For those of you not keeping score at home, this was season #28 of Modern Diceball History, dating from 1989. Most of the seasons took place in Las Vegas before I moved to California in 1995. Since then, we have occasionally gathered for a marathon season, a four-team, 36-game season played in a long weekend rather than stretched out over a couple of months as in days of yore. (This rich history is recorded in four articles archived in April 2014. The 2014 season history was posted that May.)
Our last season was in 2014, the first since Tim moved to Australia in 2000. He returned in 2013 and now lives in Colorado. We wasted no time getting that first reunion season to happen. The reunion was fantastic but the season lacked suspense. My team ran away with the pennant, tying a Diceball record with a 26-10 record. The main excitement was the other three managers’ protests of steroid use; after an asthma attack shortly before flying to Las Vegas, I was put on prednasone. I was unstoppable.
George and Stew, who introduced me to the game 35 years ago, still live in Las Vegas. Tim couldn’t make it this time, leading to the inaugural season for Stew’s son, Alex. Alex was born in 1991, about the same time that Roberto Clemente hit .349 for the Moody Stews, one of Stew’s favorite teams. Though he has been around Diceball much of his life, he had played it mainly on camping trips with his father, and most of what he knew about baseball comes from playing this game. He does not know what Mickey Mantle looks like, but he knows that Tony Fernandez can get—according to the raw number of possibilities on the cards—more hits against right-handed pitching than the other shortstops in the league.
Our 2014 season was marred a bit by scheduling too many games in too few days. We learned our lesson, and this time I arrived a day early, more feasible since I was the only out-of-town manager. All it took was a 1,000-mile drive. I left home in Oregon at noon on Tuesday, arriving at Stew’s house at 8:30 AM Wednesday, and we drafted that afternoon.
The first three picks in our draft our usually the same, though sometimes the order varies. Alex got the first pick and took Hank Aaron. I went second and took Willie Mays. Stew went third and started cursing. The manager who picks third has won just once in 27 seasons, and that in one of our reunion marathons. Stew and George grew up in Pittsburgh and idolize Clemente, and he was Stew’s obligatory choice here. George took George Brett and Tony Gwynn in the wraparound spot, and off we went.
There are only two things worth noting about the draft, which so often determines the season. George went for one of the oddest drafts in memory, an extreme combination of several extreme experiments. He made starting pitching his last priority, and while the rest of us scrambled after Seaver, Gibson, Koufax and company, he put together a starting lineup in his first eight picks. He’s done that before. And he has saved his starters for his final four picks, as he did this time—the league is deep, and though their cards aren’t as gaudy as the coveted starters, he still got Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Catfish Hunter along with Ron Guidry and Dwight Gooden.
What he hadn’t done before was make picks #9-14 all relief pitchers. Usually we get along with four-man bullpens, since there are no strict innings or usage limitations. Our most-used reliever this season logged 74 1/3 innings in 36 games. He was one of George’s, Dan Quisenberry. Before the rest of us could adjust, George gobbled up Dennis Eckersley, Quiz, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, John Franco, and John Hiller in a trio of double picks that stunned us. That left him seven picks for his bench.
The other strange thing George did was to pick five of the league’s top leadoff hitters amongst those first eight picks. Here’s the order: Brett, Gwynn, Joe Morgan, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Ted Simmons, and Rickey Henderson. Everybody can hit first or second except Mantle and Simmons, and several of them can hit third. Only George would put together a team like that. For one thing, he favors the steal more than anyone and would be likely to attempt a few key steals of home with Henderson, one of the three top-rated base stealers in the league (Lou Brock and Maury Wills are the others). He had three other guys who could steal. But what would the batting order look like?
It might not seem possible, but apparently I made one wrong draft pick which ruined three of the four teams. I was supposed to take Frank Robinson, my MVP in the 2014 season, in Round 3. But I did not. I took Johnny Bench instead. Sue me. Stew grabbed Robinson with the next pick, and Alex initiated trade talks with him almost immediately. Robinson, it turns out, is Alex’s favorite player. I applaud that. The possibility of a trade became a running theme during the draft. And, in fact, even though George made an offer for Robinson, Stew did trade him to Alex within minutes of finishing the draft.
That trade—Robinson and Sparky Lyle for Jim Rice, Yogi Berra, and Dave Righetti—changed the tone of the whole season. It remained the incessant discordant note for Stew, who instantly regretted it. It goes against his grain to make a quick trade. Of all of us, he has always given more time to preparing his newly drafted team for the season. In the olde days, he often declined to play a series right after the draft, letting two of us get one three-game series ahead rather than make a rash decision which might cause him a victory at the start that would jeopardize him down the road.
Now he made a trade in a few minutes and started playing not long after that. They played their first series at Stew’s card table; a few feet away, George and I played at the dining table. We’re always somewhat aware of what’s happening in the other game, with home runs and key strikeouts broadcast loudly. In the second game, there was a ton of yelling at the other table, and it became harder to avoid. They had seven runs in the first inning. Jim Palmer got knocked out in the second inning, and Pedro Guerrero hit a pinch-hit grand slam in the third to give Stew a 9-6 lead. That was erased by Ernie Banks’ grand slam in the fourth inning. It was 13-10 in the sixth inning when frantic shouts announced the third grand slam of the game. This one was hit by Willie McCovey, already 5-for-5 with two homers. The carnage was awful (Sandy Koufax gave up nine runs).
I called time-out in our game to check the handy encyclopedia of Diceball, where I saw that the scoring records were 17 runs for one team (done three times), and 25 for two teams. It was already 17-10, and Alex capped the scoring on Joe Torre’s RBI hit. We couldn’t believe it. In Alex’s second game as a manager, he broke the scoring record. Just to prove it was no fluke, in their rubber game, he tied the old record again! Hank Aaron blasted three homers and drove in eight runs in a 17-3 pasting of dear old dad. And Stew went into paroxysms of second-guessing. Everything had gone wrong, and it was because of that trade he should never have made. He had drafted his favorite relief combo, Lyle and Bruce Sutter, and gave Lyle away. Elroy Face had given up 17 runs in four innings in the two romps. He had ruined his season. With a 1-2 record, Stew went out on the Diceball ledge, and it was difficult to talk him off there the rest of the week.
We had to admit that Alex had one of the scariest lineups we’d ever seen. The reason was simple. Since he went by the numbers, he took the guys with the highest hit and total base ratings, the big bopper at each position, while the old-time managers took a lot of old favorites. We picked a lot of guys who have produced for us in pennant-winning seasons. I was delighted to get the same infield I had in 2014: Eddie Murray, Ryne Sandberg, Cal Ripken, and Wade Boggs. George has always liked the speedsters like Henderson and Morgan, and Stew has favored the sluggers. This time Alex outdid him in drafting
the home run hitters, and Stew compounded the disparity by trading his 3rd-round pick for Alex’s 8th-round pick (Rice has usually been a platoon player in our league).
Alex’s lineup which scored 35 runs in two games: Lou Whitaker, Robinson, Aaron, McCovey (LF), Mattingly, Banks, Schmidt, Torre (C), and the pitcher. His pitching was solid. We conceded that he’d be tough to beat, even with our experience. Late that evening, while Stew agonized over his inexcusable trade, I did the stats for Alex’s team. In the three-game series (Stew won the opener, 6-2), Aaron, Robinson, McCovey, and Schmidt combined to go 26-for-47 with 25 runs scored, 8 home runs, and 23 RBI. In the game we play (SuperStar Baseball with cards I made), the first dice roll is for the pitcher’s card, and about one-third of the time, he records an out. If he doesn’t, the batter gets to swing. My attempt to talk Stew off the ledge focused on the fact that even if the pitchers had never gotten an “automatic” out against those four guys, the numbers on their own cards would not have produced such great stats. Short-term aberration, Stew. We see it in every game, over the course of every evening (two or three series), and especially in a compressed season like this, throughout a season. A player keeps hitting his home run number or he keeps missing it over the course of this five-day season. For example, Willie Mays has a home run against a lefty on a 23, but it’s a harmless fly against a righty. This season, I rolled a 23 for him nine or ten times—all against a righty. He homered in only two games all season. But that’s another story.
Was I right about the short-term aberration? Alex scored 37 runs in that first series, and by the end of the 36-game season, he had the lowest-scoring team in the league. Over his final 33 games, he averaged 3.4 runs a game. And Frank Robinson drove in just six runs while batting .263. I can tell you why he didn’t perform for Alex. For some reason, he dubbed him “F-Rob”. He came of age when there was A-Rod and F-Rod and K-Rod, I guess, and he eagerly called out “c’mon, eff-robb!” That’s how he wrote his name in the lineup. The first time we played, I promised him that Frank Robinson would not like being called that and would not perform well. He didn’t listen. I should’ve had him, and Stew did have him, but he wound up with a manager who turned into a sound byte, and it didn’t work.
Here’s the best part. In their first game, facing Bob Gibson, Alex benched Robinson and Schmidt in favor of two lefty hitters with higher hit numbers against a righty: Tony Fernandez and Fred Lynn (Lynn had higher hit numbers? Yes, because Robinson had a bunch of on-base chances taken up by walks and hit by pitches.) After he stalled at two runs, Stew gave him a heart-felt talk about how to win a Diceball season, a manager can’t turn his highest draft picks into platoon players. They’re the guys you build your offense around. Schmidt was a 2nd-round pick, Robinson a 3rd-round pick. They had to play. Stew was correct, and Alex took his advice. In the two run parades, Robinson went 4-for-7 with five walks and scored eight runs. In addition to everything else Stew got to second-guess after that first three-game series, he had to wonder whether Alex really needed his help.
Finally, there’s the cherry on top of the whip cream. In the late-night scene out on the ledge, with Stew lamenting the trade (in the 18-10 game, he burned his only star reliever, Sutter, after the second inning, leaving Face to get torched, while Lyle allowed just one run in six innings for Alex to get the win), I happened to ask “how did Rice do for you?” “He went 1-for-5,” said Stew. “In three games?” “He only played one game.”
“Wait a second,” I chuckled. “So you’re telling me that at the same time you lectured your son about the necessity of not turning your third pick into a platoon player, you turned the guy you got in exchange for your third pick into a platoon player. Is that right?” He was stunned. I didn’t think there was room for his self-doubt to grow exponentially, but it did.
In the morning, he made George and Alex (both 2-1) 2-1 favorites to win the pennant. He put my odds at 3-1 and his own at 8-1. We had the same 1-2 record.
Over the next three days, we played a three-game series against each team, essentially a round-robin. That brought us up to 30 games by Saturday night, leaving the final games for Sunday. It was a very comfortable pace. We started at 2pm the first two days and were done between 10 and 11. On Saturday we started a little before noon, taking time after two series to watch the Vegas Golden Knights on TV (don’t get me started on them!). I have only one other game to present in excruciating detail. Otherwise I’ll give summaries for the whole day.
All the way through, it was the most topsy-turvy season we could remember. Each of us was in first place and in last place at some point, except for one manager who got within one hitter of first place before falling back. It wasn’t until late that there was more than a three-game difference between first and last, and every series saw a place in the standings at stake. It was one of our more thrilling and competitive seasons, not settled until Sunday.
On Thursday night, I wrote in my journal, “It was devastating to realize that I had taken the self-styled cellar-dweller and turned him into the comeback kid.” That referred to Stew sweeping me to open play on Thursday. He was as fooled as I was, especially when he came back from a 6-0 deficit to win the third game. Stew went 6-3 on the day and was tied with Alex at 7-5. I ended the day by taking two of three from George to tie him at 5-7. I was as happy as anybody. I have a long-standing habit of starting seasons horribly and having to scratch and claw my way back to finish second. I’ve finished last fewer times than anybody, but I’ve also won fewer pennants. So when I lost six games in a row after winning my opener, it was an odd kind of comfort zone. Between games, I happened to gaze at one of my accounts from “Diceball’s Greatest Games,” in which I mention starting some season 2-9 but playing for the pennant in my final series. I could do that again.
In random Thursday notes: Don Sutton won his first three starts for Stew with complete games. . .Nolan Ryan struck out 13 in his first start for Alex. . .George, with a 3-5 record, benched Henderson and Rose against a righty, started Cecil Cooper and Tony Oliva instead, and they combined to drive in nine runs against Stew. . .Willie Mays, inexplicably, neither scored nor drove in a run until my eighth game. . .Jim Palmer gave up 11 runs in less than three innings in two starts and was dropped to the minor leagues. Stew went through several options for his fourth starter, in the process setting a record for the most staff members with an ERA higher than 9—including Bert Blyleven, Vern Law, and Face. . .Johnny Bench, the guy I took instead of Frank Robinson, was atrocious all season. Through 12 games, he was 5-for-40 with two RBI. That was his most productive one-third of the season, He went downhill from there.
At the halfway point of the season, we were all within two games. The standings:
FOODIE BLUES (Alex) 10 8
RE-DUCKS (Gabe) 9 9
KIMOSABI’S (Stew) 9 9
H20 (George) 8 10
[A word about team names, which have always been high personal and frequently clever. Stew has performed professionally as Moody Stew, featuring his favorite Moody Blues songs, so it was a nice touch for Alex to go for Foodie Blues. Stew chose his name because last year, while recovering from heart surgery, he got hooked on reruns of “The Lone Ranger”. My team name had mixed karma. I attended the University of Oregon in the 1970s and recently moved back to Oregon, so I have become a re-Duck. On the other hand, I once had a Diceball team called the Ducks who didn’t win a pennant, so I was taking my chances here. It did give me a chance to call out “Re-Ducks on the pond!” when I loaded the bases. The coolest name belonged to George, who’s about to retire from his last career as a water meter reader in the town of Henderson, Nevada. Hence the name, and hence his captains, Henderson, Hunter, and Oliva. George also picked the best home field name (another part of the ritual of a Diceball season) a long time ago. The Pittsburgh native had a team called the Arrows who played in Three Quivers Stadium.]
I trailed Alex by two games when our series began, and I won the first two games, blowing a 6-2 lead in the second game before winning on Ripken’s home run. Seaver had the kind of game an ace can have in the finale, hot with the dice, and he took a 2-0 lead and a five-hitter to the bottom of the ninth. He got Aaron and Robinson to start the inning, and Alex put the old Pirates favorite, Smoky Burgess, up to hit for Torre, a courtesy at-bat. Burgess, who went a magical 6-for-8 as a pinch-hitter on the season, singled to keep the inning going. McCovey walked. Lou Whitaker was due up, but in came Roger Maris to pinch-hit. And I saw the 34 coming before they showed up, a three-run home run to win the game, a magical roll of the dice that put Alex back into first place instead of me.
That miracle roll stunned me and paralyzed my team, and George steamrolled me to end the day. I scored one run in each of our three games. That enabled him to go from last place to second by day’s end. Alex, the wunderkind, led at 12-9, George was 11-10, Stew was 10-11, and I wasn’t.
Random events from a long day of Diceball: Alex won a 13-inning battle from Stew; after Stew tied it in the 9th inning on a home run by Berra, Alex won it on a Don Mattingly homer. . .Stew lost three straight games in the other team’s final turn at bat (game-winning hits by Yastrzemski, Ripken, and Molitor), and the internet lit up with news of his woes. Then he rallied to win with a six-run 8th inning, and all was right with the world. . .George Brett drove in seven runs in that final series to put him well ahead in the league lead with 28 in 21 games. The record for 36 games is 39 (Hank Aaron, twice), and Brett might have a shot at it.
It took only one series on Saturday to tighten up the pennant race. George and I both took two of three. He tied Alex at 13-11, while I tied Stew at 11-13. When I followed up by taking the first two games from Alex, I had tied him at 13-13. The trick was that George was in the process of sweeping Stew, whose season finally experienced its long-anticipated implosion.
By this point, George had decided not to be half-assed about managing this odd team. He decided that letting his starting pitchers go three or four innings was too much, that he wasn’t using that strong bullpen enough. In nine games on Saturday, his starting pitchers logged a grand total of 20 1/3 innings (allowing 12 runs). One time, he actually used all six relievers, saving Goose Gossage for the final out. That was in a ten-inning game in which the winning run scored after a two-out walk, when Henderson pinch-ran and stole around the bases. That loss deflated Stew, who surrendered 18 hits and 12 runs as George finished off the sweep.
After Marichal shut out Alex for the league’s only shutout this season, Drysdale beat Koufax (who struggled all season with a 2-4 record and 7.43 ERA), and I was poised for a sweep. But again I couldn’t make it happen. Spahn lost to Gibson, 3-2, on homers by Whitaker, Schmidt and Aaron.
It was 24 hours earlier that I followed a rough loss to Alex by getting swept by George. This was a different kind of series, and it began with the most exciting game of the season. I was the home team, with Seaver facing Gooden. Well, facing Gooden for two innings. He gave up an unearned run and left for a pinch-hitter, launching a procession of relievers, the first three of whom all pitched two innings as well—Quiz, Hiller, and Eckersley. It was 1-1 to the 6th inning, when he began with back-to-back homers by Brett and Mantle off Seaver. It was 3-1 to the 9th, when he began with back-to-back homers by Molitor and Dick Allen that made it 5-1.
Sometime during the day, I had noticed something weird about my team. It grew out of my series with Stew, when we were both plagued by frustrating rallies. We kept getting runners to second and third with nobody out and being glad to scratch out one run. I went back through my box scores and found that, going into this game, I had gone 20 games without scoring more than three runs in an inning. Now I was behind by four runs going to the bottom of the 9th. So we all know what happened next.
First came an event that was astonishing in its own way: Willie Mays led off with a home run. This was game #28 on my season, and it was Mays’ second home run. I’m looking at his encyclopedia page, which covers the first 24 seasons; Mays slugged at least 8 homers in 21 of them. Now he had 2. Rollie Fingers immediately got in more trouble, loading the bases on two hits and a walk. Bench pinch-hit (he had lost his job to Gary Carter) and lined out. Vada Pinson pinch-hit and popped out. With the tying run still at first base, I did something that may never have been done before in Diceball: I pinch-hit for Wade Boggs. Yeah, he’s a doubles machine and I needed a long double at least, but you see, George had brought in John Franco to pitch to Boggs. That prompted me to bring in a righty hitter, Dave Winfield. Who promptly doubled. Rounding third with the tying run, Cal Ripken needed a favorable roll of the dice to score, a slight underdog at 48%. He scored to tie the game. And we went to extras. George scored in the top of the tenth; Simmons walked, Henderson ran for him, stole second and third, and scored on Cooper’s single. Bert Campaneris ran for him, stole second, and went to third Bench’s wild throw. With two outs, I walked a man intentionally, which forced him to hit for Franco. He didn’t score, and now he was down to his final pitcher, Gossage. And Gossage got torched for the game-tying home run by. . .Willie Mays, who had suddenly tripled his season total in two innings. The came continued. Wilhelm matched goose-eggs with the Goose, and George had his big chance in the top of the 14th. With one out, Henderson tripled, and it brought up Gossage. George took a long look at the seldom-used suicide squeeze chart and concluded that he couldn’t get in too much trouble. The worst result he could find would be a missed bunt and an attempted steal of home by Henderson. So he rolled the one result he hadn’t checked or known about: Gossage popped up the bunt, and Henderson was doubled off third to end the inning. And George’s last chance, as it turned out. The game ended in the bottom of the 15th on a home run by. . .yep, Willie Mays. Gossage pitched 5 1/3 innings and allowed just two hits: Mays’ homers. Those were his last of the season, of course. George took the last two games of the series, the last one in 12 innings; that time, he got to be the 7-6 winner. But what a game!
That’s what it took to keep George from winning eight straight games, but as it was his 7-2 record on the day busted open the pennant race. It raised him to 18-12. Alex was second with 15 wins, I had 14, and Stew, finally running according to form, was last with 13. So George had a three-game lead with six to play, and he would play Alex first on Sunday. A sweep for Alex would tie them. Anything less could kill the suspense for the final series.
In the series that mattered, George took the first two games from Alex to clinch the pennant. For the first time all season, he let a starter go six innings. In fact, Catfish Hunter did so well in the opener (one run in six innings) that he let Ferguson Jenkins do the same thing in the clincher. Mickey Mantle’s two homers fueled Hunter’s win, but Dennis Eckersley picked up the win in relief of Jenkins as George provided a fitting end to the pennant race. In the bottom of the tenth inning, Mickey Mantle singled and Henderson pinch-ran. Have we already danced this dance? He stole second and third, modestly stopped there, and scored the game-winner on a sacrifice fly by Ted Simmons. Alex took the finale as Sandy Koufax pitched his best game of the season.
Meanwhile, I took two of three from Stew to tie Alex for second place at 16-17. Drysdale beat Carlton in the opener, and Stew evened the series with a win in ten innings. In our rubber game, I broke open a close game with a six-run sixth inning against Don Sutton that was quite ugly: six runs on four singles, two walks, a hit batter, and two wild pitches. With two outs and no runs in, Stew opted to walk Ryne Sandberg intentionally to pitch to Gary Carter, my hottest hitter. I have proven statistically that the intentional walk is a disastrous strategy, and I proved it again with the dice. Carter singled, Sutton hit Seaver (huge mistake), and singles by Boggs, Raines, and Murray brought a deluge and a 10-1 win.
This meant that my final series with Alex would determine second place, while George and Stew would play for fun. Normally there would have been more riding on it: money. We have always played for money, and the standard became $55 each per season. The winner would get $80, second place was worth $40, and there were ten statistical categories worth $10 apiece: batting average, hits, home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases, wins by a starter, wins by a reliever, winning percentage, strikeouts, and ERA. That way, even if your team was out of the race, you might have contenders in a few of the categories to keep you excited. This time, we didn’t play for money at all, not even for the pennant winner. So Stew didn’t get to broadcast the race for hits between his two top picks, Clemente and Carew. They were tied with two games left; Clemente won it.
George and Stew had fun indeed. Their opener went 13 innings after George scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to tie it. This time he won without a stolen base, on a Thurman Munson triple and an RBI single by Henderson. Stew took the second game behind Sutton as Clemente had a triple, double, and single while Carew belted a single and the go-ahead home run. George went upside-down in the final. He began his lineup with his captains: Henderson, Hunter, and Oliva. Catfish got down two sacrifice bunts and pitched a complete game, and Ted Simmons, batting ninth, went 3-for-3 and drove in three runs in a 4-3 victory that gave George a final record of 22-14. When his record was 7-9, he benched Henderson and Pete Rose against righties, put in Oliva and Cecil Cooper instead, and went 15-5 the rest of the season. Henderson still led the league with 33 stolen bases.
And the battle for second place? It was all Re-Ducks in a sweep, 4-1, 6-3, 7-3. Spahn, Marichal and Seaver combined to allow five earned runs in 25 innings, and they jumped on Koufax and Ford early. That made my final record 19-17, a perfectly typical season—I started 1-6, went 18-11, and stormed all the way up second place, three games behind George, who won his umpteenth pennant. It’s fair to say that nobody else would have drafted that team, much less won with it. Hats off to George and H2O!
League leaders included:
Batting average: Brett .325
Home runs: Schmidt 12
RBI: Brett 36
Hits: Clemente 51
Stolen Bases: Henderson 33
Wins (starter): Carlton 6
Wins (reliever): Wilhelm/Quisenberry 4
Winning %: Carlton .750 (6-2)
Strikeouts: Ryan 83
E.R.A.: Eckersley 2.01
H2O 22 14 .611 –
Re-Ducks 19 17 .528 3
Foodie Blues 16 20 .444 6
Kimosabis 15 21 .438 7