Saturday, March 31, 2012

Searching for God in Pennsylvania

We are meaning-seeking creatures. . . . [and] fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. . . . And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. – Karen Armstrong
The azaleas are in full bloom at my home in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, the winter having ended early this year with a warm front sending late-Spring conditions to the Philadelphia suburbs on the first of March. The trees are beginning to turn green again as the sun has taken a more prominent role in pushing forward the advance of an early summer. Nature has a way of transforming the soul, of causing one to reflect on the essence of creation and the meaning of the universe. For me, this has led to my search for God in Pennsylvania.

For much of my adult life, I have struggled with religion and faith. What do I believe? How deeply do I believe it? How committed am I to any one set of theological beliefs and living truths? I embrace knowledge and history, science and nature. I am a rational human being who eagerly accepts and actively participates in the modern world. And yet, there remains the quest for the divine, the search for a transcendent power that I cannot see or prove, but which in my heart I know is present, however irrational such a belief may be. Although I cannot begin to understand the revelations and manifestations of God, my quest for God is essential to my search for meaning.

I am the son of a Lutheran minister, raised in a family and household that took religion and faith seriously, yet implicitly understood Abraham Joshua Heschel’s suggestion that “[t]he road to the sacred leads through the secular.” I was neither sheltered nor walled-off from the surrounding world, and engaged humanity in all its messy, nuanced, and complex dimensions. Within the confines of my eastern Lutheran upbringing, I witnessed ministers, youth directors, and people of faith who did not shy from the social, political, and cultural dimensions of secular society. During the sixties and seventies, in my education, participation in sports, and social interactions, I experienced the humanistic world of modern America far more deeply than the insular world of church and faith. Unlike my parents, whose entire lives have evolved around the Lutheran church, its people and institutions, as the years advanced and my life progressed, I have engaged with a more expansive set of people and cultures, including friends and colleagues of many faiths, or no faith, or little regard for faith; some who viewed religion with skepticism, or worse, contempt.

I see no conflict between faith and reason. A belief in God does not require a disdain for science. A respect for scientific knowledge and advancement does not demand that one reject all belief in God. What the Greeks referred to as logos and mythos defined two different aspects of the world in which we live – the knowable and the unknowable. Logos refers to rational, pragmatic, empirical thinking and seeks to answer the question “How?” Mythos refers to the intuitive, subconscious mode of thought found in art, music, literature, and religion and seeks to answer the question “Why?” These are not mutually exclusive concepts. You can seek answers in both realms. Indeed, it is the tenuous co-existence between faith and reason, the willingness to ask questions, the constant search for truth that leads to the transcendent or the divine, a belief in God, with all its doubt and ambiguity.

To believe in God is not to reject reason, but to embrace it, to experience God’s creation in all its majesty and wonderment, the inherent beauty of the natural world, the diversity of humanity, and the emotional attachment to our souls. The more we learn, the more tools we have to better understand the magnificence of the universe and the majesty of God.

It is easy to grow frustrated with the widely shared perception of popular culture and the media that insists on viewing religion, and particularly Christianity, in its most dogmatic, narrow, and absolute form. On one extreme are those who hold religion in contempt and tend to define it in its theologically weakest expressions – Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, biblical literalism, and rigid orthodoxy – easy targets for anyone who requires rational, evidence-based thinking. On the other extreme are “Christians” who demand a literal and strict interpretation of Scripture and reject alternative readings based on historical and scientific insight which may conflict with what they perceive as the authoritative, absolute word of God. In each instance, the believer and non-believer alike present an either-or dichotomy – either believe in the bible literally or reject God altogether. It reflects the constant push for a world of black-and-white, an all or nothing mindset in which things are simpler and easier to understand, and to accept or reject.

Not surprisingly, the reality is far more complex. For me, and for the majority of people caught in between, who fall somewhere in that complex miasma of ambiguous faith and varying degrees of belief, the either-or dichotomy simply does not apply. We are instead entangled in a web of heritage, family and history that connects us to particular faith traditions and which stands a world apart from what much of the secular left and Christian right perceive religion, or Christianity, or divine authority to be.

“Religion is hard work,” writes historian Karen Armstrong in The Case for God (Knopf, 2009). “Its insights are not self-evident and have to be cultivated in the same way as an appreciation of art, music, or poetry must be developed.” Armstrong counters the simplistic notions of faith often used by religious antagonists and religious fundamentalists alike to define religion. In a 2009 article in Foreign Policy (“Think Again: God”), Armstrong discussed the new atheism of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens (I would also include the less scholarly Bill Maher), who have “denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.”

Armstrong understands and has written extensively about religion’s historical shortcomings, and she has consistently challenged the mistaken theology and incorrect assertions of Christian fundamentalists. And while she has “written at length about the crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions that have scarred human history,” she rightfully notes in response to many atheists and skeptics that past abuses and desecrations do not tell the whole story.

Religion is also about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; it was not designed to provide us with the same kind of explanations as science, but to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition. As such, it continues to appeal to millions of human beings across the globe. To identify with its worst manifestations, claim that they represent the whole, and then demolish the straw dog thus set up does not seem a rational or useful way of conducting this important debate.
Failing to understand the complexity of religious life, the theological diversity within and among the many faith traditions, and how the typical practitioner views their faith and its meaning in their lives, does a great disservice to the shared humanity within us all.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 78% of Americans self-identify as Christian, yet when you hear the term “Christian” on NPR, Fox, and CNN, almost always it means “Christian right” or “Christian conservative.” Yet only one-third of American Christians are evangelicals (about 26% of Americans), and even this term includes a wide variety of Christians, such as born-again Christians, fundamentalists, and other non-denominational church goers with a diverse set of beliefs. Moreover, evangelicals include among their ranks not only political conservatives, but also a meaningful minority of political liberals (think Sojourners, Jim Wallis, and Tony Campolo). The remaining two-thirds of American Christians include Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, UCC, Methodist, etc.), and historically black Protestants (Baptist, AME, Pentecostal), with a smaller number of Mormons, Orthodox Christians, and other subgroups. As Timothy Noah of The New Republic noted recently, “To say that conservative Christians are the only Christians is like saying Hasidic Jews are the only Jews.”

Of course, very few of us really understand our own religions, their histories, traditions, and theological evolutions. Contemporary religious institutions ask little of its members, readily offering comfort while lacking the courage to challenge. Nearly a half-century ago, in “Religion in a Free Society” (The Insecurity of Freedom, First Noonday Press, 1967), Rabbi Heschel commented on the declining relevance of religion in modern life. “The trouble is that religion has become ‘religion’ – institution, dogma, ritual,” he wrote. While some people blame secular science and antireligious philosophy for religion’s descent, the blame lies mostly with institutional religion itself. “Religion declined not because it was refuted,” Heschel wrote, “but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; . . . when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”

Recently, I have been on a quest for finding a religious community at which I can feel comfortable – where I can learn and question and struggle without feeling judged as insufficiently committed or confused. I want a congregation that does not take a simplistic view of faith, rejects absolutes, accepts the equal validity of other faith traditions, and searches for answers to life’s most pressing questions; that strives for a just world here on Earth and is less concerned with the hereafter, and which sees the face of God in the ordinariness of everyday humanity. What I really want is a progressive Christian church with a Jewish sense of justice and history and a Buddhist sense of spirit. I’m a tough customer, I know.

In the end, however, it is really not about me, or my search for a comfortable religious home. As I walk through life’s pathways, I have learned that the search for God is an unending quest to better understand humanity and our place within it, our connection to each other, to nature, and our need to take care of all creation. “If you want to find Jesus,” the Reverend John Steinbruck, formerly of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., used to say, “go to where the outcasts are – the sick, the homeless, the poor.” Heschel, too, reminded us that “the task of the human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.”

The search for God, wherever that may occur and at whatever stage in life, requires an openness to the beauty of humanity in all its diversity, pain, and struggle; in the natural wonder of the universe in all its vastness; in developing genuine connections with nature and with each other. In the end, I may only satisfy my search for God, or at least the transcendence we call “God,” when I accept, in the words of Karen Armstrong, that faith “is not simply a matter of subscribing to a set of obligatory beliefs; it is hard work, requiring a ceaseless effort to get beyond the selfishness that prevents us from achieving a more humane humanity.” As my search continues and the struggle to understand moves forward, I know the hard work required for a life of faith and understanding has only begun.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dispatches from Spring

I must have sensed that more was involved in baseball than the accomplishments of a few athletes and teams, and that I was now attached in a rather mysterious way to a larger structure, to something deep and rooted, with its own history, customs, records, honored and dishonored warriors, founders, superstitions, and clouded lore. I belonged and I cared, and because I have been lucky enough to go on caring, I have belonged to baseball now for almost half its history. – Roger Angell (Late Innings, Ballantine Books, 1982).
Winter has been unseasonably mild in Pennsylvania this year, the cold chill of January tamed by a February warm spell that never lifted. The geese have scarcely departed the lake near my house in Jenkintown; the snow shovels and ice picks remain stowed away in the garage, resembling old maintenance workers napping, idly passing the time on a slow afternoon. According to the calendar, Spring has not officially arrived, but this past week the prelude to Summer was in full bloom as I experienced my first taste of the 2012 baseball season; first, in Mesa, Arizona, where I watched the Cubs and Athletics play a quiet, uneventful game under the desert sun, and then days later in Jupiter, Florida, where the Cardinals stretched and sprinted and played catch in preparation for another summer of baseball.

There is something fresh and spiritually renewing about March baseball when the games are played in the daytime, in small, intimate ballparks where fans can sense a deeper connection to the players and the game’s history. The sun is bright, the air is warm, and the hopefulness of new beginnings ever present. Youngsters hover near the sidelines hoping for an autograph from an aged veteran or nameless rookie. Older fans are there to enjoy the moment, perhaps to reflect on simpler times. Spring baseball is the one time when even the passionate fan is gentle and unquestioning toward the home club, when moods are unaffected by the results on the field.

Sitting three rows back from the Cubs’ dugout in Mesa, I can hear the chatter of the players as they stand on the dugout steps. Momentarily I sense what it would be like to be young again, glove in hand, fielding ground balls and popups and shielding my eyes from the sun as I hold base runners on first when the pitcher goes into his stretch. But I am quickly reminded of how much older am I than the current crop of players, many of whom are less than half my age. My elbow hurts more these days, and my back aches, further distancing me from the days of yore, when my body was agile and free flowing, and when I dreamed of someday running wind sprints and joking with teammates on the outfield grass. Forty years have passed and, sitting in the stands a stone’s throw from the foul line, I am reminded of the 12 year-old boy I once was and, on days like this, long to be again. Only now do I genuinely understand what Red Smith meant when he said, “Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection.”

Many of the young players competing on these fields of beautifully manicured grass and perfectly dimensioned infields will not make a big league roster this year, certainly not in April when the high-priced stars and established veterans lay claim to the 25-slots allotted each team. The drumbeat of time and competition has diluted their dreams and visions of major league glory into more realistic, pressure-filled endeavors. During these games of early March, as the regulars take their time getting ready for the season, laughing and seemingly carefree, pacing themselves for the long, drawn out, 162-game marathon that is still three weeks away, unknown and unproven minor leaguers fighting for a spot on the big league roster, wearing numbers like 82 and 76, are playing the biggest games of their lives. In Mesa, I recognize few of these players and, for a moment, imagine a younger version of myself on the field, hoping to catch the attention of a wise and insightful manager while scattering line drives into the outfield gaps, stretching a double into a triple, and sliding head first into third as 6,000 fans cheer me on.

“Don’t tell me about the world,” writes Pete Hamill. “Not today. It’s springtime and they’re knocking baseballs around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball.” Spring is when baseball reminds us that it is only a game, when contract disputes, drug testing appeals, and free agent departures are momentarily filed away; when baseball is once more a venue for dreamers. In springtime, each team begins with a clean slate and fans come to the ballpark filled with optimism and the hope that their loyalties will be rewarded in the season yet to begin. It is the time of year when baseball fans are permitted to indulge the improbable, to believe that their ailing star will revert to his All-Star form and the 29 year-old third baseman, a career .250 hitter, will finally uncork his untapped potential; that the fourth man in the starting rotation will turn a mediocre fastball into an unhittable sinker, and that their team will exceed all expectations.

“More than any other American sport,” writes Thomas Boswell, “baseball creates the magnetic, addictive illusion that it can almost be understood.” In South Florida, as I watched the Cardinals play the Marlins and the next day, before the rains set in, four innings against the Nationals, I sensed that the Cardinals were a team with a far different dynamic, if only slightly modified cast, from last year. It is too early to tell if the absence of Albert Pujols will unduly burden an offense that remains otherwise potent with the likes of Matt Holliday, David Freese, Lance Berkman, and the newly acquired Carlos Beltran. Or if the retirements of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan, who for sixteen years formed an intense partnership as manager and pitching coach, will open up fresh perspectives or cause confusion and disillusionment. Will a new manager liberate the talents of Tyler Greene, the former first-round draft pick and gifted young athlete who seemed incessantly stifled by LaRussa and has yet to find his way at the big league level? Or will the pressure to perform, the knowledge that this may be his last chance, when his every mistake, every failed at bat, is magnified in the papers and on sports talk radio, stand in the way and take the fun out of a game he has excelled at all his life?

I discussed these and other issues with several Cardinal fans I met in Jupiter, including an older man with a long, telephoto lens. He was a long-time season ticket holder at the old Busch Stadium back in St. Louis and was quietly taking pictures of men forty to fifty years his junior when I took my seat next to him. It didn’t take us long to connect and become fast friends as we shared an hour of in-depth Cardinals analysis; any differences in our ages, life experiences or political philosophies a profound irrelevancy. We were equally despondent over Prince Albert’s decision to sign with the Angels, a reminder of the darker, business side of the game that one easily forgets during the country quiet of a spring afternoon. We reminiscenced over the days when Whitey Herzog ran the club, consistently winning with a combination of speed, defense, and pitching. We shared the hope that the Cards’ new manager, Mike Matheny, will maintain the good chemistry and good fortune of the remarkable season just ended.

Cardinal Nation was in full bloom in Jupiter, a sea of red shirts and hats filling the 6,600 seats of Roger Dean Stadium. All of the Cardinal faithful I spoke with were forever grateful for the memorable end to a magical season that was October past. We cannot realistically expect anything like it again. Indeed, the Gods of Baseball have already beckoned as reports of nerve damage to Chris Carpenter’s neck dotted the headlines of the St. Louis papers during my four days in Florida. I am tempted to make comparisons and private predictions, but there is all summer for that. The season will turn serious and competitive soon enough. For now, with a warm breeze coming off the coast, I simply take in the play on the field with a renewed appreciation for small ballparks, the crack of the bat, and the tranquil murmur of an afternoon game played in the Florida sun.

It is times like these when I most appreciate the timelessness of baseball. There is no clock, no finish line, no final countdown ending the game on a referee’s whistle. “This is the unique, unchangeable feature of baseball,” writes Roger Angell in The Summer Game (Ballantine Books, 1989), “and perhaps explains why this sport, for all the enormous changes it has undergone . . . remains somehow rustic, unviolent, and introspective. Baseball’s time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors.” It is how the game was played when we were young, when our fathers and their fathers were young; and it will be how the game is played for generations to come. It is perhaps why we cling with the passage of time to this remaining vestige of our youth; to the arc of a fly ball and the sound of popping leather, the smell of freshly cut grass and grilled hot dogs in the spring sun, and to the sighs and smiles of the faces in the stands. It may very well be true, as Bill Veeck once said, that “[t]he season starts too early and finishes too late and there are too many games in between.” But the older I get, the more certain I become that life without baseball would be less meaningful, less fulfilling, and less fun.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Strat-O-Matic Memories: The Baseball Years

Statistics are the food of love. Baseball is nourished by numbers, and all of us who have followed the game with intensity have found ourselves transformed into walking memory banks, humming with games won, games lost, batting averages and earned-run averages, games started and games saved, "magic numbers," final standings, lifetime marks, Series, seasons, decades, epochs. -- Roger Angell
In March of 1970, a month shy of my eleventh birthday, a delivery from the UPS truck changed my life. It was my first edition of Strat-O-Matic baseball, a board game that forever altered the way I viewed and enjoyed baseball. Long before Moneyball, years before Fantasy Baseball and Rotisserie Leagues, Strat-O-Matic filled the time and imaginings of teenage boys throughout the United States. Founded in 1961 by Hal Richman, a middle-class kid from Long Island who parlayed a $5,000 loan from his father to create what would become, and has remained, the single greatest baseball board game ever invented, Strat-O-Matic has been played by baseball fans of all stripes for the last half century, from young boys to grown men, from major league ballplayers and sports announcers, to doctors, lawyers, and teachers.

Richman was a self-proclaimed mediocre athlete who grew up with a love of sports and a penchant for math, a combination that would serve him well in developing a flagship baseball game based on the real life performances of all of the major league players in a given season. There is no sport as statistics-driven as baseball, and no game as statistically rich, and exceedingly realistic, as Strat-O-Matic baseball. And yet, for all its realism, Strat-O-Matic possesses what Richman refers to as play value for fun, allowing its participants to enter an alternate universe, to become the manager, statistician, and play-by-play announcer all in one. With Strat-O-Matic, I managed the St. Louis Cardinals for eight seasons, temporarily forced into retirement to attend college. For 162 games a year (and more if my team made the post-season), I started each game with an imaginary playing of the National Anthem, followed by the cheers of the crowd and the roar of “Play ball!” The games were real, but not too real, as I could bench an underperforming star without risking a bruised ego or having to deal with his pesky agent.

Before I get ahead of myself, however, some explanation may be in order for the un-initiated. Each season, Strat-O-Matic comes out with a new edition of player cards – one for each player on all of the major league teams. Each card contains the player’s name and shows the highlights of his previous seasons statistics – batting average, runs scored, doubles, triples, home runs, walks and strikeouts for hitters; wins, losses, earned run average, innings pitched, hits allowed, walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed for pitchers. The beauty of the game is in its simplicity and realism, as each player performs reasonably close to their previous season’s performance; though as in life, some players will exceed expectations and others will disappoint.

The game is played with three dice – one red and two white die – which when rolled together determine the outcome of each at-bat. The red die determines whether to look on the batter’s card or the pitcher’s card, as columns 1, 2, and 3 refer to the hitter’s card, columns 4, 5, and 6 to the pitcher’s card. The total of the two white die determine where (from 2-12) to look within the column (nowadays there is a far more advanced computer version which essentially does the dice roll for you). So, if you roll a 1-7 (red die one, white die seven), you look to the hitter’s card in column 1, number 7 for the outcome of the at bat. If you roll a 4-6 (red die four, white die six), you refer to the pitcher’s card at column four, number six. The game plays quickly and easily, with a nine-inning game played in about 20-25 minutes. Each card contains its own personality, as a singles hitter like Matty Alou or Pete Rose might have a row of singles mixed in with a few walks scattered in other columns, while a power hitter like Willie Stargell, may have HOME RUN at 1-4, 1-5, and 1-6, followed by doubles and singles in the 1 column and a series of walks in the 3 column. A good pitcher’s card, however, like Tom Seaver’s 1969 card, could shut down a good offense with rows of outs in the 4, 5, and 6 columns.

The simplicity and personality of the player cards captured my imagination, but the ability to manage the team, choose the lineups for each game, decide who would leadoff and hit cleanup and which pitcher would start that day’s game, is what hooked me. I decided when to platoon a position player; when to steal, hit-and-run, bunt, and play the infield in; when to pinch hit for the pitcher, make a late inning defensive replacement, and intentionally walk an opposing batter.

Each player is rated individually for such things as base stealing ability, base running (i.e., the ability to go from first to third or second to home on a single, or first to home on a double), fielding, and bunting ability. Within a few years of my first edition, the game developed a more advanced version with lefty-righty breakdowns, outfielder’s and catcher’s throwing arms, pitcher’s endurance, and several other highly-refined statistical differentiations, including each fielder’s range and error rates (accounting for the fact that some players cover a lot of ground while also making a lot of errors, while other players may have less range but cleanly field everything they can reach), and hit-and-run ability.

All through middle school and high school, I painstakingly kept the box scores and accumulated the season’s statistics for each 162-game season of the Cardinals. I played the same schedule the real-life Cards played, though when I checked the box scores each morning in the local paper to see how the real Cardinals did the night before, I did so in part to anticipate how “my players” would do in next year’s Strat-O-Matic season.

I still have all of my hand-kept statistics of my Strat-O-Matic seasons in the 1970’s. In looking them over recently, I was reminded that, in my first season, the Cardinals went 104-58, led by the spectacular pitching of Bob Gibson (25-5, 2.05) and Steve Carlton (21-10, 2.12) and the hitting of Joe Torre (22 HR, 102 RBI, .302), Lou Brock (.291, 107 R, 69 SB) and Curt Flood (.311, 40 doubles, 25 SB). Despite this quite impressive performance, we lost the first round of the playoffs in five games to the Cincinnati Reds, losing the fifth and final game in 16 innings by a score of 7-6, when Johnny Bench knocked in Lee May for the winning run. In looking over the box score from that game, I am forced to re-live the agonizingly painful frustration I felt as we lost in the bottom of the 16th, despite having taken a 6-5 lead in the top of that inning. Though my recollection fails me, I would not be surprised if some dice were thrown and profanities uttered, a not uncommon occurrence in Strat-O-Matic households.

It is probably fair to say that I was obsessed with Strat-O-Matic and with baseball during that time in my life, an obsession I would occasionally revisit in later years, when Strat-O-Matic developed a computerized version of the game, maintaining all of its traditional charm while keeping any statistic imaginable at your beck and call. I remember countless days sitting in class or study hall writing out my next game’s lineup, analyzing my season’s statistics, examining the upcoming schedule in anticipation of the opposing pitchers and the availability of my bullpen. I assiduously calculated the player’s stats, usually updating my stat sheet every three games or so, pencil and eraser in hand, without the aid of a calculator. To this day, I am convinced that Strat-O-Matic is why I am good with numbers. I can still calculate batting averages (hits divided by at-bats) and earned run averages (earned runs multiplied by nine, divided by innings pitched) in my head. I am not sure of what use it is to anyone, but it is a point of pride nonetheless.

Playing Strat-O-Matic baseball also made me a smarter, more informed fan. For several years straight, I knew each team’s best starting pitchers, their power hitters and base stealers, their exceptional fielders, good bunters, and which catchers were tough to steal against. And long before Billy Beane and Moneyball, I learned the value of the walk; as the “manager” of a speedy, base stealing, non-home run hitting team like the Cardinals of the 1970’s, I particularly valued a hitter’s card with a lot of walks mixed in with hits, which leads to a high on-base percentage and opens up additional run opportunities. Indeed, Billy Beane himself, and several other big league general managers, honed their analytical skills playing Strat-O-Matic.

In subtle ways, Strat-O-Matic was a teacher of life lessons; some teams were better than others, some players more valuable than others. Injuries occurred and you might have to make due for 15 games without your .363 hitter, as happened to me in 1972 when Joe Torre rolled a 1-12 (lineout (ss) – injured) and I pulled a 20 out of the split-deck pile, which was a 15-game injury. It was a bad day, but I had to deal with it. In some ways it made me more connected to the real-life team, because they were always dealing with injuries and other setbacks. I thought, If they can handle it, then so can I. In Strat-O-Matic, as in baseball, one must make the most of the talents and limitations of the players you are provided and hope that a little luck will come your way – not much different than the 1973 Mets or the 2011 Cardinals.

Strat-O-Matic required me to manage a full season with players who were as good or bad as the players in real life. And the results were stunningly accurate. In my first season, Julian Javier, the Cardinals’ second baseman, who hit .282 with 28 doubles, 2 triples, and 10 home runs in the 1969 season, hit .282 with 28 doubles, 1 triple, and 11 home runs in my Strat-O-Matic season. Lou Brock’s Strat-O-Matic batting average of .291 in over 600 at bats was only seven points lower than his real life average of .298.

And yet, as statistically-accurate as the game is, it also allows for the possibility that, in any given season, a player will over-perform or under-perform. In 1971, for example, in my second Strat-O-Matic season (playing with the 1970-based player cards), I placed a little known spot starter named Chuck Taylor in my starting rotation. Taylor had started only seven games in the regular season, finishing 6-7 with a 3.12 ERA. Under my guidance and wise counsel, however, Taylor would be a 20-game winner, finishing the season with 261 innings pitched and a record of 20-7 with a 2.00 ERA, greatly outperforming his real-life stats. Naturally, I interpreted this to mean that I was a particularly good judge of talent, as I could tell from Taylor’s player card that he was a highly underrated pitcher. Despite a team ERA of 3.11 (Gibson had another great year at 22-8, 2.06), we finished 89-73 that year, failing to make the playoffs, in part due to an inability to score runs. Joe Torre led the entire team in home runs with 14. Lou Brock once again proved the realism of Strat-O-Matic, batting .305 with 32 doubles, 5 triples, and 12 home runs in 630 at bats, compared to his actual numbers of .304 with 29 doubles, 5 triples, and 13 home runs in 664 at bats. Don’t you just love this stuff!

Over the years I have found that Strat-O-Matic has a way of connecting people. Even today, when I get together with my best friends from high school, or my brother, another long-time Strat-O-Matic player, the conversation will at some point revert to recollections of our Strat-O-Matic days. Whenever I meet another present or past Strat player, an instant bond occurs. Several attorney friends of mine have confessed to playing Strat-O-Matic as a kid (the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania happens to be a former Strat player), and many famous people in the world of baseball are self-confessed Strat-O-Matic fanatics. Jon Miller and Bob Costas, two of the best baseball broadcasters of my generation, were avid Strat-O-Matic players growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s. “From my first roll of the dice [in 1963],” Miller told Glenn Guzzo in Strat-O-Matic Fanatics: The Unlikely Success Story of a Game that Became an American Passion (Acta Sports, 2005), “I was hooked on Strat-O-Matic. I was crazed.” As a kid, Miller did the play-by-play of all of his games, mimicking Vin Scully, Russ Hodges, and Jack Thompson. “A career has to start someplace,” he noted.

Keith Hernandez, who won an MVP award as the first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1979, and who is considered among the best defensive first basemen to ever play in the National League, was religiously devoted to Strat-O-Matic as a kid. When he was invited to his first spring training in 1974, upon arrival in Florida, he discovered that his Strat-O-Matic cards and game board were missing. Upset, he called his Dad, who simply laughed and said that he had taken it out of his luggage. “Just focus on what you have to do,” he advised. Hernandez, who now broadcasts games for the New York Mets, frequently makes Strat-O-Matic references on Mets broadcasts and insists that his knowledge of the game was forever enhanced by playing Strat-O-Matic baseball.

Many other Major League players also grew up playing Strat-O-Matic, and many make it a point to check out what their player cards look like each year. Ken Singleton, who accumulated over 2,000 hits in a very distinguished career with the Baltimore Orioles, once told Newsweek, “You know you’ve really made it as a ballplayer when you see a Strat-O-Matic card of yourself.” Former Phillies center fielder Doug Glanville, a University of Pennsylvania engineering graduate who now writes a column for The New York Times, once argued with Hal Richman about his defensive rating on his Strat-O-Matic card (he was consistently rated as a “2” defensively in center field which, while good, was not the “1” rating he naturally believed he deserved).

As a teenage boy growing up in central New Jersey, Strat-O-Matic, like baseball, was in my blood. Four decades later, as I think back on my Strat-O-Matic days, I am reminded of the innocence of youth, of the need to believe in something larger than oneself. To imagine, to dream that one day there would be a Strat-O-Matic card for me; to enter an imaginary universe that simulated reality, yet was connected to the real life game; and that allowed me to enter a world that most young boys can only dream of, a big league dugout in which I called the shots, judged the talent, had input into the outcome, and accepted responsibility for the results, win or lose. This, to me, is the beauty and power of Strat-O-Matic and why it will forever find a place in my heart.