I’ve only hated one athlete in my life, and hate isn’t even the right word, since I’m only talking about it in the sports sense and only from the perspective of a shattered 9-year-old. M.L. Carr. In June 1984 as Carr waved his white towel and incited the Boston Garden crowd and came up with a big steal to seal Game 4 of the 1984 Finals, I hated him. Why wouldn’t I? I thought he’d ruined my childhood.
That went away, though, and now I look back fondly on Carr’s antics. He’s part of what made the Celtics-Lakers rivalry so great. I also enjoyed his reign with the Celtics as they disappeared into irrelevancy in the 1990s, but later I learned he’s pretty much a great guy — does outstanding charity work, helps the community. Nothing to dislike, much less hate.
And honestly, I don’t hate Keith Miller, Tim Burke, Jack Clark, Randy Myers, Alan Ashby, Jimmy Key, Charles Hudson, Devon White, Mark McGwire or Paul Molitor’s glove. But I still think about them often or, more specifically, I think about their Strat-O-Matic personas I assigned to them while playing with and against their 1987 cards during the early 1990s with my cousin Matt and friends Brandon and Mike. These men are probably fine gentlemen. But as Strato characters, the rage still burns 20 years later and anytime I find myself watching the MLB Network and a blast from the past appears, I’m back in my basement in Janesville, on the carpet, cards in front of us and we’re rolling dice and turning over pink cards that hold our fate. Someday I might outgrow this.
We 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 fault of the flesh-and-blood players involved, stuck with me. There are good memories for sure — Nolan Ryan mowing players down; Tom Brunansky connecting on a homer when 2-10 came up on his card; the “good” Doyle Alexander with the Tigers proving unbeatable.
But the bad memories remain more vivid; fake life can be so much like real life. And that fake hatred can leave bad memories of real men. Some players and their sins:
TIM BURKE: A mad, and highly unethical scientist, discovers the ability to take the DNA of Mariano Rivera, 1999 Pedro Martinez, 1968 Bob Gibson, and 2003 Eric Gagne and turn it into one pitcher. He’d create Tim Burke’s 1987 Strato card. In real life 1987 Tim Burke went 7-0 with a 1.19 ERA. He struck out 58, walked 17, six of them intentionally. In 1987 Strato life Tim Burke had a perfect card. If the dice roll meant it went to his card, you couldn’t get a hit off of him. Or a walk. Matt always had him and always used him, racking up two-inning saves like they did in the old days, obliterating our league rule that called for “realistic use” of players. He never blew a save, as somehow the dice always went his way.
JACK CLARK: Twins fans remember Jack Clark for being the slugging first baseman who missed the 1987 World Series, a key factor in Minnesota’s victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. I remember him as Brandon’s forever first baseman who hit the occasional home run but, more often than not, never swung at all. Clark led the league in on-base percentage in 1987 and his Strato card reflected this skill. Walks littered it, from the 1 to the 3 column. And Brandon reveled in it. Eventually he fetishized Clark’s ability to walk, enjoying it even more than the home runs. Oh there was the occasional “swing the bat!” yelled by Brandon when his cleanup hitter took a walk instead of driving in a run, but he knew how much Clark’s eagle-eye annoyed us.
JAMIE MOYER: Cousin Matt was a master at impressions. Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs being among his best. Sure, everyone can do the “It puts the lotion in the basket” line but how many actually commit to the scene where he tucks? Anyway, with Jamie Moyer — yes, the ageless one was pitching already in 1987 — Matt insisted in pronouncing it in a Vin Scully voice. I don’t know if Matt ever actually heard the legendary broadcaster say Moyer’s name on NBC’s Game of the Week or if he just used a Vin voice to say it because he could stretch out the “oy” part. Any appearance by Moyer meant an appearance by faux Vin. Normally everyone welcomes Vin Scully to a game – in 1987 or in 2013 — but not when it was actually Matt broadcasting Jamie Moyer shutting me down. Made me dislike Moyer, but nothing can affect my love of Vin.
JIMMY KEY: Another Matt impression. Jimmy Key — the outstanding lefty pitcher for Toronto — hailed from Alabama. I don’t know why Matt knew that or if he even did. But he had heard him talk before and imitated Jimmy’s voice with this bizarre backwoods drawl. Drove me crazy as he’d shut me down for seven innings and Matt would utter cliches — “Just taking the ball and doing the best I can” — in Jimmy’s voice, until finally he’d bring Burke in for the two-inning save. He was like a method actor preparing for a role, only instead of being seen by millions on the big screen the final product was witnessed by three others in a basement in a town of 2,000. I don’t think Matt cared.
ALAN ASHBY: I know Alan Ashby played catcher for the Astros in 1987. Baseball Reference tells me he had an outstanding season, hitting 288 with 14 homers at the age of 35. Unfortunately for Alan, he was the only on-carpet fatality in our Strato league’s history. Wasn’t really his fault. In the ninth inning with my team trailing, we went to the stadium card to see if a ball he hit would be a home run. You draw pink cards numbered 1-20 and some stadiums would be, say, 1-12 a home run. Could be a double otherwise, could be an out. This was to decide homer or out, hero or goat, winner or loser. It didn’t come up right and in a moment of rage I tore Ashby’s Strato card in half. Not proud.
DEVON WHITE: Speedy centerfielder in a fake league that had no use for speed. Early proponents of Moneyball, we had an unwritten rule — enforced through verbal degradation at offenders — about stealing in Strato. It just wasn’t done, just like you didn’t bring girls down into the basement when we were down there playing Strato. Mike violated both laws. One violation was simply emasculating; the other unforgivable. “I’m stealing” became the two most hated words in our league, as Mike announced that Devo would be going from first to second, leading to a series of events that involved trying to figure out a pitcher’s “hold” abilities and a catcher’s arm strength. The game was complicated enough with all the cards and dice and numbers and dots — we didn’t need small ball advocates making a mess of it. Mike took the brunt of our anger and disgust, but so did poor Devon.
PAUL MOLITOR’S GLOVE: St. Paul’s favorite son put together a 39-game hitting streak in 1987 while batting .353. He played 58 games as a DH, 41 at third, 19 at second. According to the Strato master, he did not play well whenever he trotted out onto the field to assume a defensive position. He had a ranking of four, a dreaded number that meant every ball hit there could easily turn into an error. Matt usually had “Molly” and loved him as much as any player on his team, maybe more since he was one of us. But he got angry when his man booted one in the infield. So why’d I hate it? Because there was something phony about Matt’s anger. I got sick of hearing him bemoaning Molitor’s fielding skills in a game where he had four hits. Also, he rarely DH’d for Matt, again skirting some of our vague rules about realism. Putting Molitor at second, all-thumbs and all, allowed him to put another slugger at DH. So when I hear Twins fans long for Molitor or someone talk about his quick bat, all I think about is all those errors he made and all the hits he collected in the same games. (To be fair: I did the same with Julio Franco, a fellow 4 in the field. But he at least played 111 games at short).
KEITH MILLER: Forgotten utility man, spent rookie season in 1987 with the Mets. Hit .373 — in 57 plate appearances. Those numbers gave him an absurd card and Matt took full advantage of his skills as a pinch-hitter. He was like Tim Burke with a bat in his hands. My guys couldn’t solve him. To his credit, and because he had some level of shame, Matt did use him realistically and didn’t trot him out there every game.
MIKE SCOTT: He surely cheated during the 1986 National League Championships Series and do we really think he gave it up during the 1987 season? I usually employed Nolan Ryan and certainly taunted my foes when he struck out the side. But it proved infuriating when Scott did the same to my lineup, as I not only knew he threw a spitter, I was quite certain Brandon or Matt ordered him to do it. When he struck someone out, Brandon, staring down at his scoresheet, a pencil in his right hand, simply smirked and said, “Sit.”
I hope these real players — and so many others like them — understand that I have, for the most part, forgiven them for the sins of their 1987 board game personas. Alan Ashby, especially, didn’t deserve being torn in half. And someday I’ll move on for good. But only when Matt admits he used Tim Burke way too much.