STATIS PRO BASEBALL is one of the most accurate simulations of the sport of baseball ever produced. This game will enable you to recreate all the subtleties and intricacies of baseball right at your dining room table …
In the summer of 1984, at the age of 11, I found a vast number of things intimidating, up to and including: mock turtlenecks, break dancing, David Bowie’s version of “China Girl,” Zola Budd, Hebrew school textbooks, and the dining room of our home on Devonshire Drive in State College, Penn. This was a room without a single television set, its dominant feature a mahogany slab with hard-backed chairs so unforgiving that they caused your gluteal muscles to seize up in protest. You did not touch anything in the dining room without first being instructed to touch it. It was a place for adult contrivances, for displaying fine china and molded plastic centerpieces and consuming overcooked poultry in the presence of virtual strangers.
I do not know who authored the instructions for STATIS PRO BASEBALL, but only an adult would have the audacity to suggest spreading out the varied bits and pieces of an intricate baseball simulation on a dining room table. No suburban American child could ever have conceived such a thing, because we had a studio apartment of our own, a cool, dark fortress with shag carpeting and wood paneling and a dropped ceiling that withered under the prolonged pounding of a Nerf football. Down here, we had unrestricted access to a third-string television and a record player and an overstuffed chair the shade of fine mustard and an aluminum folding table in the corner near the washing machine. Down here was a place for holding epic slumber parties and watching scrambled HBO. Down here was where we opened the box and unfolded the game board and read the instruction manual until we comprehended just enough of it to begin playing the game on our own.
Two: Game Equipment
1. Rules of Play
2. Mounted board (2 pieces), including game charts
3. Out charts (3)
4. Fast Action Cards set
5. Player cards set
7. Pawns for baserunners (3)
Eleven is the age at which athletics begin to evolve from a communal gathering into a selective pursuit. At 11, Little League is nearing its end and giving way to real baseball, with 90 feet between the bases and 60 feet, six inches to home plate, and those of us who possess the desire but lack the physicality and coordination are shunted aside. And so we seek substitutes, a way to replicate the experience that is still somehow tethered to reality. In the modern age, of course, this is the purpose of fantasy baseball and video games; but during my childhood, Rotisserie sports were the domain of New York editors, and Atari baseball featured pixelated stick figures with monikers invented by Japanese software engineers. What was the point of spending time with a re-creation that possessed no authenticity?
Hence, The Game: STATIS PRO BASEBALL, published by the Avalon Hill company, 4517 Harford Road, Baltimore, Md., and endorsed on the box by Sports Illustrated magazine. The cost, I believe, was 30 dollars, and this was either the best or the worst money my parents ever spent, because the game consumed my life for five years. I don’t remember the first time I played, and I don’t remember the second, and I don’t remember the third. What I remember is this: Before I knew it, most of the summer of ’84 was gone, and I had hardly seen the sun. I slept until 11, played the game until 2, prepared/consumed a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, played the game until 6, ate dinner in silence while totaling box scores and perusing the four-page sports section of the Centre Daily Times, played the game until midnight, watched the David Letterman show, dozed off to a B-movie on the USA Network, went to bed, woke up, and did it all over again. My objective: To play a complete 162-game slate, to replicate the entire 1983 baseball season, to keep meticulous track of statistics and box scores, to quantify everything on yellow legal pads that my father brought home from the university at which he worked. There was nothing sentimental about it. This was the first job I ever had, to serve as manager and commissioner of an alternate universe, laboring each day to fulfill a quota that existed only in my own head.
Three: Setting up the game
… Each player should choose a lineup and a pitcher, placing the appropriate player cards in the boxes corresponding to the team’s designation on the lower board section. The game is now ready to be played!
STATIS PRO BASEBALL was invented over four decades ago by a restless soul named Jim Barnes. Early in his career, Barnes worked in television in Waterloo, Iowa, until one day he stared into the camera and found himself thinking, Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life? So he went back to school, graduated at age 32, got a job with a media company, and then worked on an Economic and Corridor study for the Iowa Highway Commission with the thought of becoming a research specialist, until the project grew so mind-numbing that he couldn’t stand it anymore. This became the Melvillian pattern of his career: Obsess over something, get bored, find something new to obsess about.
Casting about for a purpose after the highway study, Barnes mined his own pre-adolescent years, to when he’d invented a baseball dice game in a matter of hours. At 13, he’d also devised an auto racing game, and he decided to publish a version of it, virtually unchanged. It took all day to play, but it developed a cult following, and so Barnes began to come up with more ideas. He’d played most of the tabletop baseball games that existed at that time, and he found them lacking: They were too slow, or thoroughly inaccurate, or took hours to play, or didn’t take pitching into account at all. Even in Strat-o-Matic, the most popular tabletop simulation ever devised, the balance between hitting and pitching was essentially a 50-50 proposition, which meant that Sandy Koufax might have as much impact on a game as a third-tier starter for the Chicago Cubs.
And so Barnes came up with STATIS PRO BASEBALL in a matter of weeks. Originally named after the company for which he worked — Midwest Research — Barnes decided to rename it after a column about sports statistics he’d written for his college newspaper, long before the Sabermetric revolution swept through baseball. He does not remember how he worked out his formulas. Inventing games comes so naturally to him that he believes anyone could do what he did. He concocted pitcher cards and hitter cards, and he grounded gameplay in a Base Eight system (utilizing the numbers 11-88, with no nines or zeros ever appearing, a total of 64 possible digits) for the simple reason that he wanted the kids who played it to be forced to think in a different numerical language. And then one night, the game’s crucial innovation came to him in a dream: Instead of relying on dice or a flimsy spinner to determine fate, he would rest STATIS PRO’s fate on a deck of specially designed Fast Action Cards. The beauty of the Fast Action Cards (FACs) is difficult for their creator to explain; as with many of his inventions, they just felt right. While they were not as mathematically foolproof as dice, they made “all chances equal,” according to Barnes, something that he believes dice could never do. They fostered momentum — so that it was plausible for a .220 hitter to go 4-for-4, or for a middling pitcher to throw a no-hitter — while also speeding the game along. They are one of the few innovations that Barnes seems legitimately proud of. “It’s an unbalanced deck — it’s not going to come out perfectly even,” he tells me. “But if you flip a coin a hundred times, you’re probably not going to get 50 heads and 50 tails. I never know where these things come from.”
And yet it wasn’t just the FACs, and it wasn’t just the speed of the games, and it wasn’t just the fact that unlike Strat-o-Matic, you could immediately look at a player card and determine that player’s strengths/weaknesses. It was that Jim Barnes had grown up playing these games by himself, and so he designed every aspect of STATIS PRO with solitare play in mind. You could play it head-to-head, but in truth, STATIS PRO was a game meant for those us who preferred to work alone.
Four: How to play
Usually, only a single reference is made to a FAC, after which a new one will have to be flipped and referred to in a similar manner. When the entire deck of FAC is used up, shuffle it again thoroughly, turn the pile around so that the readings which were upside-down before are now face up, and place it in the Fast Action Card box.
Tabletop baseball games, both official and unofficial, have existed since the advent of baseball itself. There are variations dating back to the 1860s, versions involving spinners and boards and cards and dice, versions centered around charts and darts and vibrations from an electric motor . A young Jack Kerouac once constructed his own game; so did the novelist Paul Auster. The author Robert Coover wrote an entire novel about a man obsessed with a game he’d invented. In 1948, an 11-year-old kid named Hal Richman took to his basement to escape an abusive father and wound up inventing Strat-o-Matic, which is often credited for helping to inspire the Sabermetric revolution.
Richman grew up on Long Island, and for those of us who came of age in suburbia, the basement was as detached from the adult universe as any space in the same physical structure could ever be. The atmosphere down there felt almost Martian, its dark surfaces populated by strange-looking bugs and curious balls of dust. On certain ripe summer days, you could smell the encroaching mold. In the basement, I juggled several alternate realities, both physical and mental: I created/notated entire college basketball/football/MLB/NBA/NFL rosters and played them out with Nerf accessories, and I played STATIS PRO BASEBALL (and in the offseason, STATIS PRO FOOTBALL, which was more stilted and confusing). The world upstairs was a near-constant intimidation; the world upstairs was evolving outside of my control. In the basement, it was just the opposite. In the basement, I was in command of everything.
And so these alternate universes were as much an obligation as a pleasure. Without me, they would cease to exist, and because I’d brought them into being, the thought of them vanishing without reaching some logical conclusion deeply affected me. They were the only manifestations of my true self, and I owed them my dedication. At least twice, I fell asleep with my head on a pile of Fast Action Cards. That first summer I imagined I would play out a 162-game slate and then purchase the ensuing year’s version of STATIS PRO and do it all over again, but time soon eclipsed my grand notions. I got 22 games into the season, and then it was September, and it was football season, and, juggling all these worlds, I put STATIS PRO BASEBALL away until the completion of the following school year.
A. Lineups, Scoring and Abbreviations
After lineups are chosen, you may choose to record this information on one of the scoresheets included in STATIS PRO BASEBALL.
To this day, I remember the language of STATIS PRO more vividly than I recall anything I was taught from sixth through the 12th grade: The numbers, the charts (Proto-TPS reports, coded in shades of yellow, blue, and pink), the player cards themselves, detached one by one from perforated sheets. I have never forgotten Jack Perconte’s prodigious walk numbers (33-47) and Ron Kittle’s stupendous strikeout possibilities (33-63) and the majestic footnotes that appeared only on the cards of Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson: Steals 2nd after any single on his own card. I recall that Steve Howe, in the midst of the sort of behavior that could not accurately be quantified by the game’s creator, was nearly unhittable. All these names — Mickey Klutts and John Wockenfuss and Rusty Kuntz — still reside in the attic of my cerebrum. They were my coworkers; they taught me how to collate and how to construct and how to build a universe out of integers.
They even taught me about ethics, as in the curious case of Randy Ready, one of the more aptly named pinch-hitters of all time, who in 1983, as a rookie call-up with the Milwaukee Brewers, played 12 games, and hit .405 with six extra-base hits and six RBIs in 37 at-bats. The STATIS PRO cards clearly stipulated the number of games played during the 1983 season in that white space separating the name from the numbers. I knew that Randy Ready played in 12 games, and should play in no more than 12 games in my universe, as well. The problem was, who could resist? There was his card, stacked with positive numbers, looming amid the pile of Milwaukee Brewers, just begging to be utilized. That first summer, I permitted myself some liberties, and I made Randy Ready a regular starter. But as I got older and the season dragged on from one summer to the next, from elementary school to junior high to high school, I hid Randy Ready on the bench. To do otherwise would not have been right. Even in the basement, a certain order had to prevail. The job must be done properly, or the universe detaches from reality and drifts away forever.
B. Reading the Fast Action Cards
Each FAC consists of a series of information, usually in numerical form.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, STATIS PRO was a minor hit for Avalon Hill. Barnes devised a football game and then a basketball game which, he says, may have been the greatest of them all (he says he still hears from people who say STATIS PRO BASKETBALL is more fun and fast-paced than an actual NBA contest). But Barnes had other obsessions to explore. He found himself drawn to sports handicapping (his true love is horse racing), and came to work at the Stardust casino in Las Vegas. He devised graphics for a gambling program on ESPN. He wrote a weekly syndicated newspaper column. STATIS PRO became an albatross. Personal computers were still in their infancy, and he would spend hours calculating the next year’s cards, immersing his mind in crushing and burdensome calculations. At one point, his only time off during the week came on Tuesday evenings.
He did not particularly enjoy his relationship with Avalon Hill, and he did not get rich for his efforts, even after Sports Illustrated got involved. He would see the game in stores, in places such as Kay Bee and Toys-R-Us, but it was not a point of pride; he never played the games himself, and neither did his children. I get the feeling that it embarrasses him that there are people who have devised Yahoo! groups devoted to his game, that there are online leagues of STATIS PRO players, that a 45-year-old man named Rick Queary has devised a website dedicated specifically to STATIS PRO, that there are people whose childhoods were so consumed by it that they are afraid to let it die.
For Jim Barnes, STATIS PRO was never a pathway to a legacy. It was a job just like any other job. At the beginning, major league baseball charged $2,500 for the rights to replicate their reality; by 1990, with the video-game industry booming and sports marketing transformed into something that strived for authenticity at every level, they demanded $50,000 and a percentage of the revenues. Barnes, seeing a way out, decided to stop updating STATIS PRO altogether. The work was complete. The game floated off into the ether.
C. Basic Play Steps
If the PB result is “Z,” stop play at once and consult the UNUSUAL PLAYS Chart (listed on the back of Out Chart C).
It took me almost six summers to get through one-third of the 1983 major league baseball season. The problem was that, in order to maintain fealty to the universe you’d created, you had to pay careful attention to what you were doing. It wasn’t that the games themselves took especially long to play, but to do it right, you had to take the time to construct them in your mind, to broadcast the play-by-play in a hoarse whisper, extrapolating from the enclosed charts — 26-28 on the injury chart: Center fielder crashes into wall. Inside park home run. Use injury factor — in a way that made the anomalous seem plausible. I would argue that the “Z” (UNUSUAL PLAYS) chart was Barnes’ greatest invention of all, for the draw of a “Z” amid the flurry of FACs being overturned throughout the game meant a respite from the grind of flipping and notating and recording. “Z” was weird; “Z” was liberating. For instance, here is “Z” no. 15: Batter hits apparent home run down foul line. Umpire calls it a FOUL BALL, JUST FOUL. Batter argues and umpire rejects his opinion on eyesight. Batter kicked out of game.
Well, this requires innovation, for the number 15 is going to come up several times over the course of typical summer, and the scenario that one must play out in one’s head is dependent on whether the batter in question is Reggie Jackson or, say, Paul Molitor. In order to make the game real, in order to maintain the narrative, each “15” must be unique (at least in one’s own mind), and this can be burdensome.
This is the brilliance of Barnes’ invention: It was grounded in formulas, but it was elastic enough to foster creativity. What I devised in those summers was my first unfinished novel.
Whenever an asterisk appears next to the abbreviated result under the Out Sequence on an FAC (i.e., indicating how a batter was put out), the players must flip a new FAC in order to determine if an error has been made on the play.
“I’ve never been overly impressed by anything I did,” Barnes tells me. He’s 77 now, and he’s had struggles with his health, in part, he says, because of all those years he drove his varied obsessions to their limits. “I always felt I could do better. My life has had a lot of ups and downs. Everything I ever did had a deadline. And deadlines are stress.”
He doesn’t protect any licenses on STATIS PRO. When people contact him to ask if they can replicate his player card formula and sell those cards online, he tells them to go ahead. When they offer him some sort of royalty payment, he refuses. The only possessive thing he ever did came after hearing that a health-care company had named a software package StatisPro; in response, Barnes registered the website STATIS PRO.COM, even though he has no intention of ever using it.
A few years after the demise of STATIS PRO, the people at Avalon Hill called Barnes and asked if he had any ideas for a new baseball game. He came up with one in the course of an evening. When they called him back, he told them he had nothing. He imagined the work it would require, and he decided, like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, that he would prefer not to.
J. Questions on Play
Questions on the play of this game can only be answered if they are phrased so that they can be answered in a “yes” or “no” format. In addition, the customer must include a stamped, self-addressed envelope with current first-class postage. Otherwise, you won’t hear from us.
Around the time STATIS PRO ceased to exist, around the time Jim Barnes says he stopped following baseball altogether, I came to the realization that I was going to depart for college before I finished replicating the 1983 season. It became one of those unachievable tasks, sapped of any joy, driven only by repetition. I would move through games as fast as I could to move to the next one, not bothering with play-by-play or creative visualizations, knowing that all of this effort would soon vanish into a black hole. No sport rewards obsession like baseball, but no sport punishes obsession quite so severely, either: I had used up one-third of the summers of my life and essentially gotten nowhere. One day, I walked upstairs and never went back down. The game vanished, most likely in one of my parents’ frequent purges of the raw materials of my childhood.
Was it worth it? I ask Jim Barnes, and his response is halting; given the stress it brought on, he seems to be saying, it wasn’t. But he does talk about the letters: From the parents of a child who was dying of cancer, for whom the game brought some fleeting moments of joy; from a father whose child was failing math until he began playing the game and became a B-plus student. You felt like you were serving a purpose, Barnes tells me, and I want to tell him that I understood — that I, too, felt like I was serving a purpose, even if I never understood what it was. That perhaps, in some convoluted way, this stranger on the phone shaped my existence as much as my own parents did; that, even if it felt like abject failure, I am better off for having spent all that time in the basement, my head flooded with integers, toiling to complete what I’d begun. But I don’t know if that’s true any more than the Sabermetricians or the skeptics could definitively say whether baseball is better off or worse off for its recent embrace of the hard labor of mathematics. At some level, it is all just an attempt to justify our obsessions.
A few months ago, I purchased the 1983 version of STATIS PRO BASEBALL on eBay. It arrived with the player cards intact, with the color-coded out charts still crisp, with the scoresheets pristine and unblemished. I live in the city now, in an apartment that I own, with a woman I married in June. I no longer have a finished basement. I have a dining room table, which is where I laid out the cards, unfolded the board, and opened the instruction manual. I remembered everything, even more than I imagined I would, and I wanted to play a game, to begin my work anew. But I could not bring myself to start.
Michael Weinreb is a Grantland staff writer and the author, most recently, of Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB and How the ’80s Created the Modern Athlete.