Sunday, March 30, 2014

NCAA's Billion Dollar Racket

Despite the mathematical proclamations that those who entered Warren Buffett's billion dollar NCAA bracket contest had a 1-in-9.2 quintillion chance of winning, I, like so many others, did it.

The odds were astronomical, but I don't know how much a quintillion really is so I didn't truly fathom the impossibility. And I followed college basketball pretty closely this year. I had a good chance of reaping the rewards. I was so sure of a billion bucks victory, I turned in my notice at work on the first day of the tournament.

Three hours later, after Dayton beat Ohio State, I called back to work. “Uh, about that notice...”

Yes, within three hours of the tournament beginning, my bracket was busted. The billion dollars was not going to happen. The first game killed me. The first game!

I was pretty careful with my picks. I did get North Dakota State over Oklahoma but I missed Mercer beating Duke. I bet Mercer's coach even picked Duke to win. When a billion dollars is on the line, you go with head over heart in picks every time.

Obviously, the bracket contest was a gimmick to garner the world's largest data base and e-mail address list. I won't get a billion dollars, but I'm soon to receive one billion e-mails about Quicken Loans and their fine products.

This year's brackets reinforced to me why sports predicting and betting is pretty rough. I used to actually bet on college football games. My brother-in-law knew a bookie and fronted the bets for me. The problem was, he'd take my winnings from college football and then lose it on pro football games Sunday. I was doing an illegal activity. What was I going to do, call the cops on him?

For one fall, I had developed a really good system for picking college games. I pored over team stats and predicted the scores of key games and then compared them to the Vegas lines. On games where I had teams winning much more than the point spreads indicated, I'd lock on them.

It got pretty intense. Once, my wife had a prayer meeting at our house with her church buddies. As they did their thing, the Florida State-Boston College game was on television. She attended a non-denominational charismatic church with members that weren't reserved about whoopin' and hollerin' in church. I grew up as a refined, shy Methodist, so that was out of my comfort zone.

However, during that prayer meeting, Florida State held Boston College on four downs within the five yard line as time ran out and covered an 8-point spread. After each play-stopping tackle by Florida State, I'd blurt out a “Yes,” or “Whoo,” or “Thank you, Lord.”

Later, one of the members told my wife he felt I was really coming around spiritually.

I quit the betting thing when, and I'm not making this up, the bookie died of a drug overdose. I realized I was becoming an expendable character in a Breaking Bad scene, got scared and bailed out quickly.

Since then, I do the customary bracket thing, and that's the extent of any sports prognostications.

And each year I swear never to fill in a bracket again after one of the teams I forecasted to go to the Final Four gets beat by some Cinderella-darling team in the first round and my bracket is mutilated. Anyone remember Northern Iowa over Kansas in 2010? Weber State over North Carolina in 1999? Santa Clara beating Arizona in 1993? Yeah, I thought so. Those things stick with you.

Three of the four Final Teams in this year's tournaments are teams I had losing earlier on. Only Florida remains. I looked at my ESPN bracket last week and discovered I was in 1,350,000th place. Whoo-hoo. It's dropped since then, I'm sure.

So, I'm laying off making any more bracket picks from now on and instead will simply enjoy the games for the sport, not the point spreads or final outcomes. Can I get a thank you, Lord for that?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Update: April 28, 1950

I'm 10 days in to the 1950 APBA replay and I've already seen some trends developing.

The Philadelphia Phillies' 'Whiz Kids' team may be overrated, Brooklyn is a frustrating team to roll games for because you never know what kind of team will show up, the New York Yankees must have bats the size of telephone poles, Pittsburgh plays way above what the team actually did and the St. Louis Browns are a really, really bad team.

And most teams' pitching after the first two starters are pretty horrendous.

I've reached April 28, 1950, of the replay. I began playing with a frenzy, often rolling five or six games a day. But that pace tapered off; I got sick, work beckoned and the NCAA basketball tournaments tipped off — all things that took me away from the dice and game.

But, I still managed to get a few games in each day and by now I've got an indication of how this season may go.

Here's the standings as of April 28, 1950

New York      8    3        Pittsburgh        7    1
Detroit            7    2        Boston             7    4
Boston            7    5        Brooklyn         5    5
Chicago          5    5        Philadelphia     5    6
Washington    5    5        Chicago           3     4
Cleveland       4    5        New York       4     6
St. Louis         3    7        Cincinnati        3     5
Philadelphia    2    9        St. Louis          3     6

It's still very early in the season and, as is the case in all replays, some teams will get hot and others will embark on losing streaks. Surely, the Pirates can't finish in first place. The real Pirates finished dead last in 1950. Despite their blistering start, Ralph Kiner has hit only one home run for the team and that came in the first game of the season.

Stan Musial and Walker Cooper of the Boston Braves lead the National League with four home runs each, and Warren Spahn is pacing Boston with three victories already. On the inverse, the Phillies' less than stellar start may be attributed in part to pitcher Robin Roberts who has lost the three games he's started.

Over on the American League, New York players are clubbing balls out of Yankee Stadium at an insane pace. Johnny Mize leads everyone with seven home runs so far, Joe DiMaggio is second with five dingers and Yogi Berra has four home runs. The St. Louis Browns have a total of three home runs.

I'm almost afraid to say this here, but I am also keeping stats for the season. I've created a spreadsheet and am gradually entering game statistics. I say this apprehensively because every time I've done this before, my computer crashes. We'll see how this goes.

So, the season is underway and the NCAA tournament will soon conclude. The real baseball season begins within a week, so that will be a motivation to play games as well. I'm anticipating finishing this replay sometime in January. We''ll see if the Phillies pick up and if the Dodgers play as good as their player cards indicate they should be.

And we'll see if my computer keeps working.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Goddess in the Soup Aisle

She was beautiful when I inadvertently stepped in front of her as she pondered between the Campbell's Chunky Soups and Best Choice knockoffs. There was a quiet grace as she debated among the clam chowder, the spicy gumbo and the pot roast flavors, an elegance not normally seen in grocery stores.

She was a goddess in the soup aisle.

And I instinctively did what every guy does when in the presence of such a vision. I sucked in my gut and tried to act not so nerdish. It was a difficult chore.

She continued to look at the soups as I clumsily tried to step out of her line of vision. Her eyes were what caught me. She wasn't some magazine model-looking stunner. Instead, it was real. There was no photo studio lighting, no Photoshop airbrushing. And she had heavy mascara, giving her the “raccoon look” that I go weak in the knees for. I once interviewed for a news story that girl in the group the Bangles — you know, the one who wore the heavy eye liner and looked around in the video during that Egyptian song. I guess I was hooked since then.

I tried to sound suave, like James Bond, when excusing myself. Instead, I'm sure I sounded like Woody Allen trying to pick up a middle schooler. So, I moved on, loading my cart with frozen foods, chips and the other junk a single guy who can't take care of himself gets.

But I ran into her again at the checkout line. I pushed my cart to the cashier when I saw her.

“So, we meet again,” I said.

I was aiming for “cool and debonair.” I achieved “creepy and lurking.”

I offered to let her go ahead of me. I mumbled something about having a million cans of cat food which would slow the cashier down. I thought she'd think I was a sensitive guy who bought plenty of food for his cat. Instead, upon reflecting now, I'm sure she thought I was a desperate loner who talked to my cat all the time.

She balked and said it was okay and urged me to go ahead in an almost pleading cry. She took out her cell phone and began texting. At first, I thought she may have been messaging a friend about seeing a nice guy who cares for his cat. Then I realized our county recently installed a 911 system that allows people to text emergencies. Maybe she was filling out some restraining order online.

After paying for my groceries, I turned back and nodded bye to her. I went to my car and let out my gut with a rush of air akin to a Greyhound bus pulling into the station. Then I noticed my back pocket of my pants was inverted and flapping out. And my hair, grey and too long, was all messed up. And I needed a shave. And I missed a button. A homeless guy would have had a better shot at that goddess.

And I thought, what was I thinking? I really didn't want to hit on her. I'm kind of shy that way. If I was being honest, I'd have asked her if she wanted to become my next ex-girlfriend, but that's not the way real guys do it. So instead, I bumbled around in the soup aisle.

I guess we all need some type of acknowledgement, some acceptance or confidence boost and we seek it in whatever ways we can. I see the skinny guys on television saying all the right things to the women and I realize that, at my age, I'm way past that.

So, I tucked my pocket liner back into my pants, I tried to smooth out the mop of hair atop my head and I opened the bag of chips to snack on during my trip home. There was a good game coming up on television that night and my cat needed to be fed. Life continued on as it was.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

1950: Kiner's First Game

Top of the seventh, Pittsburgh and St. Louis are tied 2-2 and the Pirates' Ralph Kiner is at bat with two guys on.

I began replaying APBA's 1950 baseball season Friday night and this was the first game of 1,232 for the year. Despite playing eight other full-season replays and half of another, I had never played a year that included Kiner. Sports fans remember that Kiner, who led the National League in home runs for seven consecutive seasons, died Feb. 6. It was the reason I ditched 1991 as my next replay project and instead tackled 1950.

And here, just over halfway through the first game I played, Kiner came to the plate with two outs.

I rolled the two dice for Kiner's at bat. He had already gone hitless in three previous attempts and I was a bit disappointed. APBA players roll dice and match the results with numbers on baseball player's cards. They then take those numbers and compare them with corresponding numbers on boards to determine what happens.

Earlier in the game, Kiner's roll translated to an “8,” which would have been a hit in some cases. However, the creator of APBA made allowances to give the game more realistic outcomes based upon individual players' tendencies. In Kiner's case, Cardinals' pitcher Howie Pollet was rated as a “B” pitcher, and because of that, the “8” became a flyout with no one on base.

But now with two on and two out in the seventh, Kiner's roll was pretty evident. The red and white dice tumbled on the mat, each bearing a “6.” Kiner rolled the APBA player's mecca: the “66.” I knew the result, of course, but I looked at the number on his card. It was a “1,” which translated into a home run. I imagined the ball leaving Sportsman's Park in St. Louis and rolling down Grand Avenue. Some kid wearing a beanie with a slingshot hanging from his back pocket probably picked up the ball and the cigarette-puffing sports writers clacked the tale on their old Underwood typewriters in order to make deadline at the St. Louis Globe.

The Pirates, who actually finished last in the real 1950 season, hung on for the win.

It was a great way to begin the season and it reaffirmed something I had already known. I am addicted to this game. It's a kid's game; I began playing the basketball version 37 years ago and now, having spent nearly 70 percent of my life with some form of APBA, I'm still as entertained by the game as an aged, cynical, life-beaten adult as I was when I was young and alive.

After finishing my replay of the 1942 season two weeks ago, I had planned to take a break. I dabbled in a basketball replay of 1985-86 put out by another game company. The game really is ingenious, but as I played the games, I found myself thinking of the APBA baseball game instead. I thought of the scenarios the game creates, the pennant races, the knowledge I gain by playing different seasons.

So, I shelved the basketball game, took out the 1950 season, got my schedules set and began rolling.

And I wasn't disappointed. Kiner's homer was great. But there was more.

Immediately after that game, I played the April 18, 1950, clash between the Yankees and Red Sox. And check this out — We play APBA so we can say this: In my replay game, Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto hit home runs to cut Boston's lead to 4-2. Then, in the top of the eighth, Joe DiMaggio his his own two-run home run and New York had tied it. But, there's more. In the bottom of the inning, Ted Williams clouted one out and the Red Sox won, 5-4.

Two games, two cool finishes.

Oh, but there's yet more.

The third game I rolled that night pitted Brooklyn at Philadelphia. There were no home runs, but Gil Hodges hit a single and drove in Jackie Robinson in the second and then Duke Snider doubled in Pee Wee Reese in the eighth, and the Dodgers won, 2-0. Again, just being able to say stuff like that is an attraction of this game.

I played more games into the night. Willie Robinson hit two home runs for the White Sox and they beat the St. Louis Browns, 5-1. Warren Spahn hit his own homer and two-hit the New York Giants in his 5-1 win.

And George Kell hit a double and the Detroit Tigers beat Cleveland, 6-3. I met Kell years ago and showed him the APBA card. He asked what the many “6s” on his game card meant. I told him they were doubles and it represented the 56 doubles he led the American League with in 1950. He smiled and said he liked it and signed my card. He died in Swifton, Ark., in March, 2009, about 20 miles from where I live. Last night, he came to life and, with the autographed card, he hit a double.

Lots of stories already, and that was just the first day of replays. I stayed up until 2:30 a.m and played the eight games that made up the real games set for April 18, 1950. Today, I'm on April 19, which includes a double header between the Yankees and Red Sox and more Kiner.

The game runs deep with results like these. It's why I've stuck with it since 1977. It's why we play it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

World Series 1942

Call them the cardiac Cardinals. The 1942 St. Louis Cards came from behind twice and broke a late-inning tie in one game to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series of my APBA replay of that year.  The Redbirds won the series, 4 games to 1. My Series was true to life: In the actual 1942 Series, St. Louis also took the championship in five games.

It's always weird to hold a Series after completing a long season replay. Gamers know that it takes months, sometimes years, to finish a full season, playing game by game by game. I began this venture on April 18 and ended it a week ago. (I'm just now getting around to writing about it). To finish something like this is an accomplishment, but there's also that emptiness that follows. It's like waiting for Christmas and then once it arrives, its anticlimactic once it's over.

Anyway, here's a recap of the games. The home team is in capitals:

Game 1: ST. LOUIS 3 New York 0
The Cardinals scored in the third when Enos Slaughter drove in Terry Moore and then again in the sixth when Walker Cooper homered with Stan Musial on base. Mort Cooper pitched the full nine innings for St. Louis, giving up only three hits and striking out eight.

Game 2: ST. LOUIS 5 New York 3
The Yankees scored three in the first two innings and Tiny Bonham looked invincible on the mound for New York. However, St. Louis began its first comeback. In a pinch hitting role in the eighth, Harry “The Hat” Walker doubled in Whitey Kurowski for the Cardinals' first run. A walk and hit batsman loaded the bases and Slaughter drove one in, cutting New York's lead to 3-2. Then, with the bases still loaded, Musial clubbed a triple, clearing the bases. Harry Gumbert shut the Yankees down in the ninth for the save and the Cards led two games to zero.

Game 3: St. Louis 7 NEW YORK 5
The Yankees took a 4-1 lead into the sixth when it happened again. Johnny “Hippity” Hopp singled in two runs and pitcher Ernie White drove in two more with his own single. New York tied the game in the seventh when Joe Gordon tripled in Roy Cullenbine to tie the game at five. But Hopp hit his own triple, driving in Walker Cooper for the win. Hopp only had two hits for the Series — both game in Game 3 — and batted .105, but it was enough to win this game.

Game 4: NEW YORK 2 St. Louis 1
Yankees pitcher Hank Borowy gave up only two hits and Charlie Keller homered to give New York their lone win.

Game 5: ST. LOUIS 4 New York 2
Musial and Walker Cooper each hit singles in the first, driving in a run apiece, but New York responded with runs in the first and second to tie the game. In the top of the eight, the cardiac Cards did it again. Walker Cooper hit his second home run of the Series, driving in himself and Musial, whom Red Ruffing walked, and the Cardinals held on. Johnny Beazley went the full nine for the win.

Walker Cooper won the Series MVP by batting .389 with 5 RBIs. Slaughter batted .294 and Musial hit .278.

It was the first time I've done a replay of the 1940s era and, as I always do, I enjoyed the game. I've written before how the game is played: Players roll dice and match results with numbers on players' cards for game outcomes. Gamers play a full season; in this case, I played 1,232 games to recreate the full 1942 season.

Since ending the World Series, I've not played any APBA baseball. I've tinkered with a basketball game — not an APBA product, sorry — but after a week, I'm getting the itch to return to the baseball game. Next up is 1950 and the first time I'll ever roll an at bat for Pirates' Ralph Kiner, who sadly passed away on Feb. 6.