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Of Dice and Men

by Thomas Boswell


From all over America — from Washington State to Washington, D.C. — they came to Falls Church, Virginia for the United Baseball League all-star game on Roger Duncan's kitchen table.

Some pitched tents in the backyard. Others slept under the banana tree in Duncan's living room. The brave owner of the Oshkosh Marauders even put his sleeping bag under the poisonous dieffenbachia plant in Duncan's dining room. The travel, cost, inconvenience and even the ridicule of friends were all worth it to be there when Jim Palmer, the thirty-one-game winner of the Nassau Bombers, faced Bert Blyleven, Cy Young winner of the Manhattan Blue Jays.

This was it, the showcase of the United Baseball League, perhaps the most complex, fascinating and obsessive parlor game ever devised. The UBL "sport" is played with two 10-sided dice, cards that rate individual players in every category from "gopher ball factor'' to frequency of hitting into double plays, and five play charts explaining what each roll of the dice means.

Before anyone snorts, "Ha, just another Monopoly game," one thing should be made clear. UBL is serious business and the UBL's sixteen members, each an owner of a franchise, are arguably the most sophisticated and fanatical baseball fans alive.

Last night, the National Conference manager decided to let Pete Rose try to stretch a double into a triple because "the outfield grass was wet. We had had a rain delay." In the kitchen?

The first roll of the dice determines if the batter walks. The UBL system naturally takes into consideration the pitcher's con. control rating, the batter's walk frequency and the pitcher's durability factor at that stage of the game. Wild Nolan Ryan will walk selective Joe Morgan 30 percent of the time (dice numbers 1 to 30), while Mark Fidrych walks Mickey Rivers only 1 percent of the time.

Once in full swing, the UBLers can ask the dice to answer a dozen questions in rapid fashion: Where is the ball hit? How hard? Does the fielder have the range to reach it? Did the relay man bobble the throw? Did the baseman miss the tag?

Say there is an injury at the plate. Which man is hurt? Upper- or lower-body injury? How many days will he be out of league play? When he returns, how much will his efficiency increase with each additional day that he heals? Was it his power or his speed or both that were affected? On a single UBL play, the two ten-sided dice could conceivably be rolled as many as seventeen times, producing an incredible number of ramifications. However, five rolls are about average.

This is no game for kids, not even the most brilliant, but for adults who have at least a thousand hours a year to spend "owning" a team.

Each club, right down to the Creighton Cruisers, has a sixty-man roster, including a triple-A team. Teams draft minor leaguers so far in advance that when Garry Templeton of St. Louis broke onto the major-league all-star scene, the Louisville Chargers of the UBL already had him protected in their system for three years. The UBLers not only serve as owners, general managers and managers for their beloved teams but also act as statisticians, historians, sports reporters and creators of elaborate mythology.

For instance, Ted Simmons, owned by the Nassau Bombers in the UBL, not only batted .318 in 121 games one season but also grounded into fourteen double plays, was hit by four pitches, was caught stealing twice, had ten errors and five passed balls and walked twenty times. Oh yes, he had only one sacrifice bunt.

Such statistics, from balks to bunts to picked-off-first, are kept for 960 players. Every play in the eleven-year history of the UBL is on record. Want to know who led the New York Sultans in batting a decade ago? Carl Yastrzemski—.329.

But all this is just the tip of the iceberg. Every month, the UBL puts out a duplicate of The Sporting News which reports on every team, with feature stories and columns. The "owners" are, of course, the sports writers too, building up incredible "histories" that continue from year to year, and now decade to decade.

The gentle, affectionate parodies of The Sporting News style are masterpieces. Listen to Blyleven explaining how he lost the fourth game of last year's UBL World Series to the accursed Bombers: `'My fast ball wasn't there, and my curve, well you saw what Jackson did with it. Now I've got to listen to all that crap about how I can't win the big one. If we win the next two, I'll show everybody that I don't choke."

Raise goose bumps? It should. The verisimilitude is frightening. The UBL's yearly guide and Sporting News imitations have pictures of the UBL players with their major-league uniform insignia erased and UBL insignia in their place. To read the thousands of words written about the Bomber-Blue lay "fall spectacular," right down to the stirring dateline, "Oyster Bar, Nassau County, Oct. 10," is to believe that this thing happened.

"Don't expect me to say anything about champagne," said Bomber manager Gene Mauch after the fourth series game. "The Jays have stunned Windsor by winning every big game they had to. They could still win three in a row and make me look like a fool."

UBL teams also get into brawls, and players are ejected or suspended Owners have been known to feud with each other for years over shady trades or questionable use of a relief pitcher. Duncan, host of this year's all-star game, made one rival owner take his sleeping bag to the basement. "Personality conflict, you'd say," he explained.

The feud arose in part because Duncan likes to play a recording of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the game begins, set off fireworks after his team's homers, and bring in his relief pitcher's card in a tiny bullpen car painted in the Creighton Crusader colors. Duncan even has a toy mule — "Roger W." — modeled after

Charles Finley's "Charlie O," that sits next to him during play. "I just did it for fun," said Duncan, "but I think it got on this guy's nerves."

The UBLers are naturally wary of appearing foolish, since they are all convinced that the world will never quite be ready for them. After all, they have searched the country for years just to come up with sixteen souls with the phenomenal patience and punctuality needed to make a league that is run by mail operate smoothly.

"This is an utterly frivolous hobby," UBL commissioner Steve Lasley said proudly. "Our game is a hybrid . . . the final amalgamation of all the simulated baseball games that have been designed, plus eleven years of our refinements.

"We have fine-tuned our game to the point where it mirrors the major leagues down to the last percentages. That is to say, we've perfected it until it is completely useless and unmarketable."

In recent years, special UBL committees have been formed to investigate the higher mathematics of how they can correct minor flaws in their aggregate year-end league statistics: a few too many errors by third basemen, not quite enough wild pitches, and a real stumper: why big-leaguers hit so many sacrifice flies.

Never fear, it took five years for UBL math whiz Mike Baran to produce a formula relating a pitcher's ability to pitch, with and without men on base, to his ERA. If Baran and his buddies beat that, what chance does a sacrifice fly have?

More touchy are the lengthy meetings at which the defensive range of every player in the majors is discussed.

Since every player's "rating cards" is based on the previous season's statistics, UBLers look at current box scores with next year in mind. As if worrying about both past and present were not enough, an owner must give his first priorities to the future: whom will he draft? Thus, every UBL owner actually lives three different games of baseball and is fanatical about each.

"The key to this game is studying the minor leagues," said Duncan. "Every one of us reads The Sporting News from back to front so we can study the A and AA leagues in the fine print first You want to spot the next Willie Mays when he plays for Pulaski and draft him."

In such a world, it is not surprising that Duncan said, "We don't usually explain the game to our families, or to anybody really . . . Have you ever tried to tell your boss that you're taking a week's vacation to drive a thousand miles to play a dozen face-to-face games against the Boise Barons?"

This weekend's combination all-star game and three-day "convention" is the highlight of the UBL year. "My mom once came to see the convention when it was held at our house," said the wife of the owner of the Cape Cod Hornets. "One guy lost three straight games to the [awful] Wallingford Cubs and he ran into the backyard and dove into a swimming pool with only six inches of water in it.

"Another owner shredded the playing card of Steve Renko and burned it. He said he was going to put the ashes in an envelope and send them to Egypt, back to the owner in Cairo who had talked him into making the trade to get Renko

"That's when my mother left, saying 'I never saw so many crazy people in my whole life.''"

If the UBL sounds redolent of Kafkaesque fiction, it should. Years ago, novelist Robert Coover wrote a mordant cosmic fable, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop. Coover assumed that Waugh — who wavered between fantasy and reality while spending the deep hours of the night playing a game in which every baseball play could be duplicated by a roll of the dice — was a flight of his imagination. Little did Coover know that one Joe Sanchez, a political-science professor at Adelphi University, had fathered the actual UBL two years before, establishing in reality a league that made Coover's wildly fictional one-man UBA seem elementary.

Far from being eccentric, the UBL owners are, in Lasley's words, "addicted game players . . . very orderly and reliable . . . attentive to details, especially administrative details."

Nevertheless, the range of UBL professions stretches from college professor to high school football coach, from music teacher to inspector general of the New York City housing authority. Two owners in Rochester, Washington — Chris and Jeff Snell — are married. They played the famous "Bedroom World Series" of 1972. She won.

One owner devised a way to conduct last year's transcontinental minor-league draft, involving 160 long-distance telephone net negotiations for a total bill of $19.60. Let it suffice to say that a typical phone call beginning, "Will you accept a collect call from Mr. Mark Fidrych of Oshkosh?" was a central ingredient.

But the whole day and night of the All-Star game, the phone was off the hook. No disturbances.

"We've been in the closet so long . . ." Lasley said and grinned. "We don't like to waste these days."

Janicki's daughter, Heather, her head barely as high as the game table, wandered through the room and watched the adults (average age 28.37) bent over their cards, calling out "sixty . . . seventy-two . . . thirty-nine. Possible hit. What's the fielder's range? Diving stab. Pitcher's durability rate going down. Don't I hear a phone ringing in the Hornet bullpen?"

Heather knitted her forehead, then said decisively, "Silly."

The owners of the United Baseball League fell silent and looked at her for a nervous instant. Then they began to laugh. She would have plenty of time to learn.

Excerpted from Why Time Begins on Opening Day.Boswell, Thomas.1985.

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