Life gets in the way, in a good way, for a couple of buddies who bond through simulated baseball.
Then life largely stops, in a very bad way. And suddenly, there’s plenty of time for simulated baseball.
Just like that, simulated baseball turns into a salve.
“We might play five or six times a year, if we’re lucky,” Pete Hoffman, a TV producer who lives in Brooklyn, said of him and his friend Aaron Romanello. “Since we’ve been quarantined, we’ve played every weekend.”
“It’s been a great way to stay connected,” Romanello said. “It’s fun to play, and it’s so carefree. To have that as an outlet is pretty great.”
Hoffman and Romanello, an attorney who also lives in Brooklyn, play Strat-O-Matic, the gold standard for simulated baseball that, writing from firsthand memories of 30-plus years ago, also produces pretty good football, basketball and hockey games. The company, founded by Hal Richman in 1961, already had adapted with the times prior to the coronavirus pandemic, adding an app and Windows-friendly game in addition to maintaining its beloved player-cards and dice, not to mention a Baseball Daily feature that simulates the currently suspended 2020 season for public consumption. No joke: In the S-O-M Opening Day, the Mets lost to the Nationals when Edwin Diaz surrendered a ninth-inning, tiebreaking home run to Howie Kendrick, and Gary Sanchez started at catcher for the Yankees, only to depart with an injury in the third inning.
Adam Richman, Hal’s son and a co-owner of S-O-M — Hal Richman, 83, still is involved, too — said that the company set sales records last year and is on course to do so again — in part due to the worldwide shutdown.
“The takeaway for us is right now, especially because people have time, people are looking for a little bit of joy,” said Len Schwartz, who performs research and development for S-O-M. “They’re looking to match with sports in a way because professional sports aren’t being played. That’s what we’re seeing.”
Hoffman, 46, and Romanello, 43, who have switched from in-person get-togethers to FaceTime in the name of social distancing and trust each other to report accurate dice rolls, personify this phenomenon. Friends for nearly 20 years, both fathers of two school-age children who keep them mighty busy in better times, neither man fell in love with Strat-O-Matic as teenagers. Instead, they started playing it together due to a love of actual baseball — Hoffman grew up outside of Washington, rooting for the Orioles, and has adopted the Mets as his National League favorites, whereas Romanello is a Yankees fan all the way — and its advanced statistics. By replaying older seasons with the player cards available, “We can make lineups that never existed,” Romanello said, citing information like platoons and on-base percentage that weren’t widely utilized in the past. “You use bullpens in the way they never did.”
Rather than drafting individual players, Hoffman and Romanello choose entire teams and replay seasons in what Hoffman called “a March Madness-style tournament.” For instance, they’re currently playing the 1982 season and rank the teams, 1 through 26, based on their Pythagorean record — their expected record based on runs scored and runs allowed. Then 1 (the Brewers) plays 26 (Rangers) and so on in five-game series, followed by seven-game series for the subsequent rounds.
Their selection of 1982 — they also have played the 1934, 1954, 1975, 1984 and 2014 seasons in similar fashion — provide Hoffman and Romanello with a conversation topic for a better known Strat-O-Matic enthusiast.
“I’ve replayed ’82 twice,” Keith Hernandez said, “and the Cardinals didn’t win the [NL] East either time.”
Hernandez, who won World Series rings with those Cardinals as well as with the 1986 Mets and of course works nowadays as a game analyst for SNY’s Mets telecasts, said he first became enamored with Strat-O-Matic in 1971.
“I kept my own stats, which now you can do with the computer,” he said. “I would mark off in Roman numerals the at-bats and runs. That was the beauty of Strat-O-Matic. The players’ performances were usually right on.”
(By the way, since you’re wondering, Hernandez’s ’82 Cardinals fell short once to Mike Schmidt’s Phillies and once to his future teammate Gary Carter’s Expos in his replays.)
“If he wants to play ’82, we’ll set it up,” Romanello said of Hernandez. Ironically, while the 40-somethings Romanello and Hoffman prefer the old-school dice and cards — “You can’t talk trash over a computer,” Romanello pointed out — the 66-year-old Hernandez uses the computerized version. Except that he recently switched laptops, from a Dell to a Mac, and S-O-M doesn’t yet have a Mac-compatible game.
“I haven’t played, and I’ve missed it,” said Hernandez, who added that he’s instead working on a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
The S-O-M folks hardly are reveling in the turn of events that has brought more attention to their product. “This is a horrible situation for our country and the world,” Adam Richman said. Yet in these highly uncomfortable times, such mental comfort food enables us to cope.
“It’s great,” Romanello said. “You can kind of recapture that feeling of staying up all night, drinking Cokes and playing board games. It’s good, clean fun.”
Given what life has dealt us, we need as much of that as we can get.
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