Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Roots of Fandom, Cont'd: Strat-O-Matic '86

When I was growing up, the Chicago Cubs were my favorite sports team. How that came to happen and why my once-diehard fandom atrophied are stories for another time.

But if you subscribe to the idea, as I do, that one's formative years of fandom come roughly between the ages of 11-13, the year 1986 -- when I was 13 -- ranks as one of the biggest fandom years of my life (in addition to being my bar-mitzvah year, but – again – that's a story for another time).

At the same time, I have no problems talking about the fact that I was hugely into Strat-O-Matic baseball during those same formative years. I'd say it probably started when I was 11 and lasted consistently (and obsessively) all the way until I was about 15, unsurprisingly, the long, wretched gap between the start of puberty and when I finally "got" girls.

("Got" meaning "understood," not "got" meaning "got," though "understood" was something I believed at the time, and in hindsight seems incredibly funny, given that I barely understand women now, 20 years later.)

Anyway: Strat-O-Matic. Loved it. Lived it. Some of you might have done the same. It's one of those things that, if you played it, you understand. If you didn't, you just think I'm even more of a tool. That's fine, either way.

Earlier this year, I was approached by The Sporting News' Strat impresario, Bernie Hou, who made me an offer I couldn't accept fast enough: TSN was going to replay the entire 1986 baseball season, through Strat-O-Matic Online, with various "guest managers" running their favorite teams.

I would get to manage my once-beloved Cubs (not unlike Jim Frey, John Vukovich and Gene Michael, who all handled the job that season), perhaps rekindling some of the memories and passions of the 13-year-old me that have undoubtedly been adulterated over the decades since.

Before I checked Baseball Reference, I tried jotting down the starters; I found I still knew them by heart: Jody Davis, Leon Durham, Ron Cey, Shawon Dunston, Keith Moreland, Bob Dernier, Gary Matthews, and – of course – my favorite player of all time, Ryne Sandberg. The pitching was a mess, but I had those names down, too: Rick Sutcliffe, Scott Sanderson, Steve Trout, Dennis Eckersly (as a starter), closer Lee Smith and two young pitchers: Jamie Moyer and 20-year-old Greg Maddux (2-4 in 5 starts with a 5.52 ERA).

The other managers in the league range from the random to the semi-famous to the famous-for-the-sports-blogosphere to the really famous. For example, I am starting the season with a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals, coming off their NL pennant year, managed by uber-fan Will Leitch. Most intriguingly, the Strat-head managing the Boston Red Sox is Curt Schilling. (I had Terry Francona on my roster specifically to trade to Schilling, but I had to waive Francona in a roster crunch.)

The premise of the league is totally intriguing: Replay the 1986 season, seeing if things would turn out any differently. That begs a very important question:

Would you even want to?

After all, many (including me) think that the 1986 postseason was the greatest in the sport's history: Red Sox vs. Angels in the ALCS; Mets vs. Astros in the NLCS; then the Mets over the Sox in 7 games in the World Series, including the most famous baseball game of the last half-century, "Game Six."

Still, as far as intellectual exercises go, it's fantastic – and something I'm really excited to be a part of. TSN is really blowing it out: Among other awesome details, they're having actual "beat writers" covering the season as it unfolds. I have included a permanent link to TSN's coverage on the right-hand side, so you can follow the league if you're curious. I'll try to provide regular updates in the a.m. blog post.

Otherwise, here's the link. The season begins this week. Junior high was a pretty bad experience for me (as it probably was for most of you, too), but to be able to go back to this particular year, this particular season and this particular time of my formative development as a fan sounds like the greatest ride I could think of.

-- D.S.