Monday, July 13, 2009

OOTPing

For about four years I have been a fan of a computerized baseball simulator known as Out of the Park Baseball (OOTP). Recently, version 10 of the software was released and I have spent a good deal of time tinkering with it.

OOTP allows you create a fictional baseball universe that behaves just as sophisticatedly as real major league baseball. This is largely a traditional “text based” baseball simulator, not as graphically intense as, say, Baseball Mogul . OOTP generates literally hundreds of surprisingly sophisticated and varied newspaper stories on the games played, injuries that happens, contracts that are signed. All in a fictionalized baseball reality of your design. A truly “world” baseball league could be created. For example, teams in Japan, Mexico, Venezuela, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, etc. could play with the United States and Canada in a format similar to the “World Cup” in international soccer.

Or you can use a third-party database to import historic players from any year and play out major league baseball in any of its various incarnations from 1871 to the present.

To the newbie, the system can be terribly intimidating to use in all its complex glory. You can play as a manager and/or as a general manager. You can receive scouting reports, negotiate contracts with players, place players on the trading block, etc. It is fun to take a terrible team and see how many seasons it takes you to build it into a winner – or to take a winning team and see how long you can profitably keep it on top.

As a manager, the game allows you to select line-ups based on statistical left-right splits, manage your pitching rotation, work around the inevitable injuries that take place during the course of the season, calling up minor league players. You can even manage a minor league team if you want.

Player development, player aging, the effects of better hitting and pitching coaches and much more are all taken into account. There are ratings for individual pitches that pitchers would throw (fastball, curveball, knuckleball, slider, etc.). Batters have ratings for contact, gap power, home run power, speed, bunting ability, fielding range, arm strength, proneness to injury, greed, and much more.

You can simulate a series of seasons, allowing the computer to pretty much manage things based on general manager and coaching definitions that you set up. I have created several versions of the History of Baseball 2.0 through the years using historic and fictional (game-generated) players. It is a fun way to learn about baseball history and to experience the game in its epic context.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can dive down into the individual game level. OOTP allows you to manage a game on a pitch-by-pitch basis. You can call for individual pitches, tell batters to swing or take pitches, decide whether or not to send runners, steal, bunt, play your infield in or back, substitute hitters in the line up against certain pitchers, just about anything a real manager would do.

So, in a nutshell, OOTP allows you to experience the game of baseball at just about any level from several decades of play down to the minutia of managing and playing out a specific game. It has more than satisfied my lifelong appetite for baseball, especially since the 1994 strike and the “steroid era” has put such a sour taste in my mouth for the present, largely pathetic entertainment industry (it is no longer a sport in the true sense of the word) known as Major League Baseball.

Of course I love to play with “what-ifs” and most of them have to do with my favorite team, the Atlanta Braves. What if Buzz Capra had not been injured in 1975 and his fabulous 1974 performance was just the beginning of a brilliant career? What if the Braves had not choked against the Damn Yankees in the 1996 World Series? What if Bob Horner had not been so injury-prone during the 1980’s?

Also, I enjoy looking at and comparing different teams throughout baseball history. You can look at the 1898 Boston Beaneaters (the team that later became the Boston Braves and moved to Milwaukee and Atlanta), 1906 Chicago Cubs, 1919 Chicago White Sox, 1927 Damn Yankees, 1939 Damn Yankees, 1948 Boston Braves, 1954 Cleveland Indians, 1969 New York Mets, 1975 Cincinnati Reds, 1989 Oakland Athletics, 1998 Damn Yankees, 2001 Seattle Mariners, etc.

You can compare the pitching abilities of Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. Or the hitting prowess of Ty Cobb with Joe Jackson, Ted Williams with Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth with Hank Aaron, or Pete Rose with Tony Gwynn.

This sweeping look through all the eras and players that the OOTP game engine affords greatly augments the books and statistical guides I read that cause me to hold the game of baseball (rather than the business and merchandising of baseball) in such high appreciation.

Baseball is something else. It is the timeless pleasure through which our lives run like threads, connecting great moments in the Now with so much past glory. It happens as we converse about details of the day, swap stories, enjoying hot dogs and beer.

For all its numbers and ratings and statistics, OOTP is a tool for the aesthetics of that appreciation. If you get into managing games against the computer, you’ll find the computer is pretty good, though not brilliant and somewhat predictable, it still makes decent managerial decisions on an in-game basis.

What that means is that a walk-off home run is just as exciting or devastating as if it “really” happened because it happened in a game you were not only watching but managing. If that critical leftie-leftie matchup out of the bullpen ends up with the strikeout you will either feel elated or deflated depending on whether you were choosing the pitcher or the batter for that situation. There’s personal engagement, suspension of disbelief. It is fun.

I’m a Hank Aaron fan. As a point of interest in my play with OOTP, Barry Bonds never existed. (Read George Will’s outstanding piece about this asshole here. Bonds' shoe size increased from 10.5 to 13 after age 30. Come on.) Whenever he shows up in historical simulations I simply take advantage of my ability of be a baseball god in this game and edit Bonds’ player card. I give him some horrible career-ending injury before he can amount to a hill of beans.

What a wonderful world it would be. I love this game.

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