The gamer's game
March 31, 2011
"For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."
--Song of Solomon 2:11-12, quoted annually at the start of spring training by Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell
Hear me out on this one, okay?
Today is my favorite day of the year. It's baseball's Opening Day, an occasion I joyfully greet every season. Winter is over. The boys of summer have arrived. Play ball!
I'm keenly aware that few BG readers share my passion for our national pastime. Whenever I hit "publish" on a baseball-related essay, I fold my arms, sit back in my chair, and watch my traffic plummet. I find this oddly satisfying, although I'm not sure why. Probably something to do with obstinacy.
Why do I like baseball? I could go on about the poetic symmetry of the diamond or the metaphorical grace of the sacrifice bunt. I could name-drop the great novelists and poets who've found lyrical beauty in the game: Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ogden Nash, Bernard Malamud, Phillip Roth.
But chances are, you'd remain unconvinced, and my efforts would smack of profundity over-reach. After all, what's so poetic about a bunch of guys in baggy pants trying - and mostly failing - to whack a 5-ounce cowhide-covered sphere? Baseball, to the non-fan, is a slow, dull affair with far more pauses than action. The nostalgia wears off by the 3rd-inning.
Okay. Most of you don't care about baseball. I understand. Nevertheless, give me one shot to convince you there are strong connections between the games you like - video games, I mean - and the game of baseball. In the end, you may not buy my argument, but maybe you'll better understand why nutjobs like me find the game of baseball so endlessly fascinating.
- Baseball is a turn-based tactical role-playing game. Casual fans love watching Albert Pujols blast one over the fence, but hardcore fans like me derive our satisfaction from the strategic 3-way interplay that preceded that moment, determined by the manager, the pitcher, and the batter. A change-up on a 2-1 pitch; shifting the infielders to guard the lines; a hitter guessing outside fastball that he can take the opposite way.
- The real action is in the tactics. The pitch/swing sequence is the dice roll.
- Baseball is a 9-stage boss battle, and the pitcher is the boss. To defeat him, you must hit him repeatedly or gradually wear him down. He has strengths and weaknesses you must identify and exploit. If you can successfully guess what he’s about to cast, you can use it against him and deal damage. Near the end of the game, he may be replaced by an even stronger boss with a higher ATT, but much lower HP.
- Casual fans fancy themselves the slugger with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Fans like me imagine themselves the manager in the dugout with a lineup card and a book full of statistics. The manager is the serious fan's conduit to the game. Players execute strategies determined by the manager. He chooses the lineups, and he develops in-game tactics based on the flow of the game and the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent. A baseball manager always thinks three moves ahead.
- Baseball is for braniacs. No sport is more deeply embedded in numbers. Statistics and probabilities govern strategy, and baseball connoisseurs pour over these numbers like accountants searching for tax loopholes. Unheralded Gene Woodling batted .283 for the Yankees during the 1950 season, but clobbered the Phillies in the World Series, hitting .429. Why? The Phillies pitched only one left-hander in four games, and Woodling ate right-handers for lunch.
- Baseball players like Woodling have attributes. A pitcher with a low ERA against left-handed batters, but high against right-handed batters might be thought of as +10 against lefties and -5 against righties. Similarly, a batter with three balls and no strikes might raise his line-drive attributes by +10.
- Situational tactics are key. Knowing which batters are due up next inning will determine which reliever you decide to warm up in the bullpen - unless the other manager chooses a pinch-hitter, in which case your decision may change.
- Managers position their players on the field strategically to account for their range of movement and what they expect their opponent will do.
- After choosing and positioning your party members and executing your strategies, your turn ends. Then it’s your opponent’s turn, and you must play defense. The combined strength of your party members (eight players essentially buffing one pitcher) and your ability to anticipate your opponent’s moves will largely determine the outcome.
- Some rare baseball players have the ability to cast magic spells on their opponents. Anyone who doubts this claim never saw Ted Williams hit, Sandy Koufax pitch, or Willie Mays play centerfield.
So that’s my pitch. Heh. Happy Opening Day everyone. Enjoy the game of baseball. It's a beautiful game. I’ll let Ernie Harwell have the final word.