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

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