Thursday, March 26, 2009


A while back, The Common Man talked about getting to meet Steve "Bye-bye" Balboni, a mustachioed hulk-of-a-man who manned first base and designated hitter for the Royals in the mid '80s, before moving on to the Mariners and Yankees. While The Common Man has long been an admirer of the soup strainer, Balboni has particularly fascinated The Common Man since 1991, when The Common Boy received his first version of the Strat-o-Matic Baseball board game for his birthday. The box contained (and still contains, you don't think The Common Man threw the single greatest present he ever go as a child away, did you?) a cardboard playing field, little pieces to represent baserunners, three dice (one white and two red), and two sets of pick cards numbered from 1-20 (which The Common Man quickly replaced with a 20-sided di (suck it, cool kids, The Common Man totally had a 20-sided di. Thankfully, he did not complicate his social awkwardness further by playing D&D.)) Also, there were several complicated looking charts and 800 individual player cards from the 1990 season.

Using these cards, like with the amazing Diamond Mind Baseball of today, the 13-year old Common Boy could replay entire seasons and make the players perform just as they did in the pros. Of these cards, The Common Man's favorite was undoubtedly Balboni's. In 1990, Balboni got into 116 games for the Yankees, hitting .192/.291/.406, with 17 homers in just 307 plate appearances. That he garnered just 34 RBI only adds to the delightful all-or-nothingness of his season. Indeed, fully one-third of his hits were homers that year. He had just 6 doubles. And scored a total of 24 runs (meaning other players knocked him home just 7 times. And he struck out 91 times, or once every 3.37 times up. Because of this, and because of his massive platoon split (.162/.205/.267 vs. RHP, .211/.340/.497 vs. LHP), Balboni's card was a thing of beauty:

Veteran players will note how feeble Balboni looks against RHP, with virtually no chance to get on board. Against lefties, however, Balboni is a monster, with seven different places he can hit the ball out. The odds of that are complicated, however, related to the likelihood of a specific dice combination coming up. Still, the all-or-nothing approach Balboni showed that season meant that every at-bat he got on the floor of The Common Man's bedroom or the family room coffee table was an adventure.

From 1990 and 1992 (the only two seasons The Common Man can find), here are some of the other great all-or-nothing cards from the game. First, from 1990, here's Orioles 1B Sam Horn, a monster of a man who never really rose to prominence because he couldn't hit LHP (and couldn't field):

Look how bereft of good things his left-side columns are. Indeed, the best he can muster is a sac fly. Against righties he feasts, with several opportunities to do big damage. A Horn/Balboni platoon in 1990 would have been a great thing indeed. That year, amazingly, Horn totaled 280 plate appearances (his second highest total ever. Only 17 of those came against LHP. Horn hit .248/.332/.472 that year, with 14 homers. But, having never caught on, he'll have to be content with inspiring a terrific message board and a great story from Shyster.

1990 was also the year of Kevin Maas, another all-or-nothing, lefty first baseman in the AL East. Maas played for the Yankees that year, and became the fastest player ever to 10, and then to 20 homers in his career. But by September of that year, teams had found the holes in Maas's swing and his production was (forgive The Common Man), no Maas. Still, in 300 PAs in 1990, Maas hit .252/.367/.535, good for a 150 OPS+, with 21 homers. His card was awfully fun too:

One slugger who managed to have extended success was Cecil Fielder, whose 1990 stands out in an era of relatively low offensive production. Back from Japan, Fielder pasted the ball that summer, good for .277/.377/.592 (a 167 OPS+), 51 homers, and this card:

But among these all-or-nothing allstars, Fielder stands out as one of the few truly productive players (well, he and Rob Deer). Eric Anthony was a lot less lucky. Billed as a huge prospect by the Astros, Houston fans were understandably disappointed by his performance when he was rushed to the majors. So was The Common Man, every time Anthony came up in either 1990 or 1992:

That's pretty brutal, but the Astros somehow managed to ship him to Seattle and get Mike Hampton in the deal, so it wasn't too bad a bargain.

There are more cards The Common Man wants to share, but he's unsure how this post will be received, how much additional explanation of the game and what the cards mean will be necessary, and doesn't want any of the cards (or players) to not get their due because The Common Man just kept putting out card after card. So he'll close here with just one more. Because this list wouldn't be complete without acknowledging the greatest all-or-nothing, three-true-outcomes slugger of them all, Ken Phelps, who finished his 11 year career in 1990 in less than spectacular fashion with the Oakland A's and Cleveland Indians, as you can see:

Alas, a .150/.280/.192 line doesn't use as much black ink as it used to. But it still apparently gets you a bushy, bushy mustache and some comically oversized glasses.


lar said...

I love the post, TCM. I never really had a chance to play Strat-O-Matic myself, but I was certainly exposed to it. I really like the angle this brings to the Three True Outcome guys. I mean, someone can go on and on about just how one-dimensional these guys were, but seeing their strat cards really highlights that.

Jonah Keri said...

I took up Strat again in the past 6-7 years, after starting my Strat apprenticeship just before that 1990-1992 period. And as a current SOM player let me just say this: Jack Cust is a thin slice of Three True Outcomes heaven.

Hsquared2 said...

Russell Branyan 2009 Strat Card

Jack Flynn said...

Very cool stuff. The TTO guys really suffer, though. I've been playing Adam Dunn fairly regularly for the last three seasons and he's batting under .200 with an OBP under .340.

Someone else is always willing to take a chance on him though ...

Anonymous said...

Baloni actually started with the Yanks back in '81 and was then traded with Roger Ericson to the K.C. Royals for two no name players.
Ronnie Blomberg also had a very interesting card during his run of cards from '72 to '75. I can remember John Sterling had a radio talk show on WMCA at the time and he just loved talking about Blomberg's perfect swing. I can recall a caller asking John if he ever played Strat-o-matic and John's responds was "no", his reason was that he liked to actually physically play the game rather than man the dice.

Michael said...

Dunn went .234/.375/.518 in my league last season. It's a fairly concentrated league that puts a hitter against the absolute best pitchers available and he played in a fairly neutral park. Dunn, Cust, Branyan and Carlos Pena are the top 3 true guys in the new set. Branyan's extra fantastic because he counts out as a 0 against LHPs. Pena's an odd 3 true bird in that he's a 1e2 in the field.

Mark said...

I have nothing whatsoever against you Strat-fanats... but I myself am an APBA man. I have both the '77 board edition and a PC version from the 90s. If only I can get one of my kids old enough to understand it!

The downside is that APBA cards are not nearly as visually descriptive as ther Strat counterparts.

I also own the '71 Sports Illustrated games, with color-coded charts for each player (very cool when I was just starting out as a baseball fan...).

NY Expat said...

I think Randy Milligan had a card that season with the 2 column all on-base against LHP (maybe a split with an out somewhere).

You missed the true Sam Horn experience with the '87 set (if memory serves me correctly).

Then there was John Franco vs. LHB in the '88 set: Nothin'. No ballpark effects -- just a wasteland of outs and fielder X rolls. Didn't stop me from rolling a ballpark homer with Pete O'Brien against him, though. :-)

Also, I heartily recommend Star Touraments for anyone looking to get a weekend fix of Strat.

OCKerouac said...

Nothing makes me happier than when others 'out' themselves as Strat players. My current league is in it's 10th season, and my first ever Strat team was built in 1987 using player cards from my dad's original 1963 set.

Talk about a three true outcomes card, the 1963 Micky Mantle was a front-side only card as the backs weren't yet produced that had virtually all HR's in the 1 column, all k's in the 2 column, and all walks in the 3 column...

The 1969 Boog Powell was a fun card to mash with too...