Friday, June 26, 2015

MLB Showdown 101

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned my interest in reading a novel called The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover.

I finished said book earlier this week, and it was undoubtedly fantastic. The premise, to put it simply, is about a man who, while engrossed in his insanely detailed and personalized baseball dice game, is forced to deal with a tragedy that befalls his "league." It's not necessarily a baseball book, but I'd definitely recommend it either way.

One of the unexpected side benefits to reading the novel, as I found, was the fact that it inspired me to bust out the box of MLB Showdown cards under my bed. I've said this before, but I used to play the game daily when I was a kid. Joe Morgan is not unlike the rest of his MLB Showdown peers, used, played with, loved so often that the paper is physically peeling off his card.

Although I've gone through bursts of interest since those adolescent days, my cards have mostly stayed untouched in my room for the past year or two, more or less. But, thanks to Coover's novel, I'm back to square one, in a good way.

Here I am, a reborn, 23-year-old MLB Showdown fanatic all over again.

I rarely see MLB Showdown mentioned on the blogs (or anywhere else, for that matter), and, if I do, it's usually something along the lines of What the heck are these? NEXT!! or something to that extent.

I can't say I blame people for such reactions. MLB Showdown, while fairly popular at one point, only appealed to a small circle of gamers. Now, I'm about the furthest from a "gamer," but I lived and died with MLB Showdown, because...well, it's a baseball game with all of my favorite players.

But, sadly, the fact of the matter is that almost no one today remembers much about MLB Showdown. This may end up being one of those posts that appeals to maybe one or two other people besides myself, but, tonight, I thought I'd teach a little MLB Showdown 101.

The game itself might look quite complicated with all the numbers and letters in tiny text. But, if you play it in basic form, it's really not all that difficult. The game is played with a 20-sided die, which the defense rolls first. Let's say Ellis Burks is at the plate with Roy Halladay on the mound. 

On defense, you add the die roll to the pitcher's control rating. If the control + roll adds up to more than the batter's On-Base rating, then the advantage goes to the defense and the offense rolls off of Halladay's chart. So, if the defense were to roll a 10, that'd be 5 + 10 = 15, which is higher than Burks's 13 On-Base rating. If the roll ties or falls short of the batter's On-Base (with, say, a 6), then the batter gets the advantage. 

It is far, far easier to get on base when the hitter gets the advantage, as you might be able to tell from the charts of the hitters vs. those of the pitchers.

Though you don't necessarily need them to enjoy the game, more advanced game play involves the use of these strategy cards to make the game more than the simple luck of a die roll.

These consisted of three categories. Offense (red), defense (blue), and utility (white). Strategy cards, when used at the right time, could give select advantages or disadvantages to teams in crucial situations. 

They can also make the game a little more realistic, as everything from ejections to beanballs to home runs could occur with proper usage of a strategy card.

MLB Showdown was produced by Wizards of the Coast (the same company that made the Pokemon cards) and survived from 2000 to 2005.

For all of those years (save for '05), it was released in three different series. Base (which usually hit the shelves around Opening Day), Trading Deadline (midseason), and Pennant Run (usually around September). I'd rather not know the amount of money I spent on packs of MLB Showdown cards, hoping for that next great All-Star.

Just like with my standard card collection, there were definitely "white whales" when it came to MLB Showdown, and I had the good fortune to eventually track most of them down. The hallowed 2003 Barry Bonds, in particular, stands out, as it is probably the best MLB Showdown card ever created.

Pitchers' ratings only go up to +6 (which explains why I needed the Palmer), and, aside from Mr. Bonds, the hitters' On-Base numbers hit a ceiling at 14. Bonds is the only card to have a 16 rating, which meant he got the advantage more than half the time.

Then again, I guess that's to be expected, considering the guy repeatedly posted on-base percentages of over .500.

One of the beauties of MLB Showdown was the fact that you could play it any way you wanted, and it would almost always simulate real baseball.

Every card, as you'll notice, has a listed point value. Larry Walker here is 650 points. Under the "proper" rules, a 25-man roster cannot exceed 5,000 points. That, I guess, does simulate real roster construction in baseball. A few stars surrounded by average or below-average talents.

But, personally, I decided to do away with the 5,000-point rule from Day One and made every game an All-Star Game. No point limits whatsoever. After all, what fun is pulling a great card like Larry Walker if you can't use it?

The games I play without point limits may be a little higher scoring (more 6-5 ballgames than, say, 3-2 contests), but they're still close, competitive, and, most of all, fun.

To my knowledge, I don't think the people at MLB Showdown ever released their formulas for determining each player's ratings.

Yes, there were quite a few head-scratchers over the years. Relatively obscure hurlers like Travis Harper and Tim Spooneybarger became some of the best bullpen aces the game would ever see. Craig Wilson is one of the best hitters in MLB Showdown history, and Gerald Laird, of all people, is one of the few catchers to have a 13 On-Base rating.

These guys, the seemingly mediocre players who somehow received top-tier cards, are familiar names to me because of this game. I collect each of these guys' real baseball cards thanks to MLB Showdown. I may have the largest Tim Spooneybarger collection in the world.

Even if their real careers were somewhat middling, they're legends in this little card game.

I wouldn't say I ever collected MLB Showdown cards, but I can see a lot of parallels between them and my standard pieces of cardboard.

More specifically, I see ways in which the structure of MLB Showdown, from a collector's standpoint, was better than some of what Topps is doing these days. For one thing, MLB Showdown included the likes of obscure guys like Travis Harper and Gerald Laird, but that's another Topps Total-esque rant that you don't want to hear again.

One other thing that I enjoyed about MLB Showdown is that the creators cut us some slack, dammit. Topps has become infamous for backloading many of today's stars into insert sets or the short-print portions of base sets.

The MLB Showdown cards I've shown in this post are among the best I own. You might notice that, while some are of the rare "foil" variety, many others aren't. This Griffey (always a premier home run threat) was just as common as a career minor leaguer with an 8 On-Base rating.

Lots of MLB Showdown fanatics such as myself were able to add the likes of Junior to our teams because of how accessible he was in a given pack of cards. The foils in MLB Showdown gave it the thrill of the chase, but a budding fan of the game could easily thrive on the commons, the cards available to everyone.

In that way, MLB Showdown might be the greatest game of them all.


Zippy Zappy said...

My favorite card set ever is a set of cards made for gaming as well (Sega Card Gen RIP) although the arcade game did almost all of the dice rolling and whatnot for us.

Personally I'm pretty fascinated by gaming cards like this. I tried to collect the Topps Attax cards at one point and I've discovered another Japanese MLB-themed card game issued by Konami.

Great post and rundown on how to play this game.

Mike said...

Some of my best memories come from playing this game with you,'d come out of your room holding that white box and say "wanna play?".... Looking forward to another game,bring em over sometime!!

P-town Tom said...

I've read that book and then went to eBay and bought a used Strat-o-matic game. Man, that's some fun stuff.
If you're looking to really get into a baseball sim, may I suggest OOTP. I've been playing for 11 years now and I'm completely hooked.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyable post, thanks for the overview! I never knew how the game was played, nor what the difference was between the different "series". Now I know.

There's something inherently cool about baseball game cards, even if they're not used as game cards. I dunno, just the fact that they *could* be used as game cards makes them cool.

At the time, I think I focused too much on the "It's a game I don't play" and I only bought a couple of packs just to see what they were like. Now I wish I'd bought more as "oddballs".

I love MLB showdown for my team and player collections because they have guys like Tim Spooneybarger.

DaddyMike said...

Great post. Back in the 80's, I remember making teams of HOF's with Avalon Hill Superstar Baseball, And playing games of Pursue the Pennant. Not only run, but taught me history of baseball.

Nachos Grande said...

I have a whole box of these cards still, though I think only from one year. I always liked the idea but my brother never seemed to want to play the game (which pretty much killed it for me too). Nice post though - makes me want to go dig out my old cards!

Unknown said...

Game is still alive, I just wrote about it on my Sports Blog...

David Bush said...

It's alive and kicking!!! My friends and I are working to compile greatest teams and players, keeping the original 00/01 format alive. We've just got a post about Barry Bonds for the Showdown Hall of Fame up! Check us out and feel free to print off any cards you want!