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Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Updated: August 17, 3:21 PM ET
Confessions of a simulated mind

By Jonah Keri
Special to Page 2

Would you miss the birth of your first-born child because of your fantasy league? Of course not. Neither would Chris Blake.

An avid player of Strat-O-Matic baseball, Blake has participated in all kinds of leagues since childhood. He'll go to great lengths to play his favorite simulation baseball game -- traveling great distances to roll dice and wield fistfuls of player cards, or whiling away hours, even days, on the computer playing Strat online. But Blake draws the line at missing the birth of his first-born.

His second-born, on the other hand …

"I was playing in my third season in the World League back in 1993 and my wife and I were expecting our second child, due at any time," Blake said. "The league was gathered for a Strat-fest to try to finish up the season, playing three concurrent games head-to-head in two rooms, while my wife was over visiting her family. My team, the Minnesota Mooses -- the defending AL champs -- was near the top of the standings behind the pitching of Dennis Martinez and the unlikely home runs of right fielder Joe Orsulak. With three games to go, Minnesota was playing the Boston Red Sox and their wily owner, Mike Forsyth. At another table, the second-place team was playing their season-ending series, and Minnesota held a one-game lead. Game 1 for both three-game series resulted in wins for both front-runners. Minnesota needed one win in the next two to guarantee at least a tie for the lead.

Dynasty League Baseball
Part of the game screen for Dynasty League Baseball, one of several simulation games on the market.
"During the fifth inning, with Minnesota ahead 6-1, a call came -- the baby was coming," Blake continued. "I rolled the dice. Mike said, 'Aren't you going?!' Having been through this just the previous year with my oldest, I wasn't worried. 'I'm ahead,' I told him. Mike picked up the pace. No more shaking the dice for 10 seconds, no more fan reaction to each play, no bullpen contemplation. While on the other table the second-place team was ahead, I finished Mike off.

"'You going now?'

"'I have one game left,' I told him. Mike sat on the edge of his stack of Boston phone books and played faster (he likes the added height for intimidation). Game 80, the last of the season, started. Due to innings concerns, Minnesota had Joe Boever on the mound. Halfway through the game, at the other table, the second-place team lost their Game 79. Season over -- Minnesota wins their second of four consecutive AL pennants."

Finally, Blake had clinched his coveted division title and was free to run to his wife's side for the birth of his child. Of course, his game was only in the sixth inning. No way was he going to leave without finishing the season.

Twenty minutes later, Blake pulled up to his in-laws' house to take his wife -- well into labor by now -- to the hospital. Six hours after that, little Daniel Blake was born. Like any baseball-loving dad, Papa Blake immediately began watching his son intently, looking for signs of future ability. Yup -- the kid was left-handed.

Blake's story is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to explaining the obsession players have for simulation sports leagues. Traditional fantasy or rotisserie baseball makes things simple for players by converting different elements of the game -- wins, saves, batting average, stolen bases -- into points. Sim leagues go way beyond that. More realistic than typical roto leagues, a sim league such as Strat-O-Matic, Diamond Mind, Scoresheet, APBA or Dynasty League requires players to know just about everything about how to run a ballclub. Defense matters. Learning how to build a complete bullpen, from mop-up man to closer, matters. Sim players also must consider ballpark effects, pitcher fatigue, the value of a strong bench and the importance of platoons, to name a few key elements.

That can lead to behavior that borders on … ummm … bizarre? Obsessive? Insane?

Sim Central
Looking for your own obsession? Here's where you can go to play some of the most popular simulation sports leagues:

APBA
Diamond Mind
Dynasty League
Scoresheet
Strat-O-Matic

There's the story of the guy who got so mad at his struggling ace reliever that, after blowing a save in a Strat playoff game, he flushed his closer's card down the toilet.

Then there was the first Southern Maine Strat-O-Matic League game played under the lights. In the summer of 1976, Henry Vance and Rene Custeau played a game in a parking lot directly across from the Vance family's house. Things were going smoothly until the fifth inning, when Vance fired his dice too far. They bounced away to the portion of the lot not lit by streetlights, into complete darkness. The two players searched by flashlight for half an hour before the game was called … due to lost dice.

Two Strat-playing friends recently drove to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to take part in their league draft. When Kenn Yanefski and his friend Scott reached the Canadian border driving up from Maine, they hit a snag. Neither Kenn nor Scott could remember the name of the hotel where they were staying. The border guard, suspicious, demanded to see the directions sheet they'd printed out for the hotel, then asked the two travelers for the purpose of their visit. Kenn and Scott proceeded to explain what Strat-O-Matic was, and how a Strat draft worked. After a few minutes, the exasperated guard threw up his hands and rushed them through the gate -- he couldn't bear to hear any more.

Former major leaguer Doug Glanville was an avid Strat-head even during his playing days. One day, incensed, he called Strat-O-Matic's offices to complain. Seems the fleet-footed center fielder felt his defensive ratings were too low.

Dan Lee of Columbus, Ohio, says he spent hundreds of hours compiling the history of his historical Strat league, eventually producing a 665-page book. An actual book, available for purchase. With binding, covers and everything. The book has a batter register, pitcher register, lifetime totals for every player in league history, career league leaders, a trade register detailing every trade made in the past eight years (including gems such as Stan Belinda for Bobo Newsom), season capsules for all 12 years of league play, and single-season and career franchise records. (The book's available for free purchase or download here. Really.)

Fantasy Central
(Click here for additional obsessive sim league tales.)

The genesis of simulation baseball dates back to simple tabletop games in the 19th century. According to an article in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, devotees in New York played a game called "Parlour Base-Ball" that used coins on a solid wooden board to represent in-game action. By the end of the 19th century, gamers used rudimentary baseball cards as a proxy for individual players.

More sophisticated games started to emerge after World War II. Lancaster, Pa., native Dick Seitz modernized an old tabletop game called National Pastime, then started selling it to the public. The result, starting in 1951, was a game called APBA. Ten years later, Hal Richman founded Strat-O-Matic, a game ruled by cards, dice rolls and a huge number of possibilities. As computers gained popularity in the ensuing decades, programmers found it easier to create even more advanced games. In 1985, Jeff Barton and his brother David started working on a game that would simulate game results, but with the added twist of using current-year results. Two years later, Scoresheet Baseball was born.

Michael Cieslinski began working on a game of his own while at the University of Miami. By 1985, he'd spawned Pursue The Pennant. Cieslinski channeled the work of sabermetric pioneers such as Bill James and Pete Palmer to create a game that was more intricate than other sim games in many respects -- catchers were rated in part by how they handled pitchers, for instance. Ten years later, Cieslinski parlayed his game into Dynasty League Baseball, with both tabletop and computer-based game play. The original Pursue The Pennant game attracted the attention of another baseball enthusiast, Tom Tippett. While Cieslinski devoted himself to Dynasty League, Tippett developed his own game, Diamond Mind Baseball.

Diamond Mind
In Diamond Mind Baseball, you can simulate games using current players or classic seasons from the past.

Each of these games owns a small, but loyal, following. Various industry figures estimate the number of fantasy baseball players at somewhere between 3 million and 5 million, with fantasy football hitting that mark several times over. An independent business owner like Barton knows he'll never approach those numbers -- and he's fine with that. Barton runs Scoresheet out of a small office in Grass Valley, Calif. His company consists of five full-time workers -- including himself and his brother Jeff -- plus an occasional temp. About 3,000 team owners manage a total of about 4,500 Scoresheet baseball teams at $79-$89 a pop, plus weekly fees for transactions. Throw in Scoresheet games for all other sports and you get maybe a couple thousand more teams.

Comparing Scoresheet to fantasy baseball is like comparing chess to checkers, Barton says -- they're both fun games in their own way, but one is far more involved than the other. Barton has been known to chat with customers for 30 minutes at a time. Gamers suggest ways he can improve Scoresheet, quirks they like and dislike, miracle comeback and "bad beat" stories of unlikely heroes winning or losing games in extra innings. He loves hearing satisfied customer stories and the devotion the game brings. That devotion helps the business, too. Barton says Scoresheet Baseball has a retention rate of 93 percent, absurdly high by any industry's standards.

"The 7 percent who quit don't do it because they don't like it anymore -- it's usually because they had a kid, got a new job or had some other life event get in the way," Barton said. "We always make up that 7 percent from word of mouth, people bringing in their friends. We get letters from people saying they've dropped their roto teams, that they now have three or four Scoresheet teams, and that they've brought their friends in to form a league."

People like Brian Dewberry-Jones are the lifeblood of Barton's business. A 41-year-old software developer from Half Moon Bay, Calif., he's well-educated, with a family, some disposable income and -- he assures us -- no creepy clown masks or machetes in his basement. He played APBA as a kid, then played in a friendly roto league for a while. Missing the kind of intellectual challenge and player involvement he wanted, he ditched roto to play Scoresheet. He's in four Scoresheet leagues ("That's my limit," he says, "I once had five but was overwhelmed."). He also has a Scoresheet secret he has kept from his wife for years … until now.

"I scheduled the date for our wedding partially so it wouldn't interfere with any Scoresheet activities," he said, "both in the year I was married and subsequent anniversaries."

Dewberry-Jones has his own theory on the difference between roto and sim players.

"I believe that the most hard-core roto players are just as fanatical as the most hard-core sim players," he said. "The difference is that the average sim player is more into the hobby than the average roto player.

"First, the expanded rosters require a lot more studying. For an AL roto league, there are 10 [or 12] teams with 23 players [each]. For my AL Scoresheet league, there are 12 teams with 43 players. Cla Meredith was the big name in the supplemental round. Second, there's the game strategy involved (how to set up the lineup, the pitching staff, when to pinch hit, etc.). One of my league mates says most Scoresheet players think they could be a major league GM, or at least better than Dave Littlefield."

Paul Molitor
Before computers, sim players used cards and dice. You can still play old-school sim via Dynasty League Baseball.

Diamond Mind has some similarities to Scoresheet in the way it simulates game play and requires intimate knowledge of all 30 major league teams, from superstars to 25th men, in some cases all the way down to prospects in rookie ball. If you have some tech chops, the game can consume you.

Just ask Derek Zumsteg. With a regular writing gig at the excellent Mariners blog USS Mariner, occasional appearances on Page 2 and a new book, "The Cheater's Guide to Baseball," coming out, he isn't exactly flush with spare time. But because he's tech-savvy (and a little obsessed), Zumsteg goes to great lengths to beat his rivals in the Marvin Miller Baseball League.

The MMBL features an entire simulated economy. Teams get paid for wins, giving owners an incentive for success that makes a lot more sense than MLB's deeply flawed revenue-sharing system -- which has in the past taken money from once-successful, small-market teams such as the Indians and given it to big-city former doormats such as the Angels and Phillies. The MMBL's free-agency bidding is done through a huge public bidding interface, and every league owner can tell you the name of every notable middle infielder in the Devil Rays' farm system.

So how do you beat the competition in a league with 24 Billy Beanes?

"I've gone overboard on the data side," Zumsteg admitted. "I've built a database that contains every player in the league, real major league stats I've imported, and even more than one projection line (one based on three-year averages, one on the player's PECOTA forecasted weighted mean line), which I enter for selected players I'm evaluating."

Are your eyes glazing over yet? Just wait.

"So for this year's rookie draft, I had a report that showed how many wins each player would contribute over the life of the three-year contract he would get as a top pick, the one-year contract everyone else got, and over a multiyear period if you renewed him. Then they were all sorted out by maximum contribution. So I could see Ryan Zimmerman was the most valuable player in the draft, and a pick that could get you Zimmerman was projected to be worth $6 million in game dollars. Then I decided that wasn't complicated enough, and I created another formula to discount for future risk."

Still with us?

Dennis Martinez
Dynasty League Baseball founder Michael Cieslinski played an early version of his sim game with Orioles pitcher Dennis Martinez back in 1982.

"I realized I'd gone too far when I found myself annoyed that while it was a good valuation tool, I knew that wouldn't serve as a predicted draft order because our league has Texas roots and tends to overvalue Rangers and Astros players and prospects. I started to work out a way to bump those players up in the predicted order based on the number of owners I knew were in Texas and then reweight the other player values for the money their hometown fixation would drain out of the market."

Luckily, when he found himself about to go off the deep end with his Diamond Mind obsession, Zumsteg saved himself just in time.

"At that point, I took my hands off the keyboard and walked away to have a beer and watch a game."

Here's the really scary part of those Scoresheet and Diamond Mind stories: Both games have a computer-based system that plays the games for you. All you need to do is build your team and assemble lineups. In both Strat-O-Matic and Dynasty League, you do the same amount of work to build an optimal roster, then play out 162-game seasons manually.

Dynasty League founder Cieslinski says hard-core gamers choose a game like Dynasty because it more closely resembles the experience of being an actual GM. Instead of simply adding up statistical categories, team owners must build balanced rosters, considering everything from lineup balance vs. left- and right-handed pitching, late-inning defensive replacements, short lefty spot relievers who can face the David Ortizes of the league, and other factors. Players do all this live, while going head-to-head against opponents and making game decisions in real time. Dynasty League and its predecessor, Pursue The Pennant, have attracted more than 100,000 users in the past 21 years, Cieslinski says.

Almost as gratifying, he says, has been the interest his games have attracted among major leaguers. While living in suburban Milwaukee in the 1980s, Cieslinski often played pickup basketball against some of the Brewers players. Jim Gantner, Bob McClure and future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor took the biggest interest in the game. He later became friendly with some of the Baltimore Orioles players, enticing Dennis Martinez, Tippy Martinez, Lenn Sakata and others to give his game a try.

"I remember my first game vs. Paul Molitor was in the Brewer clubhouse," Cieslinski recalled. "Paul was managing the Brewers, and of course he had himself leading off. Sure enough, he hit a leadoff homer! Paul grasped just how realistic the game was immediately. Dennis Martinez was a tremendous amount of fun to play because he was so animated. When he was pitching [rolling the dice] it was like he was rolling curveballs and fastballs with the dice."

Blake still vividly remembers the day he beat Forsyth to clinch the pennant while his wife went into labor. Vance and Custeau still can walk you through almost every dice roll from their parking lot classic 30 years ago. But I have a confession of my own to make: I play in a Strat-O-Matic league with all four of them -- and 19 other fanatics -- in a mind-boggling creation called BrassWorld.

Go to our league Web site and your head will start to spin. The league pays out salary bonuses to seven officers: Commissioner, League Statistician, Draft Conductor, Free Agency Coordinator, Website Coordinator, Arbitration Judge and League Reporter (that's me). There are two league trophies. The annual draft lets you take players at any level; the most recent draft included rookie-league prospects, college standouts, Japanese League stars, even high school seniors.

And the rules? Better get your reading glasses. The League Constitution is a 33-page monster filled with more fine print than a car loan. There are bonuses for playing games on time, penalties for missing deadlines. Players follow service-time standards similar to major league baseball. They're eligible for arbitration after three big league seasons and free agency after seven seasons -- eight if they're signed to a long-term deal. Page 11 of the Constitution explains "The Mighty Arbitration Judge," a grid of performance and playing-time factors that helps determine how much a player should make -- subject, of course, to a final dice roll. There's a "Free Agency Bid Superiority Chart" that weighs shorter-term, more lucrative deals against longer-term contracts that give these imaginary players more imaginary job security. Other clauses in the Constitution include the "Secondary Free Agency Process," "Default Contract Liabilities" and full details explaining the "Newsletter Article Incentive Program."

It's a league that fosters round-the-clock thought, extreme competitiveness and year-round fun for the 24 owners. Gamers' bargaining skills come into play as the trade deadline approaches, when deals for players ranging from superstars to Double-A scrubs rush in by the dozen.

Those skills get the ultimate test when the games are over, though. That's when league members must submit pleading offers of makeup candlelight dinners, spa retreats and chick flicks to their exasperated wives.

For now, that can wait. First I need to find out whether this qualifies under the Newsletter Article Incentive Program.

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can reach him at jonahkeri@gmail.com.