The powers of Cardboard Gods
My two kids are ages 10 and 5, which qualifies me as an expert on temper tantrums, and no matter how mad either one of our children has ever been, neither will ever come close to how enraged I once was at Josh Wilker, the author of "Cardboard Gods."
Josh and his older brother Ian and I go back a long way together. We grew up in the same town, Randolph Center, Vt., and we attended the same four-room schoolhouse together. We played on the same Little League team, the Mets (and we were terrible). We bought baseball cards at the same place, Floyd's General Store, from the same man, Bill Floyd, who was a fan of the Orioles. Ian and I were roommates at boarding school, and during summers, the Wilkers were hired hands on our dairy farm, collecting hay bales off the fields.
I read Josh's vivid descriptions of the place where we all grew up, and I have the same memories. The excerpt that we are running Friday from "Cardboard Gods," about Reggie Jackson, is dead-on. Reggie was without a doubt the most hated player in our town, largely because Reggie was the loud star of the Yankees and our town was in the middle of what would become known as Red Sox Nation.
I was a Dodgers fan, and I hated him, too, because he personally wrecked my childhood in the 1977 and 1978 World Series, mashing five homers in '77 and sticking his hip in the way of a Bill Russell throw in 1978, the turning point of a Yankees turnaround in that gut-wrenching series. I interviewed Jackson for stories after I joined The New York Times, and the thought that kept resonating through the back of my mind -- never uttered, of course -- was I'm talking to the guy who was the most hated player in Randolph Center, Vt.
But in writing his book, Josh thankfully didn't tell the tale of my great Strat-O-Matic collapse.
I can say, with all modesty, that I was the Billy Beane of Strat-O-Matic Baseball when I was a teenager. I'd put together juggernauts with drafts and trades, probably because I'd developed a system of assessing the players in the same way that card counters win in Las Vegas. In every column of a Strat-O-Matic advanced card, there are 36 possible outcomes, and so I'd count the value of every player card and adhere to my system and put together really good teams, building great bullpens based on matchup relievers and exceptional defenders. I never told anybody about the system, of course, because I was hypercompetitive, and so year after year, I won leagues that we'd put together in high school, college, or with the Wilkers.
One summer, however, I fell in love with offense. I don't know why it happened. I just know that it happened. And it was Josh who exploited my weakness.
Josh writes about Cardboard Gods in his book, referring to the baseball cards that we collected. Well, the symbol of my demise that summer -- my cardboard Antichrist -- was Jim Dwyer, a fine-hitting outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles (and a fine person, I'm sure). He could hit for power, he drew walks, he got on base.
On the Strat-O-Matic ratings for defense, a No. 1 ranking is best No. 5 is the worst. Dwyer was given a 3 rating. My team had always had 1s in the outfield. But I picked Dwyer because I loved his card against right-handed pitchers, and in order to get him, I reached and bypassed some pitching.
Josh took the best pitching, and he started winning. Keep in mind that he was the little brother of a friend who was a year younger than me, and when you're a teenager, a two-year age gap feels like 20 years. So when he started beating me, I was just enraged.
We would mostly play at the Wilkers' house, on a table in the kitchen, which was right below his parents' bedroom. When anybody reacted in a good or bad way to anything in our games, well, we ran the risk of waking up his parents. And at one point, I was such a loud and terrible loser that his stepfather came downstairs sleepily to lecture us (but mostly me).
Josh and I reached our version of the World Series, and after I lost, I stormed out of his house, furious at him for beating me, furious at myself for blowing it. Just flat-out enraged. I was lucky I didn't wind up in a ditch on the way home.
Josh's book is excellent, and I hope he does well with it. And I have this thought, too, in all candor (and he will both understand and respect this, because we know each, at heart): I hope he loses every Strat-O-Matic game he plays the rest of his life.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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