Ladies and gentlemen, your 2011 Stockton ’88s!

It’s spring, and in the spring a young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of … fantasy baseball.

And boy, do I have a team this year.  Just on my active roster, I have seven .300 hitters and seven .500 sluggers.  My batters have hit over 2300 homers in the last twelve seasons.  In that same span, my top five starting pitchers have racked up 563 wins and more than 5300 strikeouts.  Five of my players are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and two more are likely to go in once they’re eligible (plus another is in the Basketball Hall of Fame).

Wait, you say — Hall of Famers?  You mean you’re not using active players on your fantasy team?  What kind of wacko team is this?!?

Simple.  It’s a team in the greatest league in the world (personal opinion): Legends of Baseball.

If I recall correctly (and I may be off on some of the details), Legends of Baseball began in 1995 as an argument between two Missouri sportswriters.  The two couldn’t agree on who was the greatest catcher of all time, Johnny Bench or Mickey Cochrane.  Using computer simulation software, they each created a team centered around their favorite backstop and played a short season against each other.  A few friends wanted to get in on the fun, so they did it again the next year with more teams.  It kept expanding from there, going online in 1999, and now has teams all over the United States.  (One of the original two sportswriters, Bill Battle, is still in the league.)

LOB (as its members call it) uses Diamond Mind Baseball software, which not only covers every player to play in the major leagues but also allows you to create “player cards” for other players; in LOB, about sixty have been made to simulate the play of stars from the Negro Leagues (the all-black teams that existed before Organized Baseball was integrated).  Every year, each team drafts 40 players, of which 25 can be active at any time, and they can be selected from any year in pro baseball’s history, from 1871 on.  (Specific years are chosen — one doesn’t just draft Barry Bonds, one drafts Barry 2001 or 2002 or 2004.  And once a player has been taken, no one else can take any of his other years — otherwise, we’d have twelve teams with Babe Ruth and it would just get confusing.)  Since it is a simulation, it has its quirks; a lot of Hall of Famers don’t do well in LOB, and many obscure players are big stars.  But I’d still say it’s the best baseball sim I’ve ever worked with.

I joined LOB in 2004, upon an invitation from a friend who was already in the league.  Since then I’ve done six seasons (I took 2007 off) with the Stockton ’88s, named in honor of the 1888 Stockton semi-pro team that won the California state championship.  (Incidentally, Stockton was nicknamed “Mudville” back in the 1880s; an earlier version of that semi-pro squad may have been part of the inspiration for the fictional “Mudville nine” in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s famous poem “Casey at the Bat.”)  I’ve done pretty well in the league, winning the postseason playoffs twice and going to the finals a third time.  Last year was a little rough for me — I deviated from my usual formula (build around pitching and defense) to try and assemble an offensive juggernaut, only my hitters came out in a gang slump, and I didn’t have enough good pitching to save them.  I clawed my way back to .500 in the last few weeks, but resolved that next year I was going to go with my proven strategy.

Well. we’ll see how it works out, but the annual draft ended Friday, and for the moment I’m liking the look of my team.  Here’s my Opening Day lineup:

  • Catcher: Mike “King” Kelly, 1886
  • First base: Jason Giambi, 2001
  • Second base: Rod Carew, 1977 / Eddie Stanky, 1950
  • Shortstop: Donie Bush, 1909
  • Third base: Bill Joyce, 1896 / Miguel Cabrera, 2010
  • Outfield: Fats Jenkins, 1927; Ken Griffey Jr., 1993; Rocky Colavito, 1958
  • Designated hitter: Babe Herman, 1930 / Levi Meyerle, 1871
  • Bench: Don Padgett, 1939 (C); Dixie Walker, 1944 (OF), Hack Wilson, 1930 (OF)
  • Starting pitchers: Bill Foster, 1927; Amos Rusie, 1897; John Smoltz, 1996; Johan Santana, 2004; Jouett Meekin, 1894
  • Bullpen: Bill Dailey, 1963; Rheal Cormier, 2003; Grant Balfour, 2008
  • Closers: Eric Gagne, 2003; Gabe White, 2000

The Hall of Famers I mentioned before are Kelly, Carew, Wilson, Foster and Rusie; Griffey and Smoltz should make it once they’re eligible (they haven’t been retired long enough), and Colavito and Herman have been suggested as future HOF inductees.  A few explanations: Foster and Jenkins both played in the Negro Leagues (Jenkins was also captain of the great New York Rens basketball team in the off-season).  The other obscure names were all stars in their eras, with the possible exception of Padgett and some of the relief pitchers, who just had one good season.  But with the LOB setup, one good season can be enough.

Once you have players and a ballpark (there’s a draft of historic parks that takes place before the player draft), you can set up your batting order and pitching rotation, assign bullpen roles (who’s the closer, who will pitch long relief, etc.) and bench assignments like pinch-hitting, and set your manager tendencies — when to bunt, steal bases, pinch-hit, use relievers and the like.  I set up my manager profile in the style of Walter Alston, the great Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers skipper of yesteryear, and a big advocate of (you guessed it) pitching and defense.

Then, starting next month, the ’88s will “take the field” and play against the other teams in LOB.  This year, there are twenty teams divided into two leagues, and the top four teams from each league go to the playoffs.  Last year, Tom Austin (also the league commissioner) led his Truckee Tornadoes to their first league title, defeating the previous champion, Craig Hixon’s Cambria Cro-Magnons.  It’s only fitting, as Cambria won in ’09 by badly beating the 2008 winners … the Stockton ’88s.  So there’s a little potential for a three-way rivalry developing.

All of us involved in LOB spend a lot of time on it, and it’s only fair to ask why.  The answer is simple: it’s fun!  None of us were stars when we played baseball as kids; quite a few of us (myself included) were often the last player picked for schoolyard games.  But we all love the game, and this is a way we can participate without pulling muscles.  It’s always interesting to see how our teams and seasons develop, just like the real ones on TV or the radio.  It’s a safe place to be goofy, play pretend, and in general reap all the benefits of childhood without any moms making us stop to do our homework.

If it sounds like fun, you can check out the Legends of Baseball website here.  We’re always looking for new team owners, and maybe that’ll be you.  Either way, I hope to see you out at the ballpark!

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