The Hold of the Table
By Michael Webb
“You know what I hear when I listen to that?”
My wife turns to me from the passenger seat. I have been married to this woman since 1994, and it astounds me, at times, how little she seems to know about me.
Fantasy baseball talk pours from my iPod and through the car stereo. WHIPs and command, pure quality starts and reliability scores fill the air. Not just baseball talk, but the talk for which the term “inside baseball” was formed. The geeky, inside stuff, the secret formulas and interior scaffolding that undergird the hits, runs and errors you see on TV.
“Geekgeekgeekgeekdorkdorkdorkdorknerrrrrrrrrrrddddddd…” she says in a singsong voice. I don’t take it personally—I’m a baseball dweeb, through and through. As one of Roger Angell’s subjects put it once, baseball trivia is a contradiction in terms—there is nothing trivial about baseball. If you’re not afflicted, if baseball is, at best, something that you have on as background noise while you fold laundry, then baseball talk is as mysterious as ancient Sumerian.
“I was thinking about taking a trip to Pittsburgh this summer,” I mention casually.
“Really? What for?”
“Well, a bunch of us geeks are having a get together.”
She sighs. “Count me out.”
I’ve long since given up trying to explain my hobby. Fantasy baseball, even without prize money involved, is relatively easy to understand: Just pretend managing a team of real players, giving you a rooting interest in games you don’t otherwise care about. Baseball history, like any history, even if it isn’t your passion, is pretty easy to grasp. We study Tris Speaker for the same reason we study the 12th century—because we can, and because it does us good to push back the frontiers of ignorance, and, well, because we want to know.
But my hobby, tabletop baseball, is another order of geek magnitude away from that. Fantasy baseball is at least tenuously linked to actual reality. Tabletop baseball takes the names and statistics of real players from the present and the past and invites the hobbyist to replay them. Games, series, even entire seasons—all replayed, die roll by die roll, card by card, scoresheet by scoresheet.
I started with an ad in a baseball annual, scrimping and saving my allowance until I had enough for the first set, then played and played, starting projects and abandoning them, then starting others. The magic of dice and cards, flipping and checking, grand slams and inning-ending double plays, even in this twice removed fantasy world, has never faded.
The appeal is partially control. You don’t watch Grady Little stand there as the Yankees rattle Pedro with hit after hit in the 2003 ALCS—you virtually walk out there and wave for help. And the appeal also reaches into the world of alternate history. Like a novelist who imagines different strategies at Gettysburg, the tabletop hobbyist imagines Bowie Kuhn allows Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to be sold to the Red Sox in 1976, or Joe DiMaggio traded for Ted Williams in 1946. And tabletop baseball appeals to the puzzle solver in all of us: Can this pitcher retire one more hitter? Do I sit my slumping slugger today, or is he about to break out of it? What can I do to break out of this losing streak? Is this guy’s slugging worth the grounders he’ll miss at third base?
You can simulate all this with computers, of course. The algorithms hidden behind ballpark art, the equations of run scoring and abilities of players reduced to computer code, the randomness of dice replaced by the quantum whims of some random number generator, deep inside a microscopic computer chip. You can use computers to “be” Derek Jeter, pushing a button at exactly the right moment to meet a Josh Beckett fastball in a video game. There is no need for paper, dice and the often-solitary slow marches through the 1973 baseball season.
The paper, dice, notebooks and hash marks—recording hits and runs, victory and defeat, strikeouts and double plays—make it tactile. It’s personal, and vivid, and real, and somehow worthier to sit and record invisible, imaginary progress. The Internet, along with making these games somewhat superfluous, has taught us that others have our disease, that others feel the need to mark a putout on paper, to see the chances of a home run denied by a pitcher’s skills or a single snagged by a snazzy infield play. The feeling that I’m not alone brought me to Pittsburgh to meet the small band of similarly strange brethren.
But, in the end, why pursue alternate history when there is so much real history to learn? Why chase phantom pennants that never were? Why fly to Pittsburgh for a weekend with similarly afflicted freaks, chattering about platoons and hold ratings and weak throwing arms, playing games that never happened on fields in your imagination? Why engage in this terminally geeky pastime at all?
To paraphrase Jim Bouton, you spend your life trying to get a hold on baseball, only to find it has a hold on you instead. You play tabletop baseball not to deny or ignore real baseball, but instead to find a place where you can exert some will over the players and teams, but also see the difficulty still frustrate you. The same problems come up, whether playing in 1876 or with last year’s players—you start and sit, trade and haggle, replace pitchers and watch leads slip away, and you realize what it is about the game that has you coming back for more. There’s always something new to find in baseball, and there’s always a strategy you haven’t tried.
About the author
Michael Webb began his baseball fandom in 1978, which was a really great year to be a Boston Red Sox fan. Most of it, anyway. He now follows the Sox in South Jersey with his patient wife and son, who are probably at this moment waiting for him to finish rolling a game.