The fake coaches I’ve loved – and fired

Posted: January 25, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

During my trip back to Janesville a few weeks ago, I visited my cousin Matt on Saturday night. Like every other time we see each other, the conversation eventually turned to Tecmo Super Bowl, Baseball Simulator 1.000 and Strat-O-Matic baseball. Those three games – two on the old Nintendo system, another a classic simulation – are responsible for many of our teenage memories, laughs, physical fights and verbal brawls. Our friends Mike and Brandon often joined us in these contests, most of which took place in my parents’ basement, where we sat for hours and hours, watching dirty movies on Showtime while expressing awe at the San Francisco 49ers’ Tecmo offense and debating the merits of Julio Franco’s fielding skills. Even today, on the rare occasions when we’re able to meet up for more than a few hours, we break out the dusty Nintendo or the worn Strato cards. When I saw Matt two weeks ago, I told a story of our (real) Legion baseball team and an old coach we had named Kelly Frawley, who also served as Janesville’s city administrator. “Didn’t you hire Kelly for a Strato team once?” Matt asked. No, I didn’t. But Brandon did. Each time we kicked off a Simulator 1.000 season or a Strato marathon or a Tecmo campaign, all of us “named” coaches to lead our teams. We put tremendous amount of thought into our coaching and managerial choices, expending much more brain power on that decision than we did on accounting or algebra homework. Sometimes we went with common-sense choices, real NFL coaches or real MLB managers. Other times we put more creativity into the decisions, which is how a small-town administrator with a cheeky smile and blond hair led Brandon’s Strato team and how someone like Paul McCartney directed Matt’s Tecmo football team into battle, presumably while decked out in his outfit from the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. As the seasons progressed, we’d belittle these men or praise their work. We fake suspended them for fake substance abuse issues and fired them when our teams underachieved. It was fantasy sports in the purest sense of the word. We didn’t lose any money, only some dignity. And the names of the men we hired and fired, loved and hated still conjure up memories for us all. Here, a look at some of the more memorable leaders. Or, if you prefer, “leaders.”

And Billy Gardner thought Calvin Griffith was a tough owner to manage for…

BILLY GARDNER: You have to feel for Billy. As manager of the Twins in the early 1980s under frugal owner Calvin Griffin, Gardner found little success on the field. His 81-81 record in 1984 was his best mark, but even that season was ruined by late-season struggles. He helped develop players like Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky and Frank Viola but wasn’t around when those players led the Twins to the 1987 World Series. Instead of finding peace in his later years, Gardner worked under the brutal, paranoid reign of my friend Brandon, who had a soft spot in his heart for the ex-Twins skipper but took a hard-line over on-the-field failures, even though the blame often fell upon the owner’s box. As a Strato owner, Brandon possessed megalomaniacal tendencies, a small-town boy who ran his team with big-market ideals. He didn’t believe in chemistry or a salary cap.

Mark McGwire doesn’t want to talk about the past. I don’t blame him.

“Slick” managed Brandon’s Strato teams, squads built around the steroid-induced (allegedly) power of Mark McGwire and the eagle eye of Jack Clark. When we drafted teams, we threw all of the 1987 season cards into a big pile and randomly pulled out player after player. Sometimes these drafts lasted 50 rounds, if not longer. If Brandon didn’t end up with McGwire, he’d grab him in multiplayer deals that often robbed his team of pitching, fielding and pride. The low point came one fall night in the Mankato Long John Silver’s, when I sent McGwire to Brandon in a 13-player deal that we finalized over gallons of fountain pop, hushpuppies and value combo meals that had mysterious names like “One Fish, Two Chick.” The grease broke down my defenses and fueled Brandon’s obsession. No manager could succeed under those conditions. Much like Mitt Romney, Brandon seemed to enjoy firing people, but like George Steinbrenner, he also enjoyed rehiring those same unfortunate souls. Brandon must have fired Gardner half a dozen times during our Strato wars, and took him back each time. Gardner kept returning to the team, perhaps desperate for a check, or maybe he spoke the same language as his baseball-obsessed owner. Each firing was followed – or sometimes immediately preceded – by bizarre punishments Brandon dreamed up in the dark corners of our basement and his mind. After one dismissal, Brandon horrified us by explaining Gardner’s penance for his misdeeds on the diamond. Gardner was to be kept in an isolated room where he’d be fed peanuts through a small hole in the wall. It seemed cruel. It was cruel. Yet a few weeks later, Brandon announced his new manager: Billy Gardner. He accepted the job.

The real Gene Mauch experienced a lot of heartbreak as a manager. The fake Gene Mauch IV experienced nothing but success.

GENE MAUCH IV Matt had a maddening consistency with his choices, reflecting the stability he brought to his position as owner, general manager and petty ruler. His organizational philosophy mirrored the strategies used by the Braves and the Rooney family in the NFL. For his Simulator and Strato teams, he almost always hired Gene Mauch IV, who was, in fact, Gene Mauch but…I don’t know, four times as fast when he jogged to the mound for pitching changes? Gene Mauch was known for always falling just short, while Mauch IV never lost the big one. Matt won the majority of our Simulator seasons and Strato series. Yet I give fake Mauch very little credit for this very real success. Strato’s about grabbing great draft cards and getting some luck with the rolls. Mauch IV served in a Joe Torre-type capacity, though with even less movement in the dugout. Yet after every victory Matt made a point to credit his manager, playing off our jealous rage at the great relationship between owner-manager. Ray Miller – the esteemed pitching coach who actually followed Billy Gardner as Twins manager (in real life, that is) – served as Mauch IV’s pitching coach and also deserves much of the credit for the victories. When we used the cards from the 1987 season, Matt always suspiciously ended up with a lot of “good guys.” Players like Alan Trammell, who didn’t need much motivation. Guys like Paul Molitor, who were driven to succeed no matter who sat on the bench. And that’s what Mauch IV did – sat there. Lifeless. Season after season, racking up the victories and championships that eluded his real-life counterpart. When we put together a Strato Hall of Fame, our first-ballot members from the 1987 cards will include Nolan Ryan, the infuriatingly unhittable Tim Burke, McGwire, and Eric Davis. Mauch IV deserves to be there based on his record. But to me he was always overrated, a figurehead. A fake figurehead, who existed only in the imaginations of four teenagers. But still a figurehead. CHUCK TANNER Chuck Tanner was “known for his unwavering confidence and infectious optimism,” according to his Wikipedia entry, which means it’s absolutely true that those were his two best-known qualities. I bet he didn’t have that confidence and optimism after his multiple stints as manager of Mike’s Strato team. Not sure where he came up with the name Chuck Tanner as his fake manager. By the time we started playing Strato in the mid-90s, the Pirates were two decades removed from their world title and Tanner had last served as a real manager with the Atlanta Braves. But Mike chose him, perhaps because Mike himself is a guy with infectious optimism. An infectious owner meets up with an infectious manager and things are bound to get strange.  Tanner’s teams always struggled in the cozy confines of the basement at 210 North Mott in Janesville, though that owes more to his owner’s apathy than his on-field decisions. In the middle of one game, Mike famously got so fed up with his team that he pushed his cards away and said to me, “There’s my team, play with them,” an admission of defeat that surely would have disgusted a great baseball man like Tanner. We berated Mike for probably 15 minutes and have not forgiven him 15 years later. Chuck Tanner, a man with unwavering confidence, would have been disgusted.

Great movie critic. Pretty good coach.

ROGER EBERT On New Year’s Eve 1999, during a marathon Tecmo season in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, Matt hired Roger Ebert to coach his Phoenix Cardinals team. None of us really knew if we’d see 2000 or if the game cartridge – which required the perfect placement of a dirty sock and three slaps to the console to work – would survive. If Y2K could take down planes, the electrical grid, the nation’s financial systems and the world’s senses, how could a decade-old Nintendo game make it? But we all saw the New Year and eventually witnessed the genius of Matt’s out-of-the-box hire. No matter what decision Matt made during his games, he delivered it with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Punt on 4th and 10 from your own 10? Thumbs-up. Will Timm Rosenbach remain as the starting quarterback? Thumbs-down. Matt channeled Ebert and acted like a Roman emperor, passing judgment in front of the masses with a single thumb. Only instead of deciding the fates of gladiators, he sent underachieving running backs to the bench. The whiskey mixed with an insane belief in backup quarterback Tom Tupa, who threw for countless big plays, every one of which Matt greeted with an annoying tuba sound that had the rest of the house praying that YTK really would be the end of it all.

The Bantam Rooster doing what he did best.

EARL WEAVER In elementary school I secured a book about baseball’s greatest managers from a bookmobile. It profiled managers like Connie Mack, Casey Stengel, Sparky Anderson and Earl Weaver. I’m sure I enjoyed reading it as a kid. But the book’s greatest contribution came years later, during basement battles in Strato. The chapter on Weaver was called “The Bantam Rooster.” I had no idea he went by that nickname and to this day I’m not totally sure he did. But he became my go-to Strato manager, brought in whenever I thought I drafted a strong team. It was fun flying off the handle during key moments, picturing Weaver sprinting out of the dugout to swear at a beleaguered umpire. Later, in a long-forgotten box in the basement, I found an old toy that made animal sounds when you yanked on the string. Cow, horse, dog, sheep. And a rooster. “The rooster says, cock-a-doooodle-do.” That toy became my in-stadium entertainment. When Mike Schmidt or Tom Brunansky hit a homer for my Strato squad, solidifying our belief in the righteousness of Weaver’s long ball philosophy, I celebrated with the call of the rooster. Weaver didn’t win as much as Mauch IV, but we also didn’t have the unlimited resources available to Matt – in my head my franchise was a mid-market squad, in better shape than small-market Mike but unable to compete with the big-market clubs on a yearly basis. The rooster annoyed Matt’s teams, but he rarely beat them.

Bill Belichick. Vince Lombardi. Don Shula. Paul McCartney? Paul McCartney.

PAUL MCCARTNEY When people talk about the genius of Paul McCartney, the only real debate is among Beatles fans and music historians who argue about how much credit he deserves compared to John Lennon for songs like “Hey Jude” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Few know he once masterfully guided the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl title, two years before Sean Payton did the same thing for the real team. This title came during a summer week in 2008 in my cousin’s house, where we engaged in a two-day Tecmo marathon, though a brutal headache and travel plans meant I only made it one day. Matt took the Saints, who are a plodding offensive team and great defensive team. And Sir Paul directed them to the title. Throughout the night, Matt kept giving his team directions using his patented fake – and as the night went on, increasingly annoying – British accent. The accent was early Paul, mop-top Paul, “She Loves You” Paul. When the Saints scored a TD, Paul broke into song. When they failed, he sang a sad tune, probably something from the later Beatles albums. In the Super Bowl, McCartney’s squad defeated Mike’s Cincinnati Bengals, who were faux coached by their former great QB, Kenny Anderson. Again, Mike went with a fairly uninspiring choice, a solid, accurate but charismatic-free former field general who couldn’t compete with Beatlemania. THE BEST OF THE REST

He’s a blowhard, but he still led the Patriots to a Super Bowl.

* Mike Ditka flamed out fairly quickly after leading the Bears to the Super Bowl. By the time the 1990s rolled around, he was best known as a punch line on Saturday Night Live, albeit a flattering one. But his doppelganger led Matt’s New England Patriots team to a Tecmo title over winter break in 1993. I was in Worthington attending school and Matt and Brandon came down for a few days. We wrapped up an entire season in a day and a half torture session. My Packers lost to the Giants and a maniacal Lawrence Taylor in the NFC title game. The Patriots – either the worst or second-worst team on Tecmo – somehow won the Super Bowl, as the computer decided to throw the game, rendering the Giants helpless and hopeless. It was infuriating to watch, especially as Matt taunted us in a Ditka voice and praised the genius of his hard-driving coach. * Back to Janesville’s former city administrator. Like all of Brandon’s managers, Kelly’s reign came to an ugly end, forced out after a confrontation with star player Jack Clark. Yes, even fake superstars win out over fake coaches. At the time of Kelly’s dismissal, Brandon wrote a real letter, apparently ghostwritten by his PR people (if we could hire fake managers, why not fake lackeys?). It expressed regret at the turn of events and wished him well in his city administrating duties. Years later, Mike’s mom found the note in some papers and believed I had written it for one of my newspaper stories. Our real firings of fake managers again had real-world consequences. It all became very Being John Malkovich. * One Strato season I put Tim McCarver in charge of my team on the field, which was really nothing more than a way of getting him out of the broadcaster’s booth. This proved extremely entertaining, as any play that happened during our Strato games was followed by Tim – sounding suspiciously like me – delivering a 5-minute oratory on why it happened. Bunt, sac fly, stolen base, error, whatever. But like all my choices for manager, we could never get past Mauch IV and, soon enough, McCarver retreated to the safety of the booth. What the hell? I know, it all seems a bit absurd. Yet even today, these memories are strong. We continue to debate the merits of our respective fake managers. In 20 years, Matt will still make cracks about Earl Weaver and I’ll tell him Gene Mauch IV was overrated. We’ll meet in a basement on some Saturday night and remember tales of Ditka and Mosi Tatupu. We’ll remember Brandon’s reign of terror and Mike’s apathy. We’ll do this as old men, remembering the times when we were young. Yes, we were young once. And we didn’t have girlfriends.

  1. Terry Vandrovec says:

    So Janesville AND Grantsburg? Have you ever been to Fredtown? But, seriously, hilarious stuff. My childhood was not nearly as smart.

    • shawnfury says:

      Well you were from the big city, you probably had like a real teen center to hang out at in James(name)town. Our teen center was a once-abandoned building with two video games, a pool table and a bunch of kids who had started smoking in 4th grade. We did what we could for entertainment.

      • Anonymous says:

        Terry, don’t give this group too much credit for the “smart” childhood. Your brain can come up with all kinds of creative things when teenage boys lack girlfriends (although I had a girlfriend that according to Shawn, “soiled” the Fury basement forever during a game of Strato). It is similar to that Seinfeld episode in which George gives up sex and becomes a genius and is showing the Yankees how to hit home runs. I still stand behind Chuck Tanner as manager; he looked awesome in those old school Pirate hats. Plus, he was able win a World Series with the Pirates in 1979, probably the most “coke-riddled” teams professional sports has ever known.

  2. Paul Dylan says:

    Fun stuff. This is the first time I’ve seen your site, I’ll definitely be back for more.

    I, too, used to name and hire/fire managers for my fake leagues. I hired Fernando Valenzuela to manage the Dodgers in the league I played all through childhood and eventually inducted him into my Hall of Fame…as a manager.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the post and look forward to more.

    Take care,

  3. Brandon Bluhm says:

    Good stuff. Haven’t thought about that foolishness in a long time. I’m not sure the inventor of Strato would appreciate how we “played” their game, but it sure was a good time. Make sure you add Keith Miller to the Hall of Fame ballot, as most over-used pinch hitter. (the guy batted .373 against righties for crying out loud. love the site.


  4. shawnfury says:

    Glad you found the site, Paul. For some reason the vision of Fernando as manager makes me laugh. Maybe because I can already picture him on the dugout bench with that blue Dodgers jacket he wore when running the bases, but at the same time I can’t see him barking out orders. Perhaps Steve Garvey or Ron Cey sitting next to him, ala Zimmer.

    He was average during the 1987 season we played with in Strato but it was still always exciting getting his card. That Fernando magic still had an appeal, even for a bunch of Midwesterners.

    Keith Miller would go in our Hall of Fame. With an asterisk.

  5. […] I stumbled across this blog the other day and loved this article, since I, too, have hired and fired many great fake coaches (never considered Sir Paul McCartney, though!): Great Fake Coaches I’ve Hired and Fired […]

  6. Tony says:

    Great blog. I once had jimmy cagney as my strat manager. after every homerun or clutch hit..steal…jimmy would say in his Tony voice.see? how did you like dem apples? see?..or …1st weeer gonna steal 2nd seeeee? then weeeer gonna bunt him to 3rd seeeee? then weeer gonna git him acrossss seeee?

  7. shawnfury says:

    Tony, Jimmy Cagney is an inspired selection. Nice. The type of guy you bring in after a Pete Carroll nice guy has been in charge, a tough manager who holds guys accountable and also gets into the occasional scrap off the field (and those are the type of discussions I could see having, like maybe you had Jimmy Stewart as the manager the previous season). And with you talking in character, I can imagine Jimmy also becoming an extraordinarily annoying presence in a Strato league and your fellow competitors, I’m sure, never got tired of the voice. Which of course makes it an even more inspired choice.

  8. […] played hundreds of hours of Strato, complete with fake coaches and real rivalries. And the memories of those games have, in certain circumstances, through no […]

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