The Dangerous Joys of Bill James Classic Baseball

by Tom Austin

"I can see you wincing even now as you look at this lineup.
Don Freakin' Mincher at cleanup?"

I'll have you know, should you have any illusions about it, that you are not, in fact, the Poobah of Procrastination. I hold that title not-quite-proudly, and with good reason. It was yea, many months ago that Gregg asked me to write an article about the trials and tribulations of playing Bill James Classic baseball. If you're a stranger to the game, I'll get back to the nuts and bolts of that question in a bit, so hang tough. There's going to be a fair amount of getting back to things in this piece.

Truth is, the original impulse (the not-quite-fictional Denver Bears and their push for the 1996 Panhandle Pennant) has been gone for some time, and with it the specific passion that would have driven the writing. Since then I've been casting about for a toehold on what is, for me anyway, a rather large and ponderous subject. Said toehold was provided by a particularly surreal Simpsons episode, and by a grubby little sports journalist named John Hunt, who writes a column on Fantasy Baseball for that esteemed publication, USA Today Baseball Weekly (Henceforth, McWeekly, but I prefer the Freudian misspelling "USA Toady"). In this column, Mr. Hunt was breaking down the six types of people who play rotisseries baseball. Prominent among these (first, in fact) was "the Geek," who was defined thus:

The Geek: Obsessed with the game... has a little poster of his team... has Òtalks" with his players... believes he can influence his players' hitting with catch phrases like "OH PLEASE, OH PLEASE, OH PLEASE.".. can't wait until the morning paper, must check boxes online... hopeless.

It was the "OH PLEASE's" that caught my eye. Thinking it a rank coincidence, I forwarded the deathless prose to the Giants newsgroup hoping for a cheap laugh or two. The whole thing stuck with me, though, like sand in an oyster. Upon further reflection, I came to realize that John Hunt had in fact been lurking in the newsgroup last fall, when the G-Men were fighting the Bums, and the faithful were doing their very best, and then some, to urge Our Boys across the finish line ahead of the hateful Boys In Blue, using the phrase "oh please" about 16 million times (a number sure to be exceeded by July this year, you bet). Nowhere else have I heard anyone use that phrase more than once at a time. (I don't get many dates, Gregg). Therefore, I conclude that Mr. Hunt lifted the holy phrase most blasphemously from its rightful place and profaned it with the seedy, rank stench of Rotisserie. (Yes, I've played the game, but I most certainly did not inhale.)

The underlying irony is that Hunt's piece, with the major boost provided by The Phrase, worked on its own merits, and in fact Hunt may even having been giving us a sly tip of th' pen, Bill Griffith-style. If so, I tip my hat to that master of deadpan. Grain of salt though, I had the same thought about Don Bobbs on the Jungle Cruise.

But I, and not for the last time, digress.

Getting back to the grain of sand metaphor, the granule that stuck in my craw was not the "OH PLEASE" part, but the earlier line about "... has 'talks' with his players." That's the part that stayed with me. I worried that little phrase around my mind for a day or two until I realized what it was:

Le Geek, c'est moi.

Not with Rotisserie, no; that game truly leaves me lukewarm. Rotisserie is more like speculating in Baseball Futures, complete with color-coded jackets, mobs of people gesticulating while waving little slips of paper, and the janitor sweeping it up and the end of the day while Metallica blasts through his walkman. I play, but on the level of those infuriating office Super Bowl pools: a cheap, safe way of bonding with ones workmates in bondage.

But I veer away from another digression.

"... has 'talks' with players." Seems dry and inadequate, that's what it is. An image is conjured of a lonely man, Brylcreemed hair stuck to forehead in a curl that stopped being adorable thirty-plus years ago, exhorting baseball cards of his players in the bedroom he still sleeps in his mother's house. No.

Okay, some of that is true. But inadequate, I say, for the rich inner life I have with my players. Talks? I hold clubhouse meetings with my players.

But not Rotisserie, no.

My Denver Bears.

See? The trail led back here all along, just as I promised. But what's past is prologue, and I must once again beg your forbearance on another digression, back to the misty past, and a dice game called Sports Illustrated Baseball.

Those wishing a detailed description of SI Baseball need only click their red heels together to read Gregg's long but worthwhile treatise on the subject. I will only discuss the subject as it relates to this piece, which is about my obsessive, delusional -- wait, strike that -- Oh, forget it, life is short (even if this piece isn't). My version of SI Baseball was called Superstar! Baseball, and it contained (what it termed) the 96 greatest players of all time. Ninety-six very conveniently divides into four teams of 24, and I created a league with my father and two brothers with "The 96." It helped me a lot that I had played about 100 hours more with the game than anyone else (in the two weeks I had it by that time). Therefore, my Denver Bears were a juggernaut. The lineup started with table-setters extraordinaire Honus Wagner and Eddie Collins, segued into a power core consisting of Al Simmons, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays, and stocked the bottom of the lineup with such out men as Mel Ott, Bill Dickey, and Johnny Mize. It was the pitching, however, that was really unfair: Warren Spahn could not crack my rotation of Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Juan Marichal, Bob Feller, and Hal Newhouser. I agree that the game may have underrated Warren a tad.

The only problem I had was, after starting 1-3, I went on a nine-game winning streak, including an 18-3 thrashing of my brother John's team. Partly because they had lives, and partly because they saw the writing on the wall, my opponents soon lost interest in my league, and I was left to play out the entire 162 games myself (96-66, with Willie Mays catching fire mid-summer and hitting 37 dingers, if you must know).

Since I didn't have the social pleasures of beating my family's brains out, I was left to entertain myself during the long summer afternoons. I did this in part my imagining myself as the boy skipper of these immortals. I imagined in 3-D and in color what I would say to a disgruntled Mel Ott to convince him to play third base so I could get his bat in the lineup, even though it wasn't enough to start in the outfield. I counseled mercurial Ted Williams on press relations when the media was riding him through an injury and a slump. Wagner I didn't have to say much to; the man pretty much knew what to do, and he took the rookies like Bill Terry and Mike Cuellar aside and taught them the ways of the big leaguer. I had to work to get their respect (this 13-year old manager had to endure more than a few clubhouse pranks, I can tell you) but it was my firm yet sensitive hand that molded these men into the championship club they became.

I know the phrase "get a life" is crossing you mind about now, but work with me on this, okay?

Many years pass....

Well, it so happened that I took a new job in Sonoma County in the summer of 1995, allowing me to move 400 miles closer to my Giants, ending 30 years of on-off exile in Southern California. My girlfriend at the time was studying in LA and couldn't join me until the following spring, so I found myself with time on my hands. It soon dawned on me that following the '95 Giants was going to be a frustrating experience, and memories of '93 made that a painful thing. I needed something to fill that gap.

Then one day, the clouds parted, and the answer was made clear to me: Bill James Classic Baseball, formerly known as The Winter Game.

I will digress now and explain briefly the way Bill James Classic Baseball (hereinafter known as BJCB) works.

First, you send in your money. It's a lot, $129 for a season. For most married men (Gregg and my brother and father included) this alone precludes their participation. For me, the silver lining of separation was the freedom not to need permission (uh, I mean "check it out with") from one's life partner. I suppose I could have done that, but my girlfriend was one of the sixty-three million women who roll their eyes predictably at the mere mention of the horsehide game, let alone spending precious cash on it. I rationalized by telling myself that I would just play "this once," to sow my wild baseball oats and get it out of my system.


Anyway, once the check is sent, the waiting begins. A week or so later, a large envelope arrives in the mail from STATS, Inc. in Illinois. Central to this package is the Rule Book and Player Catalog. The rules, condensed here, are fairly simple. You have $1,000,000 to build a team from the players in the catalog. Naturally, I wanted to include a few of my favorite players from my Superstar! Team. Off I went through the catalog. Ted Williams, $244,000... Willie Mays... $227,000, Honus Wagner, $198,000... and so on. It was clear that, at those prices, I would have a five-man team. This was going to take some work.

A little math tells me if I spend around $40,000-$70,000 for each starter, I can get by with a not-too-crappy bench. This means, of course, that a lot of players are out of my budget. Clemente? $148,000. Sal "the Barber" Maglie? A cool $100K. Yikes. I wanted Mays, but I didn't want to saddle Willie with yet another losing team, which I feared would be all I could afford after paying his salary.

I'll condense the next week or so of late-night agonizing and sifting through the pages of Total Baseball 2 (henceforth, TB or TB2, bought used especially for the purpose of picking this team) and the pages of paper filled with names large and small. Josh Gibson, Roger Repoz, Mickey Mantle, Rudi Meoli... they all started to run together, I'm telling you. The fate of nations began to hang on the choice between Ken Keltner and Denny Lyons at third base (Keltner; Lyons had according to TB, a suspect glove, and his short career makes him somewhat injury-prone in the Bill James game), and at least the fate of a block or two hinged on the choice between Chico Salmon and Tommy Matchick as the scrubeenie infielder. (Matchick, by virtue of the really goofy pose he struck on his 1969 Topps card. To this day, if you say "Tommy Matchick" to my brother David or myself and we will immediately strike that pose: pasty face, infielder squat, brand-new Rawlings thrust at the camera, not unlike a proud enfant toddler might show you his poopie.)

My angle on the team was to try to guess which sort of player would be most consistently undervalued by my competition (other nuts like me, that is.). I decided that Negro Leaguers, by virtue of their stats' near-total absence from TB, would not appeal to stathead types because of the uncertainty involved. Without too much further ado, the opening-day lineup of my inaugural BJCB team, the 1996 Denver Bears:

Roy Thomas RF
Newt Allen 2B
Oscar Charleston CF
Don Mincher 1B
Monte Irvin LF
Ken Keltner 3B
Joe Azcue C
Mark Belanger SS
Pitcher (Larry French, Eddie Rommel, Ed Halicki,...)

I can see you wincing even now as you look at this lineup. Don Freakin' Mincher at cleanup? Joe Azzzzz-Cue? Belanger? I admit, not a thunderous bunch. You try to assemble a winner with a million, and the salaries these damn players are charging these days! Before I start sounding like Wayne Huizenga on crack, I was paying for the hot gloves of Keltner, Belanger, and Newt Allen, and hoping their bats would be enough. I was also betting, like Brian Sabean, that a team of gutty little Bruins would be better than two prima donnas and a bunch of guys who play like Donna. But clearly I was hoping that Oscar Charleston would play the Barry role.

Well, they weren't. The Bears stumbled to a 6-14 start, went on a 36-12 tear, had the lead going into virtual June, but suffered through a 2-9 week at the All-Star Break and was eventually overcome by the Hated California Quakes (all right, I added the "hated" part), the Burlingame Panthers, the Hillcrest Hyenas, and Belmont Ravens. I managed to finish ahead of the South San Francisco Locomotives, and ahead of .500 at 79-75. Tough room.

Where was my downfall? Hitting. Even adding Josh Gibson and Riggs Stephenson (to replace Azcue and the .207-hitting Newt Allen) failed to put the Bears over the top. My "Negro League" strategy was a total bust as my high-priced gambles sank without a trace. (Josh Gibson, .264 and 10 homers in 300+ at-bats? Blurgh.) The pitching, no doubt considerably aided by that seamless infield D (until Old Hoss Stephenson poked his 2B -5 holes in it), was near the league lead. The offense couldn't generate enough runs to win.

All very nice, but to you, it's just another bunch of stats. I know this, because I would show these stats to my long-suffering friends and relatives, and they would get this faintly patronizing "Oh, very nice" look on their faces. How to convey the evanescent joy and exquisite pain that Bill James Classic Baseball brought me? How to convey the ludicrous depths of my obsession, and estrangement from reality? I've given some thought to this. The answer, I think, lies in the ways BJCB is different from a typical baseball simulation (even a now-becoming-typical e-mail baseball league):

  1. It costs a lot of money. It's no coincidence that I didn't play BJCB until I was separated from my girlfriend. What does money have to do with it? If you're not sure about this one, imagine that cocaine went for a dollar a pound or something. You think all those rock stars and basketball players would have gotten into it? Think again, bucko. They'd be licking cane toads at a thousand a frog. Money makes us want things. Somewhere in my mind I was thinking "I'm gonna get a hundred-plus dollars of baseball fun out of this. Yeeee-HAAAA!"

  2. They don't tell you much about how the game works. Fact is, they don't tell you nuthin'. They brag about how little you're supposed to know about how players are "coded." This forces you to stare at a player's Total Baseball entry for hours, wondering if you're going to get a 1970 season out of your $73,000 Rico Carty investment, or whether you'll get a 1973 performance (300 at-bats, .231, say no more) out of him. As opposed to looking up Carty in the game software and seeing that he's rated at .310 with plus-plus power, no speed and OF-4, or whatever.

  3. You get these newsletters once a week where they talk about the eleven games just played. You find yourself searching for mention of Your Boys, ranting when they don't mention your 9-2 week, and tossing around Eastern Media Establishment Conspiracy theories (read: Peter Gammons) when they choose your 1-10 week to do a feature on "the hapless Bears." (You will see that I fashioned my own response to the slanted media, printing several issues of The Denver Picayune before regaining a measure of perspective.

  4. The box scores. Did I mention box scores? For a mere two fins a fortnight, you can get a fax five days a week with either three (Monday) or two (the other days) box scores. Oh, my God. If BJCB is cocaine, those faxed box scores are crack. The plus side is, it gave me a reason to get to work on time, whereupon I'd go straight to my mailbox. The bad side (or more of the good side, depending on your perspective) is that it gave me a reason to avoid work for the rest of the morning as I entered the day's stats into my very elaborate Excel program and either basked in sweeping two or muttered darkly about a split or (let's not even talk about) a double loss.

  5. The conspiracy. Did I mention that the staff of STATS has, as a personal mission, my ultimate misery? Each year, they hold out the Lucine football of postseason glory as my Bears make their Charlie Brownian rush at the ball. Each year, they nod maliciously at each other as the stretch run begins and discuss whether the Bears' pitching, hitting, or fielding (or, perhaps, all three) will be the first to mysteriously go into flat spin and send the Bears' pennant hopes into the tank.

BJCB: Not for the faint of heart. Or wallet.

But I fought back. I ranted angrily at the cruel, vindictive Gods of Baseball. I invented multiple personalities. (see the Picayune article again). I enlisted my cronies at work into the scheme. Ken Agard, who really did hang out with the Twins in the sixties, became Coach Agard. We really did discuss different ways of motivating our players to excellence. (Unfortunately, our bag of motivational tricks tended to run dry right after "upend the postgame spread.") Roy Marciulionis (no relation to Sarunas) "sponsored" leadoff man Roy Thomas, which of course led to ever zanier escapades for the plucky, yet banjo-hitting, flychaser.

But no, there never was a Candy Hotcakes. Sorry. The picture is of uber-model Patricia Ford. Hey, I think she's hot stuff, and so to thousand of my fellow net-geeks, so back off.

And therein lies the real pull, for me. Bill James himself writes for the BJCB weekly newsletter every blue moon or so, and he put his finger on it. He described the experience of managing a BJCB team as creating a "participatory fiction." And he's right. That's what I did back when I was lecturing Ted Williams on "going with the pitch" and beating the shift, and that's what I did when I made Roy Thomas go ape and attack Beaver Cleaver the batboy -- and lose. I'm the puppetmaster. That's why I write, too; I get to create a world and, to a point, say what happens in it.

But wait, the alert reader notes: you don't get to make your Bears win. That's right, I don't. The pseudo-gods at STATS control that part of the universe. And that's part of the appeal, too. See, I want, one day, for those little STATS men working the fake Gods of Baseball levers to one day step out from behind their Ozzymandian curtain and, glowering, present the trophy to my champion Bears. Then, whatever happens in the rest of my ribbon-clerk existence, I will forever be the owner, GM, and manager or the World Champion Denver Bears. It may never happen; I'll have to watch the hated Quakes win it year after year. But on that sun-kissed autumn afternoon when it finally happens, it will be so indescribably, ineffably sweet. It will be like bathing in blackberries. With Candy Hotcakes. And I can't quit hoping until it happens, because if I do the world will quite simply have no meaning, and my life will become a pointless Ingmar Bergman film.

And if you haven't caught the Giants parallel here yet, you're just not paying attention.

Tom Austin is a Bay Area writer who unfortunately must work as an engineer for a living. He's one of the authors of the 1998 edition of The Big Bad Baseball Annual,a regular contributor to the Giants newsgroup, and is frequently quoted in EEEEEE!, even against his will.

Copyright ©1998 by Tom Austin

Last updated 5/1/98
Gregg Pearlman,

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