Take Me Out To The Ball Game: The Major Leagues - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Take Me Out To The Ball Game: The Major Leagues

Chris Morley gets the call-up.

Having headed to Japan last time to check out virtual Baseball gaming, we can now book a return ticket to the States as we look at Major League Baseball in its various gaming permutations.

1983 saw Mattel developing World Series Major League Baseball for the Intellivision under the watchful eye of designers Don Daglow & Eddie Dombrower - Daglow having first stepped up to the plate with 1971's Baseball, created while still a student using the PDP-10 system.

It was continually updated up until around 1974, this early text-based attempt to recreate the big leagues allowing the player to go beyond merely picking the team into what we would now recognise as management. Decisions were able to be made as games unfolded, and pitching & batting commands were able to be entered. You could then print off a report of what went down on the field in an attempt to simulate radio commentary - if indeed you were that way inclined!

The World Series game was also notable for moving away from arcade-format recreations of its parent sport & instead embracing statistics, the spring of 1982 providing quite the moment of inspiration for Don as he watched a game on TV & realised that the Intellivision had the capability to replicate the camera angles used during broadcast coverage of ball games.

That year saw the St Louis Cardinals pick up a ninth World Series win, beating the Milwaukee Brewers by four games to three & ensuring the National League triumphed over the American. Anyone watching the coverage of the showpiece would have recognised just how innovative Daglow's work towards replicating it virtually would have been at the time, his faith in the Intellivision justified as Major League made full use of its Intellivoice system to bring full play by play commentary for those stepping onto their field of dreams.

Thanks to composer Dave Warhol, background music was part of the experience for the first time into the bargain, & all team line-ups boasted comparable stats to their real world equivalents - which brings us neatly to our next point.

Initially the plan was that Mattel would acquire a licence from the Major League Baseball Players Association to be able to use real player names, but at the last second they withdrew & so the names of the game's design team, known as the Blue Sky Rangers, were used instead!

The best known members of this line-up were Daglow, Dombrower, Warhol, Rick Koenig & Connie Goldman, the team so named thanks to their “ Blue Sky Meetings” which were in essence brainstorming sessions. They even made it into the pages of TV Guide, Howard Polskin writing that...
“Blue-skying is the first and one of the most important steps in video-game development, a process that takes as long as 20 months to develop a $30 plastic cartridge that can be inserted into Mattel's video game Intellivision, a sophisticated $250 piece of hardware that connects to any color-TV set.

The nine programmers chosen for this meeting are part of a specialized, 22 person (18 men, four women) team of video-game programmers (whose ranks have since more than doubled). For all the Blue Sky Rangers, video-game programming is not an occupation but a joyful passion.

Many times during the work day, programmers let out shrieks of delight as they engage in one of the "routines" of the job: playing with the product. During coffee breaks, programmers will sometimes drop what they are doing -- which is often developing a new game -- only to play another game already created.

At the end of a hard day's work, it is not uncommon for programmers to wind down by heading to a local arcade to play the more sophisticated coin-operated games. “
Dombrower was brought on board as a programmer & animator, his experience in dance helping to make player movement more realistic. Daglow had recruited him on the strength of DOM, a system of his own design for the Apple II which allowed choreographers to record steps via a series of codes - these steps could then be simulated on screen.

Eddie would follow Don to Electronic Arts in time to work on Earl Weaver Baseball, endorsed by the then-Baltimore Orioles coach, who was brought on board as an advisor with regard to the managerial side of the game & spent much of the 1985 season having his brains picked between games!

How did Weaver & his side fare out there in the real world, you might well ask? The answer being that they finished fourth in American League East with a record of 83 wins & 78 defeats. EA also generously forked out to get the elusive MLPBA licence so real Major League players could be part of the action, playing in virtual renditions of their own home ballparks under managers who could argue with the umpire, the trait of kicking dirt onto the shoes of the official lifted from Billy Martin - the coaches given reason for frustration as Dombrower insisted upon what he called artificial ego, that is to say players programmed to at times make mistakes to mimic the feel & pressure of a true-life game!

This then carried over into Tony LaRussa Baseball, designed in collaboration with the then- coach of the Oakland Athletics & building on the spirit of Daglow's previous incursions into the realm of bat & ball. Perhaps the most notable first was that you could in effect now play virtual fantasy baseball through a Fantasy Draft mode which allowed players to set up leagues & draft players to play in them. Even the statistical side of the game was now more accurate through the use of sabermetrics.

What's sabermetrics? You may well cry from your seat in the bleachers! In short its an acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research, of which Don Daglow is a member.

Stats have played an important part in the ebb & flow of the game since the early days of both the National & American Leagues, even pre-Major League, & popular culture has not been shy to piggyback on that - see Moneyball with Brad Pitt as former Oakland outfielder Billy Beane, & even the Simpsons' parody of that with Moneybart as Lisa steps in to coach her brother's Little League team!

In essence, as described by advocate Bill James, sabermetrics is...
“...the search for objective knowledge about baseball.”
Put simply, you can use the stats gleaned during a game to answer even the simplest of questions, if they're objective. As the Sabermetric Manifesto asks by way of objective example,
“Which player on the Red Sox contributed the most to the team’s offense?”
“How many home runs will Ken Griffey hit next year?”
But it cannot deal with the subjective judgments which are also important to the game, such as “Who is your favorite player?” or “That was a great game.”

After stepping into the stats there, we'll be straying into the realm of the fantastical next time out by swapping Major League for Mario Superstar Baseball. Sabermetrics smacked right out of the park!

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