Rolls of the dice

I’d like to say it was for my 8th birthday that I received a present that would eventually consume several hours of my life. I already was a huge baseball fan, and could answer all kinds of trivia questions about the sport’s history and recite batting averages of New York Yankees’ players (my allegiance to the Yankees ended before I reached 13) at an almost up-to-the-minute clip. I may have already shown signs of a lack of playing ability at the age — particularly at the plate — but as far as having a mind for numbers and stats, I don’t think I would understate it if I said I was a prodigy of sorts.

So, when I unwrapped the box containing a board game called “Superstar Baseball,” I had a feeling it was going to be something special. I remember playing for the first time with, of all people, my dad’s friend’s girlfriend. It was simple to figure out, and though I don’t think it started right away the game ultimately became something akin to an obsession.

“Superstar Baseball,” which was created by Sports Illustrated (and long out of circulation), was played in the format of an American League/National League all-star game. There were probably between 40 and 50 historically great players assigned to each league. (Some, of course, played in both leagues, and were assigned to the league in which they spent the most time). The names ran the gamut of all the sport’s eras, as players dating as far back as Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and awesomely nicknamed Frank “Home Run” Baker, who hit an underwhelming-by-today’s-standards 96 home runs in a career spanning from 1908 to 1922, were included along with then-current stars like Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Joe Morgan, Carl Yastrzemski and others.

I would be remiss in saying that the inclusion — and exclusion — of players in what my brother Ian and I, not to mention many friends simply deemed “Superstar” was continually a subject of debate. The biggest, way-over-the-top omission was none other than Joe DiMaggio. Even if a Red Sox fan created the game, how could the Yankee Clipper be excluded? The fact that National League slugger Ralph Kiner was left out was also a sore spot for some of us, particularly those who loved listening to him on New York Mets’ TV and radio broadcasts. And there were more than a few players that were in the game that we’d never heard of.

Still, we played with the players we had (though a friend created cards for DiMaggio and Kiner that we did use). The playing was done with three dice. The team pitching would roll first, with a total — checked on the pitcher’s card — either resulting in an “automatic out” (depending on how good his team’s combined defensive rating was), a walk/strikeout/other form of out or a swing, which afforded the opportunity for the team hitting to take a turn. The hitter’s roll of the dice would then be checked on the card of whoever was up (I can still remember various results on Babe Ruth’s card) to determine what happened.

Yes, a lot of the game was luck of the dice, but there was strategy, too. In addition to defensive ratings, players were rated on speed and bunting ability, which allowed for nuances such as stealing bases, scoring from second on a single, successfully tagging up on a fly ball, or simply executing a sacrifice bunt or a suicide squeeze. Needless to say, not only could one employ different strategies, but one could also keep track of statistics galore — which, sadly, I did over the course of multiple games over a several-month period one year.

Unfortunately, I think “Superstar” was lost during one of any number of relocations that have taken place over the years. I should note that my fascination with this game ultimately led to another pre-occupation — this time with Strat-A-Matic Baseball, which I played during my college years. It’s probably safe to say that affection for Strat wasn’t exactly a plus in trying to win affection from the opposite gender.

I’ve been thinking lately of going on eBay to see if I could find a “Superstar Baseball” to purchase and subsequently teach my kids to play. But why would they want to roll dice, for instance, when they can play baseball on the Wii, or play on the iPad or — here’s an idea — play outside? They’d probably last about five minutes with my old favorite before ditching me.

Well, that’s fine. But I think I still may have to find the game anew, if only for Ian and I to play it on a very occasional basis. Many, many years from baseball, instead of playing cards in a nursing home somewhere, we’ll be able to gladly roll the dice.

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