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, 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.

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