(Adds comment from Bloomberg Sports adviser in 10th paragraph.)
Oct. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Long after the close of the World Series, the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols and the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton will continue to turn in great hitting and fielding performances.
That’s true at least in the obsessive, throwback world of Strat-O-Matic baseball and its stats-rich playing cards.
The iconic board game made by privately held Strat-O-Matic Media LLC is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It began with an 80-card set and now offers all 30 Major League Baseball teams (1,026 cards, including extra players) plus basketball, hockey, and both professional and college football.
“There were certain aspects of your childhood that revolved around baseball -- going to games, flipping cards, and playing Strat-O,” said Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, which sells a Hall-branded version.
The company quietly ships out its statistically infused cards from a warehouse adjacent to the Long Island Rail Road tracks in Glen Head, New York. And while there is a computer version of Strat-O-Matic -- albeit without fancy graphics -- and an online version in conjunction with The Sporting News, the core product remains the lavishly researched cards of each batter and pitcher.
Teams of researchers pore over box scores and game accounts to develop templates of how players will perform. Three dice determine whether the batter will hit a game-winning home run, line into a triple play, or anything in between.
Rolling the Dice
“There are people who have a Kindle and read books that way, and people who say, ‘I have to have the book in my hand,’” said former Major League outfielder Doug Glanville, an analyst for Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN. “There’s nothing like rolling those three dice and seeing what happens.”
The basic game hasn’t changed since an 11-year-old boy named Hal Richman put the first numbers down on a piece of cardboard. He wanted to develop a game that included both batting and pitching probabilities.
Strat-O-Matic also takes into account a player’s running speed and defensive prowess, while advanced versions offer different outcomes depending on whether the batter is facing a righty or lefty pitcher. They also figure in an outfielder’s throwing arm and the home ballpark. New player cards with the latest stats come out every year.
“It’s one of my favorite quotes, ‘In God we trust, all others must have data,’” says former Major League pitching coach Rick Peterson, a Bloomberg Sports adviser and founder of 3P Sports, a pitching program for amateur pitchers.
In a Strat-O-Matic simulation of this year’s World Series, using 2010 statistics, the Rangers win in six games, with Hamilton hitting .375 and Pujols bashing three home runs. The final game went into extra innings. Texas closer Neftali Feliz nailed down his third save of the series in the bottom of the 10th inning.
After graduating from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, with a degree in accounting and experience as a statistician for the college’s basketball and football teams, Richman produced his first baseball game in 1961, touting it through ads in sports publications.
After two unsuccessful years, Richman borrowed $5,000 from his father and promised to join his insurance business if the game failed. He called it his “deal like in ‘Damn Yankees,’” and it paid off.
When a baseball strike delayed the 1981 All-Star Game in Cleveland, the game was played with Strat-O-Matic cards and Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller on hand.
After Lenny Dykstra homered for the New York Mets to win Game 3 of the 1986 National League playoffs, he said, “The last time I hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to win a game was in Strat-O-Matic.”
Richman, now 75, won’t disclose financial details of the company, other than to say that it has nine fulltime employees and doesn’t have the money to run national TV ads.
Word of Mouth
Instead, Strat-O-Matic still places ads in baseball magazines and relies on word of mouth. Those voices are getting older; the average player today grew up with the game and is more than 35 years old. Seeking a new generation of fans, the company this year introduced a simplified, entry-level version known as Baseball Express sold exclusively by Toys R Us Inc.
“The younger market has been taken over by the graphic games,” said Richman. “But in many households, when the fathers play the game, they’re the ones who entice the youngsters. There’s something from rolling dice that you can’t get from pushing a button.”
--Editors: Jeffrey Burke, Lili Rosboch.
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