diceball was a very fine game, but Russball is terrific. The proof is in the pudding. Every game is hotly contested. An early big lead is no guarantee of victory; no matter how far behind you are, you'll almost always get the tying run to the plate before you're done. There are more high-scoring games, but there are plenty of strong pitching performances.

Our favorite Russball saying (coined by Stew) will tell you how suspenseful the games are:  "Every win a miracle, every loss a blow." Each game--lasting 20 to 40 minutes, with a three-game series played in two hours--is a roller-coaster ride with the same intense build-up of anticipation and strong emotion at the event itself that we experience in the best games in the real major leagues.

By the time I debuted that new set of cards in 1987, John had largely dropped out of the picture. He had three little kids and started his own business, and it became tougher for him to spare the time needed to play a full season. He did, however, introduce us to a younger (a decade or so younger than the rest of us) co-worker named Tim Carson, who became the d'Artagnan to our Three Diceketeers. By the end of the decade, Tim was the cage/credit manager for a downtown casino and a formidable foe in Russball.

George lived in Hawaii for awhile after Russ was born and didn't return to Las Vegas until 1988. It was the start of 1989 when we played our first formal season of four teams and 36 games. Later that year, John did join us for one final season of five teams and 48 games apiece. He disdained the new cards and took us on with a team of old Diceball cards. His squad, the Mad Pigeons, went 21-27 to finish fourth, and he hasn't played since. He has talked about flying from Chicago to Las Vegas to kibbitz during our season if he can get away that weekend. We all hope he does. I haven't seen him since 1991.

From 1989 until I moved to central California late in 1995, we played 23 Russball seasons, including the five-man season. That included a trio of three-team seasons in 1991-1992, the first when family woes sidelined George for a couple of months and the last two after I moved to Cooperstown for a year. I returned in time to get in two seasons that year. After I moved to California, the other guys did play one more three-team season.

Since the move, we have done a "shotgun" season three teams, all in the late 1990s. We found that we could comfortably play a 36-game season in less than three full days, and they were great weekends.The first time I drove to Las Vegas (with a kidney stone) to play; they joined me in Los Gatos the second time (George and Stew took time out on Saturday to go to a sports bar for the Penn State game), and the final gathering was in Las Vegas in 1998. That's when I brought out the new set of cards with a lot of great hitters in particular: Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza, Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., and many others. George objected to including so many contemporary players who were too good to be true, with Piazza and Thomas his two big thumbs-downs as we prepared for the season. He spent two months complaining about Piazza and Thomas being in the league, then drafted both of them and won the pennant. Need I add that George has survived four decades in Las Vegas?

Why no seasons since 1998? I haven't lived in Las Vegas since 1995, hung out in a redwood forest until 2002 and have lived in upstate New York since then. In 2000, Tim, having married an Australian woman on Babe Ruth's birthday, moved to Australia, where his computer expertise made him a much sought-after Microsoft instructor and systems administrator. For many years, he worked the computers for the Australian Air Force academy, understandably fell in love with the country, and became a dual citizen. But he and Julie returned to the U.S. last summer, settling near Boulder, Colorado. Linda and I visited them there last summer for a great weekend.

And now we're heading for Las Vegas for the first four days of May. Tim and I will fly in Thursday, arriving mid-evening. We're staying at Stew's house for the weekend of play; his wife is wisely visiting other friends somewhere else for the duration. We'll do a lot of catching-up that night, as Tim hasn't seen Stew and George since 2000 (I saw them two years ago), but we'll also hold the draft. That is always a special event and a lot of fun. I have the audio of an old draft on a cassette in a carton in some dark room. George and I at least are already doing "mock" drafts, taking each of the four drafting spots to see how we might build our rosters of All-Stars.

We don't want to draft third and fall prey to the Drafting-Third Jinx:  no team drafted third and won a pennant until the 23rd season, when my Blasters defeated Tim's Outsiders in the final game, a thrilling Russball finale. The teams went into the game with impressive 23-12 records, with Warren Spahn facing the Outsiders' Tom Seaver. Seaver led 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, and I tied it each time, the last on Tim Raines' home run in the ninth inning. Seaver left after ten, and in the 11th, Dale Murphy homered off Goose Gossage for the run that won the pennant. But I digress. Trust me. You don't want to draft third.

We'll play all day Friday and Saturday, aiming to get in 15 games a day. At two hours for a three-game series, five series in a day is a leisurely pace. That will leave the final six pivotal games for Sunday. Tim has a flight home late in the afternoon, but we're not worried about getting things done. As always, money will be wagered. But I'll tell you about that next time, when I give you a better idea of who these 125 All-Stars were.