Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An interview with Jeff Polman of Play That Funky Baseball and 1924, And You Are There!

Some of the most enduring memories of youth are baseball related. Getting our first ball, hitting our first homer run, and attending our first game. Endless summer days of Little League, playing catch, simply shagging flies, watching on television, or listening to it on the radio, baseball fills the years of our youth.

Sadly, however, along with the games came rainy days, nights with no games broadcast, and winter. To fill the time, I, like millions of others, turned to tabletop board games, and later, computer simulations. Probably the most famous board game was Strat-o-Matic. Simple genius before the silicone chip made it so easy. Strat-o-Matic was, and still it, the most realistic baseball board game that has ever existed.

My brother got one in 1978. I quickly co-opted it from him, and become obsessed with it for the next few years. I even completed a complete 162-game season with the 1979 card set, complete with box scores and stat sheets. All hand done, it took me the better part of four years. I picked it up again in 1995, but dropped it when I left for Africa. I still have the set somewhere in storage, although I haven't seen it in years.

One man who hasn't set it aside is Jeff Polman, writer extraordinaire, and re-creator of fantastical seasons of yesteryear. Jeff has been doing season recreations for years, and writing about them for since 2007. Combining his love of baseball, Strat-o-Matic, and writing, he began blogging about the campaigns so that we might all enjoy them.

His first blog, 1924 And You Are There!, oddly enough, is about the 1924 season. The focus of the National League is phanatical phan Vinnie Spanelli, who quickly becomes more than just an observer, finding employment and love along the way. Bringing us the American League is Calvin J. Butterworth, writer for the Detroit Free-Enterprise, kidnap victim, air traveler, and user of fancy words (insert "Blazing Saddles" quote here). Along the way is the most innovative plot twist ever concocted. An amazing idea that is strange at first, but quickly grows on you for the sheer audacity of it.

Sadly, like the real 1924 season, 1924 And You Are There!, has been concluded. Champions have been decided, winners shares allotted, and barn storming tours begun. Vinnie, Rachel, and Calvin, amongst others, have settled into their never-ending off-season. But don't despair if you've missed the story up to now. The blog is still active and you can follow along at your own pace, or better yet, wait for the book. Details to follow.

Not one to rest on his laurel, or to contemplate his own off-season, Jeff has started again. Choosing that Holy Grail of baseball seasons, 1977, with Play That Funky Baseball. An Oscar Gamble sighting is always relevant. Shaking things up a bit, Jeff has enlisted the help of celebrated baseball writers and bloggers to manage each team.

YANKEES: Joe Sheehan, of Baseball Prospectus
ROYALS: Rany Jazayerli, of Rany on the Royals
RED SOX: Josh Wilker, of Cardboard Gods
INDIANS: Joe Posnanski, of Sports Illustrated and the one and only JoeBlog
TWINS: Howard Sinker, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune
WHITE SOX: Keith Scherer, legal eagle and contributor to Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, and
ORIOLES: The Eutaw Street Hooligans
RANGERS: Ted Leavengood, baseball author and regular contributor to Seamheads

DODGERS: Larry Granillo, of Wezen-Ball
PIRATES: Pat Lackey, of Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?
ASTROS: James Yasko of Astros County
REDS: Amanda Cross of Red-Hot Mama
EXPOS: Jonah Keri, of Bloomberg Sports and Jonah
PHILLIES: Daniel Rubin, of the Philadelphia Inquirer
CARDINALS: Mike Metzger, of Stan Musial’s Stance
CUBS: Scott Simkus, of Strat Negro Leagues renown

Not content to let the numbers do the talking, Jeff has also enlisted the help of C. Buzz Gip, our humble narrator; Sherman Wayman from L.A.; Friendly Fred from Harlem and the Bronx; Mikey Spano from Philly; and Crazy Ann Gulliver from who knows where; to lead us through the season. Early as it is, we are just beginning to find out who these people are. Adding in a mysterious homeless boy found in the bowels of Fenway Park, I expect to be taken on a fanciful ride of soul train, disco and psychoanalysis.

Jeff's take on this newest endeavor:
The 1977 season, rewound, replayed, reimagined and put through the wah-wah pedal. Using the classic Strat-O-Matic baseball game, the almost-best 16 teams from that funkified year do battle for 154 games, under the absentee-managed guidance of notorious baseball writers and bloggers from around the nation.

I’m Jeff Polman, your ‘77 tour guide, thrilled to be liberated from the Jazz Age constraints of my earlier, even more exhausting 1924 replay blog. The esteemed managers have been kind enough to send me lineups against righties and lefties, a 5-man pitching staff, and let me roll. They have the ability to make changes throughout the season, and are free to post their comments and PG-rated trash talk to my special “Wah-Wah Page”.

I trust you will find the season entertaining, especially through the colorful words of C. Buzz Gip, your more-than-humble, less-than-sane 1977 narrator. Look for posts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, with Twitter updates in between when extra funky stuff happens. May the best and luckiest team win!!
Jeff is on Twitter at

Jeff has kindly offered to answer a few questions about the himself and the two seasons.

Tell us a little about yourself?

I'm a native New Englander, born in Hartford while living in Providence, grew up outside Springfield, Mass and later lived in Vermont. Sorry Maine and New Hampshire, you're out of the loop. I was always interested in writing fiction and making short films so did a lot of that in high school and college (UMass/Amherst), before getting a job as Arts Editor of a weekly paper in Burlington, VT for its first five years. For what it's worth, I won a bronze medal for a 25-minute Super 8 film at the Virgin Islands International Film Festival in '75 called "The Hostage," with my older brother playing a psycho, then had two thriller screenplays produced out here in L.A., one starring Donald Sutherland.

Why is baseball your sport?

Baseball has been my passion since I attended my first Fenway Park game in 1963. When I lived back east the sport symbolized spiritual and mental rebirth every year because it meant the weather was warming up. Plus it meant your team, no matter how bad they were, had a fresh chance to win a pennant. I admire American football and hockey and tolerate the NBA, but baseball's in my blood like nothing else. It is perfectly designed, deeply historical and often shockingly dramatic when you least expect it. The fact that it's still hugely popular despite Bud Selig, the owners, and the networks constantly trying to screw it up says a lot.

Which is your favorite team?

The Red Sox are obviously my favorite team, but I can take joy in anybody else winning the World series except the Yankees.

Who is your favorite player?

My favorite players today are Utley and Pujols, though it was Carl Yastrzemski for a very long time.

What is your favorite stadium?

Favorite park is Fenway. The place is so tiny it forces you to completely get into the game. Wrigley Field is a gorgeous marvel, and has the best street scene surrounding any park, but doesn't have the same intensity as the Fens. Been to Camden Yards, which I loved, but there's a rash of new retro places like PNC, Great American, Comerica and whatever they're calling the Giants Park these days that I've yet to visit. Dodger Stadium is heaven, but the traffic getting in and out of it is a bloody nightmare.

What is your all-time team?

I assume you mean my favorite team in history. Have to go with the 2004 Red Sox for what they meant emotionally, but they certainly weren't the best. The '75 and '76 Reds had the best lineup since the '27 Yanks in my book.

Your all-time, All-Star team?

LF-Williams/Musial (tie)
C-Campanella/Bench (tie)
Apocalypse DH-Aaron

What is your first baseball memory?

First baseball memory would be walking under the stands at Fenway in '63, coming up the tunnel into the grandstand and getting that first flash of green field. In the middle of this ugly, featureless part of the city it was truly astonishing.

What is your favorite baseball memory?

My fave baseball memory would be Boston demolishing the Yankees in a June 1977 three-game sweep, outhomering them 16-0. You can look it up.

What is your most heart-breaking baseball moment?

Without question, the biggest heartbreaker was the Bucky Dent playoff loss in '78. I watched it with my dad in our Western Mass. home, and after Yaz popped out neither of us could even talk, and then I had to drive the four hours back to my place up in Burlington in a total comatose state. On top of that, one of my roommates was a seriously annoying Yankee fan, and proceeded to rub it in for the next week. I wish I had his phone number to get my revenge when we skunked their asses in '04, but by then I'd successfully removed him from my life.

How did you get started playing Strat-o-Matic, and what is your history with it?

My older brother ordered a Strat-O-Matic game in 1963, and it arrived when he went off to summer camp. I opened the game and put a candy bar inside for him, which naturally melted, but he showed me how to play anyway. There were half a dozen kids in the neighborhood who would get together and play with the 1962 season, and I just dove into it from there. I played my first full-season with the 1970 cards (Mets beat A's in the Series), then went off to college in '72 and didn't pick it up for at least five years, but resumed soon after I moved to Boston. Been addicted to it ever since, but as I tell my wife, it's healthier than heroin and at least I'm home.

Why did you decide to recreate historical seasons and write about them?

I'd been replaying a lot of full seasons, and finally decided to post results and blurbs on the great Strat Fan Forum site about three or four years ago because it was a great way to either share my replay creations or vent about them with others. For the 2007 season I got a little more clever and took the best eight teams in each league, used the 1930 schedule and enlisted Strat players from each city as "absentee managers" for the teams, the same format I'm doing now with 1977.

So, why 1924, and why should we be there?

1924 happened because Strat just happened to be releasing it at the time, and it was a baseball era I loved. You had all these Hall of Famers, the best Washington team ever, and it was a hotbed for my twisted creative mind.

How did you come up with the concept of Calvin Butterworth and Vinnie Spanelli doing the narrations?

Instead of having me narrate, why not come up with fictional characters speaking in the language of the time and plunge the reader even deeper into the era? I had great response to my 2007 write-ups on the Forum, so it inspired me to do something more outlandish with 1924 on my own site. And I picked the Phillies and Tigers to follow because I wanted one team out of the race and one in it.

What kind of research did you do to make it historically accurate?

Virtually all of the research for 1924 was done on the fly, because I was letting the actual games and pennant races dictate the story's direction. Before Vinny got to Cincinnati, for instance, I would hit Google and gather as much real info on the city and neighborhoods and culture as I could. Learning about the German-heavy, Over-the-Rhine district gave me a lot to work with there.

About halfway through the season, you veered away from history and into something completely different by having the Phillies go on strike and have them be replaced by an All-Star team of Negro Leaguers. How did this happen?

I had two absolutely awful pennant races going for most of the year, and had to infuse something more dramatic into the replay. The Negro League set, developed for Strat by my new friend Scott Simkus, was an amazing achievement, and there was no way I wasn't to going to utilize the cards somehow. But I really couldn't let them affect the races, so I used the mediocre Phils as replacement fodder for about a week of play. I loved it, just as a "what if?" scenario, but I couldn't go much further with them because the Negro stars were just too damn good. They were flat-out butchering teams.

While historically inaccurate, we’ll deal with it, as it sticks it to Landis, Cobb, Speaker and the entire idea of segregation. Are you satisfied with the final outcome, as you played it out? (Stephen King often says he doesn’t write his books, they write themselves, and he has no control over what happens)?

Landis was a tyrannical racist, and there was no way he would have let the white players play the colored ones, so I concocted this goofy side story where Vinny's friend Benny knocks him out of commission for a week with a strong drug to enable the games to happen. Then when it was decided they couldn't keep playing, I had the Negro players' train vanish into the fog. It seemed to be an accurate representation of the way they were treated and forced to be baseball's ghosts.

Any surprises or noticeable accomplishments from the season?

On a purely Strat level, 1924 was the most frustrating season I ever played. The races sucked, the Yankees and Giants were matching disgraces, and I probably tore more cards in half than ever. Creatively, though, it was a joy from start to finish, and I'm still amazed I was able to post something nearly every day.

You’ve gained a bit of notoriety from a lot of high profile bloggers and some main stream media types with the season. Brag about yourself?

I had a handful of nice articles written about the season, but nothing that made my reader hits go through the roof and stay there. What I'm doing is for a very specialized niche, the serious baseball fan who is also a fiction-head, though hopefully that will broaden with my current endeavor.

What does the future hold for Calvin, Vinnie, Rachel and the rest? Will we see them again?

Cal, Vinny, Benny and Rachel will live in our memories, I'm afraid, though I'm exploring a possible link to one of them in 1977.

Since you integrated the majors (well done) and the Negro Leagues are now represented in Strat-o-Matic, any plans for a season there? Sidenote – if you need a manager for the Monarchs, I know someone who is available?????

I haven't thought about a pure Negro League season blog, though that's a good idea. It would be a lot tougher to research, though. And yes, the Monarchs are yours if I do it.

Moving on to your new recreation, ‘Play That Funky Baseball’, how did you settle on 1977?

1977 holds a special place for me. I had an apartment about a twenty-minute walk to Fenway that year, and saw a lot of games and a lot of home runs. Boston had almost no pitching but their lineup of mashers (Fisk, Yaz, Rice, Lynn, Scott, Carbo, Hobson, Evans, etc.) produced a lot of 16-13 games. Again, if Strat had released a different season, I may have done that one too.

You’re using celebrity managers. How easy was it to get them involved in this?

Well, they're "celebrities" as far as the baseball blogosphere reaches, but it's certainly added a fun wrinkle to the replay. The idea began as a pure fantasy of mine which I mentioned in an interview for Scott Simkus' blog, and snowballed from there because he was into taking the Cubs and had some writer friends in Chicago interested in some of the other teams. Then it was just a matter of hitting up the writers I liked from the Baseball Bloggers Alliance roster. Some people, like James Yasko from Astros County, responded immediately with enthusiasm, but four people I tried recruiting in Texas for the Rangers didn't respond to me in time, and I had to go with Ted Leavengood from Seamheads, who was also a good choice. My bigger names are probably Joe Sheehan from Baseball Prospectus (Yanks), Jonah Keri (Expos) and Josh Wilker (Red Sox), both who have books coming out, and the wonderful Joe Posnanski, who as you'd imagine took a little tracking down and reminding. Joe P. wanted the Indians from his childhood, even though they were technically the tenth best team in the A.L. that year, but I would've given him the 1899 Spiders to have him in the league.

How much are you holding them to historical accuracy? Or are they free to do as they please?

I'm pretty loose with the accuracy thing, because I'm not using all of the teams and this is "fantasy" after all. The only exception is for players who fall under what I call the Roger Freed Rule, named after a utility player for St. Louis who hit over .390 in limited play that year. I can't exactly allow Freed to play every day, although I pinch-hit him in every big spot that comes along.

How much day-to-day involvement to they have?

The managers can change up their rotations and lineups whenever they want, but no one's sent me an e-mail yet, so I assume they're letting the season find its legs. Probably a wise move. I get regular links and comments from some of the skippers, while others have chosen to remain quiet. Hopefully I'll end up with one or two good races and the trash talk will heat up.

Give us some dirt? Of the managers, who’s good, and who doesn’t have a chance?

I really don't want to be criticizing any of the managers; they're all professionals and know their baseball. But I can tell you that Rany Jazayerli from Rany on the Royals sent me two very detailed pages of notes along with his lineups, which perfectly reflects the thorough, engaging blog posts he writes on his favorite team. It may also be why he's in first place; it sure hasn't hurt. Howard Sinker of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has a fine blog and was the first to send his stuff in, but his Twins have gotten virtually no luck yet. There's no telling.

Why only 8 teams per league?

Everyone was happy with eight teams per league from 1901 to 1960. I saw no reason to change that up, and it's a more manageable number of games.

There are no box scores or stat sheets. Will we see this eventually, or is it too much?

Box scores are impossible, because I'm playing with cards and dice and not on the computer. I will be posting leader stats on the blog now and then, but with a full-time job and all these games to play, there just isn't the time to be figuring out win shares and VORP for everyone.

Tell us what you can about Friendly Fred, Dr Grossinger, Gip and the others?

Not much more I can tell you about these new characters yet, because I'm developing them in my head every day. And there's 16 teams in the league to root for, so you gotta figure there will be a bunch more coming. At this rate Squallpocket State Hospital will be like a friggin Robert Altman film by the all-star break.

I won't ask what, because surprises are good, but do you have anything planned for 1977?

Other than character, suspense and surprise are the engines of every good story, and it's hard for me to write anything without them. Guess people will just have to be patient and follow along. It's a long season.

Predictions? Who do the ’77 Royals beat in the series, after sweeping the Yankees?

The Dodgers and Royals look strong in the early going, but L.A. has almost no bullpen and K.C. is a bit weak in the power department, so who knows? All I ever root for in Strat is a good race.

What comes next?

Not sure what's next. I hear 1958 might be the next Strat release, but that's a pretty boring brand of baseball. First I want to see how people respond to '77. I'm also going to make an effort to get the '24 blog published in book form, and we'll see how that goes.

Commissioner for a day?

Hmm, let's see... Rose, Shoeless Joe, and Ron Santo are put in the Hall. Selig is fired and replaced with an actual commissioner who isn't there to kiss owner asses. Fox is not allowed to monopolize Saturday afternoon broadcast time anymore. ESPN is only allowed one Yankees story per week. The Marlins and Rays are forced to move to a state that wants baseball during the summer. Players are fined $10,000 for not running out balls. The All-Star Game is made into a pure exhibition again and World Series home field determined by either the best record or cumulative league record in interleague games. The World Baseball Classic is disbanded, but expansion teams are added in Australia, the Far East, Mexico City and Havana. How's that for one day's work?

What else would you like to add, about baseball, or anything in general about Strat-o-Matic, recreations, etc?

My main goal with these replay blogs, other than providing a year of entertaining reading, is to uplift Strat-O-Matic's image from it's basement geek status into something more educational, wondrous, and I guess you can say literary. For god's sake, there have been books written about Rotisserie leagues, a hobby that to me is about as much fun as playing the stock market. With Strat you can learn the nuts and bolts of field managing, but also how baseball was played in the different eras. On their 1911 cards, for example, nearly every player has massive stolen base attempts, something I just never knew until I played with those teams. Hal Richman created an incredible game and I'm not even sure how much he or his company realizes it. So I'm doing all I can to help them out.

Many thanks, Jeff, for doing this. Please check out the sites, as they are an entertaining and historical look at the great game of baseball. Sorry that the picture didn't come out so well.

1 comment:

BigBoy53 said...

Hey Jeff, I recall playing many a Strat game with you and your brother back in Lomgmeadow. Hope you're well. John Landers