Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Life in Sports, Part III

I have a theory that states, "if you want to get a young person to know something about a sport, give them a sports board game to play." For example, if you watch the opening scene of Crooklyn, if you look very carefully you'll see two Brooklyn kids on a stoop playing APBA baseball, rolling the dice and simulating a game.

I had simulated games before. I had kept records and played out these dice and card games faithfully. For some reason, I had decided to give Statis Pro Basketball a try. I had played Statis Pro Baseball and I had enjoyed it so there was no reason to conclude that my experiences would be different.

My problem was that I still didn't know much about basketball other than "put ball in basket = two points". I didn't know how many fouls there were to a quarter. I didn't know if you got to take free throws after every defensive foul, or if the "plus one free throw" rule applied to fouls on 3-point shots. In the 1980s-1990s, this information wasn't easy to find. You needed to look up a sports reference book, or you could just ask a fan. The problem was that for some supposed fans their knowledge of the rules of the game wasn't much better than yours.

In the past, I had simulated either a) teams that I liked (like the Cincinnati Reds) or b) teams chosen at random. For the first time, I decided to choose a historically bad team and to see if I could do better. The team I chose was the 1987-88 Golden State Warriors.

So what about that team? I can only name a handful of names from 1980s basketball - Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley - but I could probably name more names from that 1987-88 Warriors team, even till today.

Winston Garland
Chris Mullin
Ralph Sampson
Joe Barry Carroll
Rod Higgins
Terry Teagle

This team finished 20-62 in real life. I had no schedule to work with and I had to make up my own. There were injury values on the cards, so injuries were determined at random. A player would theoretically miss as many games over an 82-game season as he missed in real life.

However, I got lucky. Ralph Sampson was not the injury-prone person he was in real life in my universe. Somehow, he dodged the bullets and stayed healthy. With a healthy Sampson, I managed to steer the Warriors to a 40-42 season, a #7 seed in the Western Conference where they fell 3-1 in the first round to the Dallas Mavericks.

(* * *)

So what was the point of all that? The first point was that even twenty years later I remember those names. Do you want to teach kids to love the WNBA? Then make a WNBA board game (or computer game) that they'll enjoy. Trust me, if it's a good game they'll remember those names even if they don't follow the WNBA.

The second point was that this was the first time I got slightly serious about a simulation. It was very frustrating not to be able to find information when I needed it, or to have to rely on secondhand information of dubious veracity. You can't imagine how frustrating it was before the internet, you youngsters. If your library didn't have it, then you didn't have it, and the autodidacts of that era would keep a well-stocked reference library of their own which included a good set of encyclopedias.

After "A League of Their Own" came out, I was inspired to create a women's baseball league card game. Since this was the pre-internet era, I had to do this all by myself. I managed to complete a 40-game season in a horribly frustrating experience. I had to create all the player cards (using Statis Pro Baseball rules) and figure out some way to generate them, as well as to play all the games. I don't recommend this to anyone. There had to be some better way.

(* * *)

Everything came together in the late 1990s. I had the internet, which meant that if I wanted to find out the facts about something, all I needed to do was to do a web search. If I wanted to write online, I could write and find likeminded people. And if I wanted to play games, I could purchase them at the local Try-N-Save.

In the late 90s, I managed to come across a game called "Baseball Mogul". This game promised on the box that it could deliver the entire experience of being the owner of a baseball team. (Actually, it only delivered the experience of being a GM of a baseball team, but that's still a hell of a lot.) It supposedly had all of one's favorite players. It promised that you could make trades just like a big league owner/GM.

Most of the sports games at the time were what I call "emulators". (The version of NBA Live 09 I have for the Wii is an "emulator".) An "emulator" is a game that has you play the role of a person, sort of like a "first person shooter" game. If it's a baseball game, you punch the button and the guy swings his bat. If it's a basketball, you make the little fellow dunk the ball by going up-down-left-right-control-A. If it's football, you aim the up-down-joystick-whatever in the direction of the receiver.

This was more like a text based game. You didn't actually watch the game at all - but the boxscore was generated with realistic results. Yes, you could trade players. You could negotiate with players and they would either accept or reject your offers.

What I was getting was something very close to what I had tried with that "League of Their Own" game. It couldn't offer everything, of course. But it could offer a hell of a lot, a quantum leap over what could have been offered by card games. For once, I was in control of my own universe, my little Yahweh.

I spent a good nine years or so with this game. I loved it. As time passed, the versions of the game got better and better with each passing year. You could generate fictional players. You could create your own teams in your own cities, changing and altering the configuration of the league itself, and the computer controlled teams in this league would trade with each other. You could run everything or just run a small part of the universe.

Since I enjoyed writing as a hobby, I was all over the internet. I wrote science fiction. I wrote fan fiction. And now, I could write sports fiction. One of the Baseball Mogul message boards was devoted to "Dynasties". Dynasty threads were threads devoted to players recounting the tales of their fictional universes, complete with posted game files one could load to see what was going on in some fellow's universe. (I never encountered a female poster.)

My dynasty was based on a scenario where the Boston Braves did not move to Milwaukee.

I wrote it for three years. It's still out there on the Baseball Mogul boards.

Writing a dynasty thread - and being believable - required that you truly research your sport. For example, in my fictional universe, when Ford Frick left as baseball commissioner I replaced him with Pete Rozelle. This required some understanding of who Pete Rozelle was and how he would have handled the issues of 1960s baseball. I became a maven of baseball history, reading Bill James, who combined my love of mathematics with a love of the game's history.

So what does all of this mean?

1) By now, I knew how to write a compelling story.
2) I was familiar with sports on something deeper than a surface level.
3) I had a real interest in history.

I probably would have keep writing this dynasty and kept writing fan fiction if not for two circumstances.

The first was simply burnout. The dynasty required a lot of background work to make it believable, and I began to truly dread writing new chapters of it. Therefore, I stopped active work on the baseball dynasty.

The second circumstance was that I had turned away from writing fan fiction. This left me with a big hole in my free time which demanded that something fill it.

It was May 2008. I heard that the WNBA was starting a team in Atlanta. The team would be called the Atlanta Dream.

I found this very interesting, for lots of reasons. The first reason was that I was looking for a team of some kind to support, hell, of any kind. I had been to a few Braves games at Turner Field (and when I lived in Florida, I watched Marlins games and I followed the Nashville Sound when I lived in Nashville). I found watching games enjoyable for the most part, but I didn't like the jock culture that followed baseball. I realize that for many men, sports is a support for masculinity (there's a whole essay coming about this) but I found such behavior annoying. Just read, oh, Bleacher Report and YardBarker for a few minutes. You'll see what I'm talking about, it's as if sports fandom is just an excuse for loutish behavior. I didn't want to be sitting with a bunch of drunks watching a Falcons or Hawks game. My family had drunks in it; I didn't like drunks or drinking. That wasn't my idea of a good time.

The second was that I believed in supporting the home team. My rule is that you support the home team unless you have a compelling reason not to. I supported the Mets in New York. (Never the Yankees, I hated them since 1976 when the Reds swept them.) I supported the Marlins in New York, the Sound in Nashville (and the parent club at the time, the Pittsburgh Pirates) and the Braves in Atlanta. If the WNBA had a team in Atlanta, I would support it.

The third reason was that there was a low barrier of entry. The best way to explain this is by a story about Dr. Joyce Brothers who would appear on the popular 1950s quiz show The $64,000 Question. The premise of the show was that you faced off answering questions against a panel of experts. You had to be an expert in something, and Brothers was told that she couldn't get on the show unless she was an expert in something unexpected, to play against type - like a short order cook who was an expert in opera, for example.

Brothers, being a smart woman, had to figure out something to become an expert in. It couldn't be something like opera, which has over 200 years of history. She chose boxing for a simple reason - boxing hadn't been around that long and pretty much all of its facts from the late 1800s on could be summarized in a twenty-volume set of books which Brothers virtually memorized. The sponsors hated Brothers and designed obscure questions to try to get her off the show.

They failed. She had become smarter than the experts in a short time.

To become a baseball fan or a basketball fan or a football fan is intimidating - you almost have to grow into it as a child. The history is so ridiciously long that you're always going to come up short. There's going to be someone who knows more than you, and will probably be glad to rub it in.

The WNBA, however, had only been around for 11 years. If you sat down one afternoon, you could probably not only memorize every WNBA champion year for year, but also every conference finalist. Since there were only 14 teams with 13 players each, that was 182 players. Football or baseball or men's basketball would have required getting to know over 300 players. A dedicated person could learn all there was to know about the WNBA in a much shorter time and not have to put in many years understanding the sport.

Everything about the WNBA was relatively new. All it required was a willingness to learn and an eagerness to dive in. Granted, I would have to learn about basketball - what the rules were, how it was played, what were the optimal strategies, and how to recognize what was going on in a live game. However, it seemed that a lot of so-called fans didn't even know the rules of their own sports. Certainly, I could bring myself up to speed.

This was May 2008. It is now one day short of a year since I started following the WNBA. I know I have a lot to catch up on...but in a lot of ways, I feel like I've come home.

(*) - I am still waiting for that text-based emulator basketball game out there that focuses more on trading and acquiring like a real GM and less on getting the guy on the screen to do a 360-degree stadium-shattering dunk. Hope springs eternal.

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