The Computer Baseball League: 1987-1990
It all started during the player's strike of 1981. As an
eleven-year-old baseball junkie, if I wasn't playing baseball in my back yard, trading
baseball cards with my friends or drawing pictures of baseball players to hang on my wall,
I spent my summer hours in front of the television set watching baseball. My father and I
bonded for many hours over the comforting voices of Phil Rizzuto, Bill White and Frank
Messer while watching our boys of summer: Graig, Willie, Goose and Lou. But in the middle
of our summer bliss, just as the pennant race began to heat up, everything came to a
shocking halt. Stadiums emptied and players began carrying picket signs instead of bats
and balls. Suddenly, my father and I were left without our favorite pastime.
With no baseball to watch anymore, I was forced to find other things to do with my time. I became addicted to a new television network called MTV. I remember wasting entire days watching nothing but music videos from groups like "Devo" and "Flock of Seagulls." Teetering on the precipice of puberty, MTV provided the perfect introduction to the '80's and a comforting companion into adolescence.
Aside from the dawn of the music video age and the impending onset of my "awkward years", another phenomenon was occurring that would change the civilized world forever: the invention of affordable personal computers. I inherited my love of gadgets and technology from my father. We were always the first on our block to own the latest in technological wizardry, from color TV to cable TV to CB radio to Atari. If it beeped, buzzed or had blinking lights, chances are we owned it.
So it was no surprise, then, that after the baseball strike dragged on for a few weeks and my father's boredom with television began to eat a hole in his wallet, he came walking through our front door one afternoon with a personal computer in his arms. Back then, you basically had two choices when it came to home PC's: a TRS-80 (or "Trash-80" as those without TRS-80's liked to call them) or a Commodore-64. The TRS-80 was geared more toward serious programming applications, while the C-64 was geared more toward game-playing. Naturally, we went with the C-64.
We had a computer in my junior high school. When I say "a computer", I mean one computer for the entire school. Today, if you went to that school you'd probably see one on every desk, but we had just that one machine - a Radio Shack model with a tiny green-tinted monochrome monitor and a tape device for storage. I got to sit at the helm of this state-of-the-art device once and managed to write a short BASIC program that displayed a stick figure doing jumping jacks. I learned this trick while watching over the shoulder of our school's designated computer nerd, Charlie Barrows. By default, this experience made me the designated computer nerd of my household.
My father took the C-64 out of its box and plugged it in. There was no monitor and no storage unit; just a keyboard and a small CPU unit plugged into the back of our television set. He then turned to me and said, "Okay, Mike, make it do something."
I spent the next several hours trying to duplicate my jump-jacking stick figure. My family gathered around wide-eyed, staring at the sky blue screen with the blinking white cursor as I earnestly pecked away at the keyboard. They soon lost interest after a few failed attempts, leaving me alone in my quest. I never did get that stick figure to jump that day. Years later, though, I gave my father a thank you gift for putting me through four and a half years of college with a degree in computer programming. It was a diskette containing a program that displayed a stick figure on the screen doing jumping jacks. It only cost him about twenty grand, but he finally got his wish: I made his computer "do something."
We didn't have our new toy in the house for very long before we realized that we needed some sort of storage device. Without one, it was impossible to do much with our new computer other than type out BASIC programs that would disappear as soon as the machine shut down. So we went down to our local computer shop to buy a disk drive (I told my father how slow the tape drive at our school was and he wanted nothing to do with that. The disk drive was comparitively blazing - it only took about 10 minutes to load your average program.) Of course, we couldn't buy a disk drive without buying some software to test it out. So I made a bee-line to the games while my dad checked out the disk drives. Naturally, my eyes zeroed in on a game creatively called "Computer Baseball" by a company called Strategic Simulations Incorporated (or SSI.) This, I determined, was the answer to my prayers. The real baseball players may be taking a vacation in the middle of the season, but these computer players would never leave me. It didn't take much arm-twisting to convince my dad to fork over the twenty bucks or so for the game (even though I don't ever remember him playing it.)
In many ways, the SSI game looked a lot like the Diamond Mind Baseball game we play today. The graphics were very crude and simplistic: an all-green diamond on one half of the screen, with fielders and runners represented by tiny white sprites. The other half of the screen provided information on the pitcher and batter. And, of course, there was the usual scoreboard and ball/strike/out indicators at the top and bottom of the screen. Like the war games that accounted for the bulk of SSI's business, this was a game of strategy. There was no action mode. No quick reflexes required to play this game - just quick thinking. I would say it was the type of game I always dreamed about, but at that point in my life a game like that never even occured to me.
I spent the next several years of my adolescent life inputting stats into that game. I went to the library and found a very old (circa 1975 I believe) "Baseball Encyclopedia." I copied stats onto notebook pages, then transferred those stats into the computer at home. I reconstructed all the best teams in history, from the 1906 Cubs to the 1980 Royals. When that task was complete, I began constructing all-time teams. I put together an all-time American League team, an all-time National League team, an all-time team for every franchise in baseball, an all-time team for every decade, and an all-time team for every letter of the alphabet (note: the "M's", with Mantle, Musial, Mathewson, Morgan, Mays, Mathews, McCovey, Marichal et al, always kicked ass.) I even created a team containing nothing but Babe Ruth. Each position was filled with a different year of the Babe's career (even, of course, pitcher.) I input my Little League team's stats into the computer and pitted that team against the all-time greats. I built an all-homer team and played them against an all speed-and-defense team to see which team would win more often (not surprisingly, it was the all-homer team.)
Eventually, I realized that I enjoyed selecting and building teams more than I enjoyed playing the actual games themselves. I loved being the sole arbiter in charge of deciding who belonged on a team. Who played center field for the All-M's team: Mantle or Mays? (Reluctantly, I had to go with Mays.) Who played center field for the All-Yankee team: Mantle or Dimaggio? (Mickey lost again.) Who played left field for the All-American League team: Williams or Cobb? (Williams.) It was around this time that I recognized my hunger to be an owner and GM of my own ballclub. The next step was to find some competition.
During my final year in Little League, our team acquired a pair of brothers who were new in town: Billy and Jerry Romaniello. Jerry, the younger of the two, was a left-handed pitcher, had a good glove and could handle the stick pretty well. Billy's talents on the diamond were exceeded only by his own perception of those talents. Because of his style of play, his obvious love for the game and his incurable belief that his middling talents would some day land him in the big leagues, we called him "Billy Baseball" and the nickname stuck.
Billy Baseball lived right up the road from me, and it wasn't long before he began to come over to my house to check out the C-64 and play some games head-to-head. Eventually, we decided to have a "draft" where we'd each take turns choosing players until we had full squads. We played our two all-star teams against each other for quite a while, tracking our record against each-other, before the obvious next step became clear. In the spring of 1987, I began circulating draft forms to a select group of friends in high school. I found ten people to participate in this first-ever fantasy baseball league in New Milford High School history and by March of '87 we were playing our first season. We called the league the "Computer Baseball League", or CBL. (Like the folks at SSI, we were very creative when it came to naming.)
Since I was the only one in the group with a computer, I simmed all the games myself. I would sim a series of games, then create by hand a sheet containing current standings and a list of highlights. I'd print out a bunch of copies on our dot matrix printer and hand them out at school. The SSI game provided no such luxury as a "quick sim." Simmed games had to be played out in full, with every play displayed on screen as it happened. As you might imagine, this took quite a long time - especially using such an ancient device. For this reason, we played only an eight-game schedule that first season. In retrospect, I wonder why we bothered at all. I finished in first-place with a 5-3 record, beating Billy by one game. I made it to the first-ever CBL World Series and lost to a kid named Jason (whose last name now escapes me.)
The next season, played over the months of April and May, we expanded to twelve games. And the season after that, we added two old-timers (a pitcher and a hitter) to each roster. Jason won season number two as well, and a guy by the name of Frank Gifford (no, not that one) won our third CBL championship. The league was mildly successful in that the people in the league were all actively involved and interested. But once we graduated at the end of the June season, we all drifted apart as most high school seniors tend to do.
I did, however, manage to keep in touch with four of the people in that league. We wrote each other while in college, called every so often, and hung out together during the breaks. Our experience in the CBL gave us a good excuse to stay in touch, and is probably a factor in why four of us still keep in touch to this day.
One of those four was Paul Marazita, a hairy Italian guy who was our high school football team's quarterback. I never realized Paul had any interest in baseball until I approached him about the CBL. We met in the seventh grade thanks to a common interest in a girl named Jenny Walker. Paul and I toiled together for four years on the gridiron - one in Pop Warner and three under the ignorant and oppressive tutelage of Mike Oshan. Off the field, we hung out together occassionally during the weekends and summers throughout high school. But our friendship developed mostly after graduation, thanks at least in part to the battles we engaged in across the keyboard in the CBL.
Phil Geisel was another one of the few people I kept in touch with after high school. Phil was my double play partner our freshman year. We never got a chance to display our immense skills at the keystone during games, but we had several practice sessions together and it didn't take long for me to appreciate Geisel's off-center sense of humor. Like Paul, we hung out together more often after graduation than we did during high school. Despite his occassional attempts to get me to join him in jeep skiing and highway ramp street brawling, we've managed to stay close.
The third person I kept in touch with, Bob Murphy, was a friend of mine from eighth grade. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of rooming with Murphy in college (well, "rooming" isn't exactly the word...I spent an entire semester sleeping on his couch, so technically I didn't really have a "room.") In return, I offered to pay him what I normally would have paid my school for on-campus housing. Somehow, our agreement got lost in the translation to his parents. The end result was a threatened law suit by his father over additional rent money he thought I owed him. And that, of course, eventually led to the end of our friendship.
Last, but not least, was Billy Baseball himself. Billy and I have criss-crossed the country over the past ten years, but we've somehow managed to keep in touch nonetheless. He is one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met. He was probably the 25th player on our varsity squad's 25-man roster, yet he busted his ass more than any other player on the team and absolutely refused to give up. Since then, Billy has owned some of the worst fantasy baseball teams ever assembled, yet he always maintains a sense of optimism and is more involved with his team and the league than many of the best teams. He remains a good friend to this day, which is something not many people can say about their Little League teammates.
The five of us - myself, Billy, Paul, Phil and Bob - decided at some point during our freshman year in college to re-establish the CBL. A new game - "Earl Weaver Baseball" - hit the market earlier that year, and we were very excited to begin playing with this new, improved software that featured stunning graphics and advanced realism (at least according to the back of the box.) In addition to the software upgrade, my father also upgraded our computer. We were now proud owners of an IBM-clone XT. This baby featured a whopping 960k of RAM and a huge 30-meg hard drive. I remember telling my dad there was no way we'd ever be able to fill that much disk space.
Our first season, held during the Christmas break of 1987, resulted in a World Series involving Billy and myself. To the amazement of all (but mostly me), Billy won. It was the first and only world championship Billy has ever enjoyed on the fantasy baseball diamond and it came at my expense.
After another semester passed, we gathered again in the basement of my parents' house in May of 1988. We played only eight games the previous season due to the short break, but with the increase in free time over the summer, we doubled our next season's schedule to 16 games and stretched it out over the months of May and June. My team, with the help of .370-hitting terror Tony Gwynn, team co-captains Ozzie Smith and Rick Reuschel, and the powerful trio of George Bell (47 HR), Andre Dawson (48 HR) and the rookie Mark McGwire (49 HR) carried my team to the league title for the second season in a row and third time in five seasons. That season, I won my first CBL championship, sweeping Murphy's squad 3-0. Unfortunately, that would also be my last CBL championship.
That summer, we spent nearly every night of the week huddled inside a room in my parents' basement we affectionately called "The Pit." The Pit was musty, windowless and full of flies, but we loved it anyway. While most guys our age were out on the town drinking, dancing and picking up loose women, we five nerds spent our summer break arguing over rules in a made-up league, cheering and booing pixellated players, drawing crude pictures to tack onto the moldy basement walls, tormenting my little brother over the phone, drinking smuggled-in beer and playing darts (or - eventually - "dart".) Oddly enough, I remember the summers of '88 and '89 as two of the best times of my life.
The next season, played in July, resulted in the most exciting and infamous CBL World Series in league history. Prior to that season, with my team threatening to mount an extended dynasty and spoil the fun of the other four owners, it was decided that something drastic needed to be done in the best interests of the league. As a result, we came up with the brilliant idea of splitting our teams into two teams each: one American League and one National. This way, instead of having five all-star teams in the league, we would have ten semi-all-star teams. We would each manage two teams and treat each team separately.
That was the original concept, at least.
Unfortunately, despite four years of undying effort on my part as league commissioner, these ten teams eventually merged into five when owners concentrated all their efforts on their best team at the expense of the other - thus creating five all-star teams and five lousy teams in the end. I tried every conceivable rule I could think of to avoid this, from disallowing trades between leagues, to creating a structure to void any uneven deals, to simply begging the other owners to play the game honestly. Nothing worked.
That first season, however, before teams had a chance to load up one team at the expense of the other, the competition was better than ever. My National League team, going by the new name of the "DT's" (which either stood for Dream Team or Delerium Tremors, take your pick) won the NL title fairly easily thanks to the fact that most of the good players from my championship squad - Smith, Gwynn, Dawson and, of course, Reuschel - were NL players. Over in the American League, Paul's "Zoots" won the title by just one game over my AL squad, the Bashers. That set the stage for the infamous July of '88 series. That series, down two games to one heading into Game Four with a depleted bullpen, my #4 starter Mike Dunne tossed 8 2/3 innings of brilliant baseball, forcing a fifth and deciding game.
The Zoots and DT's battled down to the wire in Game Five, and after eight innings of play the score was tied. Then, with two outs in the top of the ninth, the Zoots put runners on the corners - Julio Franco on first, Bret Butler on third - and DT's closer Dave Smith on the mound. At that time, we had been using the Earl Weaver software for only about seven months, but all of us were aware of a glaring bug in the software. Any time there were runners on the corners, a team could pretty much guarantee scoring a run simply by calling for a steal of second. Every time this was done, without fail and without any way to avoid it, the catcher would throw down to second base. The runner on third would then take off at that point, and if he had any kind of speed whatsoever, he would beat the return throw home by the shortstop. It is a classic ploy that has been used by unscrupulous Little League managers across the country for decades. We had all seen it done countless times during the first two seasons of playing the Earl Weaver game and openly recognized this play as an unrealistic flaw in the game. Paul Marazita, however, recognized this as an opportunity for a tarnished championship title.
Given the opportunity to win a championship because of a bug in the software (and not his team's talent), Marazita called for the double steal (henceforth named the "Double Steal ala Butler.") The throw went through and the winning run of the World Series scored from third. The Zoots became the new CBL champions, thus ending what was until then the best, most exciting World Series in CBL history. Twelve years later, Marazita's decision is still being debated.
That series sparked a rivalry between myself and Marazita that continues to this day. The following year, another rivalry was born between myself and Phil Geisel that also continues to this day. While Marazita's Zoots continued to eke out a pennant in May/June of '89 (finishing one game ahead of the Bashers once again), Geisel's "Ironmen" came out of nowhere to snatch the NL title away from my DT's. For the first time since 1987, I was watching the CBL World Series from the sidelines.
The Ironmen, led by a collection of annoying players and former Mets like Carlos Perez, Darryl Strawberry, David Cone, Howard Johnson, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra and Kevin Mitchell - as well as a young pre-Cy Young Greg Maddux, Geisel mainstay Eric Davis and the now-legendary Butler - put up a fight against the Zoots in that series. But the Zoots, thanks to the hitting exploits of their pitcher Frank Viola and the completely dominating performance of their CBL Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, easily won their second championship in a row.
The following season, the longest CBL season ever played at 24 games, the DT's cruised to another division title with a dominating record of 20-4. Three of those losses, however, came at the hands of left-handed starters, and that turned out to be a devastating Achilles heel when the DT's faced the Zoots (who once again won their division by just one game over the Bashers) in the World Series. The Zoots' trifecta of lefties - Danny Jackson, Frank Viola and Teddy Higuera - made the DT's batters look completely foolish. Higuera completed the three-game sweep of the series by tossing a one-hit shutout.
That summer of 1989 was probably the pinnacle of the CBL's existence in terms of participation and excitement. During that summer, I wrote a newsletter every week of the season with recaps of every game played, interviews with owners in the league, opinion pages, season previews and recaps, the obligatory statistics, trivia questions and even a comics page. This weekly tome was usually read by just one person: Marazita.
In addition to the print media, the CBL also produced video media as well, with Phil leading the production. Geisel's spring training video, featuring the man himself dressed as Ozzie Smith among others, was a true classic that has since been lost to the ages. In the ensuing years, the CBL gave birth to several other video projects including "New Milford's Most Wanted", "New Milford Night Life", "Dave Glander at 11:30pm on a School Night" and the classic compilation video "Not For You."
Our nightly meetings in "The Pit" involved many running themes. Among them was the inevitible appearance by my younger brother, who would announce his presence by asking once again, "Are you guys still playing that stupid game?" When he wasn't playing games, Geisel would spend his time adding drawings to the walls of The Pit. By the time our final season ended, you couldn't see one square inch of paint. Marazita would often celebrate his victories by pumping both fists in the air. Several times, he knocked the flourescent light right out of the fixture. Thousands of pieces of broken glass would rain over us like confetti at a Zoots parade. One time, however, stone-handed Billy Baseball somehow managed to catch the light bulb in mid-air. In five years of playing on the same baseball team as Billy, it was the first and only time I can remember him fielding anything cleanly.
At the beginning of the '89 season, a CBL trophy was constructed by Phil Geisel that resembled the major league trophy. Ten interchangeable flags were mounted on top of a circular platform, with a crown-like structure in the middle, surrounding a rubber pinky ball. The entire trophy was spray-painted gold and mounted on a wooden base. The names of all ten teams were etched into the flags and the words, "CBL Championship Trophy" circled the golden platform. It was a thing of beauty, yet was somehow considered an eyesore to Paul's mom, whose home held the trophy for more than a year and a half.
Sadly enough, that trophy never graced my own mantle. Three seasons after my championship team was broken up in order to prevent a long-term dynasty, the Zoots had won three championships in a row. After that series, I had grown so tired and frustrated with my ne'er do well team of post-season chokers, I decided to do something radical. I figured there was no way to beat the Zoots in the World Series, so the smart thing to do would be to make sure they didn't get to the Series in the first place. Until that time, I had dutifully tried to follow the original concept of the ten-team league structure. While all others were trading away all the best players from one team to acquire players for their other team, I tried to build two competitive teams at once. Of course, I focused most of my energy on my DT's, but I also made sure my Bashers were competitive as well, as evidenced by their three second-place finishes in a row (all one game out of first.) But for the first time, I decided if I couldn't beat them, join them.
One night during the fall semester at college, I approached my roommate Murphy with a deal he couldn't possibly refuse. In exchange for all his best American League players - including CBL legends Julio Franco, Bret Butler and Carney Lansford (all ex-Zoots from the July '88 team) - I offered to send to him all my best players from the DT's. It was a collassal trade involving sixteen players total, and of course it was met with great cries of protest from Marazita. Just as I had planned, that Bashers team finally knocked the evil Zoots off the top of the standings and won the AL title in the winter season of 1990.
Ironically enough, the Ballbusters - Murphy's NL team containing all of my former DT stars - won the NL title (one game ahead of the DT's) and our two teams faced off in the World Series. Even more ironically, that team containing all of my former players - the same players who time and time again failed miserably in the post-season under my guidance by performing far worse than they did during the regular season - beat my newly-constructed team. In nine CBL seasons, my team made it to the World Series six times. Five of those six times, I lost. I won more than 130 games in the CBL - 28 more than any other owner - yet had just one championship to show for it.
During the final game of that '90 series, recorded for all time in the CBL Hall of Fame Video Library, I resigned from the CBL commissioner's office. That was the last game ever played in the CBL.
The following year, 1991, four of the owners from the CBL along with a new owner, Sean Sweeney (who replaced Murphy), formed a rotisserie baseball league called the GRiBbLe. It was our first attempt at the hot new hobby of rotisserie baseball and we were excited to play a game that was based on reality and not the hidden, random inner-workings of a machine. The highlight of that draft was when Romaniello opened the bidding for Alvaro Espinoza at $10. After several minutes of laughter, the only thing Billy heard was "Pass...Pass...Pass...Pass" and Espinoza was his.
I soon learned that our biggest mistake was, once again, allowing each owner to own two teams in the league. Unfortunately, in order to make the scoring system meaningful, it was a necessity to have at least ten teams. And with the social connections we all had at that time, it was impossible for us to find more than five baseball fans in the New Milford, Connecticut area.
As soon as the teams were drafted, owners began trading all the best players from one of their teams in order to stockpile talent on their other team. All the while, I protested loudly while the others played deaf and dumb. Marazita began to run away with the title once again thanks to a stunning late-career surge by an overachieving Dave Henderson. But soon, Henderson came back to earth and my two teams began their climbs. By the end of the season, I achieved the ultimate satisfaction in my fantasy baseball career: I had won not only first-place overall, but second-place as well. I took home more than $150 in prize money (big bucks for a college kid in those days), grabbing 80-percent of the total pot. And I did it by playing the game as it was meant to be played.
For me it was sweet vindication that proved, in the end, honesty prevails. The following year, we attempted to institute a rule - once again - to disallow any trade that sacrificed one of the owner's teams for the other. But after two blatently lop-sided trades (one involving Geisel and his dad, the other Geisel and Marazita) it was clear that this system would never work. The 1992 C.A.R.L. season was cancelled soon after it began.
After that failed season, we all went our separate ways. I got married, moved to New Jersey, then back up north to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Paul married - first his career, then his wife - and moved to Stamford. Billy settled down in Alabama with his wife (but has recently returned to New Milford.) And Phil...well, Phil didn't go anywhere.
For six years, we didn't play in any league together (with the exception of one season of office rotisserie in which Paul and I played), and we still managed to keep in touch occassionally despite not having the built-in excuse. Then, in the winter of 1998, while surfing the internet one day, I came upon the Diamond Mind web site and discovered what I had been looking for since that day in the computer store back in 1981. I immediately phoned Paul, Phil and Billy and asked them, "how would you like to join a baseball league?"