I come from a family of gamers. Mom played board games with us kids all the time: Monopoly, Life, Scrabble, and several other lesser-known titles. My brother Dave was the first to get into Dungeons & Dragons, drawing in me and my sister Stacy. Dad didn’t play as much, but when he did he could beat us all at Trivial Pursuit and, even after suffering an electrical accident that let him with limited mobility in his dominant hand, he was still surprisingly good at Pictionary.
Those are all games you’ve heard of. My oldest brother, Chris, was also a gamer, but of a different breed. Arguably the biggest sports fan of our family and himself a three-sport athlete in high school, he had a passion for sports simulation games. As best as I can recall, the first one I played with him was Statis Pro Major League Baseball. It was the 1978 card set, and I was probably 6 or 7 when I first played it. I knew next to nothing about baseball but I guess I wanted to just do something with my older brother, who would graduate high school and go off to college while I was heading to the third grade. I was so young that a six-letter word with four vowels confounded me, and I mispronounced the game as “Major Legal Baseball,” which was what we called it even years later, after my reading skills had improved.
To this day, I’m still a little hazy on how we managed to not only play that game but the many others I remember fondly from my childhood. Like many college students, Chris was home for summers and holidays, and I guess we spent some of that time playing all manner of sport simulation games. It helped that many of them basically played themselves, helping to compensate for my utter lack of strategic thinking at that age. We did a “league” of sorts one year and kept standings, and I recall being 3-11 against him in an MLB one, probably making silly managerial decisions like bunting with my big hitters and making questionable bullpen moves. I do remember one big moment, though, when 1978 George Foster hit three home runs for me in a game, turning me into a low-key fan of the Big Red Machine and Foster in particular.
To facilitate things, Chris wrote lineups on sheets of pink note paper and attached them to all the teams in our edition of Statis Pro. Later, for Sports Illustrated Pro Football, he’d come up with a kind of AI for calling one of the game’s six defensive plays; you would look at the down and distance on a chart and roll the dice to figure out what play the defense would call, thus allowing you to play solo as the offense.
Those two games – 1978 Statis Pro Baseball and 1969 SI Pro Football – were probably what we played the most in our youth. We – and by that, I mean possibly I – lost the dice for Football early on, and so Chris got a set of six-sided dice – probably stolen from Dave’s D&D cache – wrapped them in masking tape, and wrote the numbers on them. In that game, there was a tens die, numbered 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, and two ones dice, which were, I think, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 0, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4. Put them together and you got a number between 10 and 39, with 19 being the rarest – and usually best – result.
I’ve probably got a memory or two of pretty much every game we played back in those days. Here’s what I think is a comprehensive list of the rest:
Statis-Pro Basketball (1979-80). Since I was “Jay” and also liked numbers, I gravitated toward the Philadelphia 76ers and their star, Julius “Dr. J” Erving. I also liked the name “Maurice Cheeks.” It didn’t hurt that the 76ers were really good, which meant I could actually win with them.
Strat-O-Matic Baseball (1980). I can only remember that he owned the 1980 set because I remember seeing Willie Wilson’s card saying he had 705 AB.
Strat-O-Matic Hockey (1981-82). This was Wayne Gretzky’s insane 212-point season, which meant that if you played as the Oilers, you usually won.
Title Bout (1981). The game’s copyright date was 1981 (or maybe 1980), but it featured not only boxers from the current day but throughout history in all weight classes, so you could match up Joe Louis vs. Muhammad Ali if you wanted. I actually set up my own “league” of sorts, focusing on, of all things, flyweights from throughout the 20th century, so I have an unusual amount of name recognition for guys like Pone Kingpetch, Chartchai Chionoi, and Pascual Perez. I think my plan was to start with the flyweights and work my way all the way up to heavyweights but, you know.
Edit: A few hours after posting, I was reminded of Thinking Man’s Golf, a game made by 3M, of all companies, in 1966. It came as a box wrapped in a two-sided course that you could use a dry-erase marker on. You chose your club and lined up a little grid full of holes for each shot, which — depending in dice rolls — would go a certain distance forward and to either side. You marked where it landed with your marker, lined up your next shot and did it again until you got to the green, whereupon another chart would tell you how many putts you needed to put it in the hole.
Chris left some of these games at home when he went off to college, so I spent a lot of time with them growing up. I didn’t start watching football until 1989 and baseball until 1991, and never really got into basketball, hockey, or boxing, so it’s somewhat amazing that I spent as much time with them as I did. I suppose my love of numbers overrode my disdain for sports. I also got two gifts – birthday or Christmas, I don’t recall – and I think they were both from Chris: the 1986 Strat-O-Matic Football set and Sports Illustrated Pro Golf. For the former, I set up a league with a high school friend, Ted, and for the latter I re-created the Masters time and again, playing out a full four rounds with the game’s 50 or so golfers.
(By the way, as I get to this point, I’m Googling images of all these games, and finding that many have multiple brands attached to them. “Sports Illustrated” games, in particular, seem to also be branded as “Statis Pro” or “Avalon Hill.” I’m sticking with just calling them what I best remember.)
As the ’80s wore on, and Chris stopped visiting home as often, we didn’t get as many chances to play. If we did, it was more often when the family visited him rather than the other way around. In the latter part of the decade, I can remember playing some more advanced games with him. He got the 1988 Pursue the Pennant set, and it was light-years beyond the earlier baseball games we’d played. Also, it had a cool box where you’d slide in a backdrop of whatever stadium you were playing in. He also got Statis Pro Football (I don’t remember the year), which was also considerably more detailed than the earlier games. I think we only played one game – maybe not even a whole game – and I’m still upset I didn’t get to play it more. I might have to eBay that one. I also think we might have played Strat-O-Matic Basketball; browsing images on Google, it looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t be sure.
When I went off to college in the ’90s, and then moved to Virginia in the latter part of the decade, we saw each other even less, but now that I had my own money to spend – and was actually into watching sports – I indulged in the hobby he had implanted in my mind. Mom got me the 1991 Pursue the Pennant set and I wrote a computer program to help me track the stats of the Twins as I went through a season. Pursue the Pennant was my favorite of all the baseball sims, and I was sad to see them go under in the early ’90s, but a similar game, Triple Play Baseball – made by one of the co-creators of PtP – came around shortly thereafter and I snagged the 1997 set.
I found a game called Pro Football Fantasm at a convention and bought the 1991 set, and while it had its good points, it might have been the only simulation game I played that was too complex. Still, I managed to get a few games in with my college friend Dan, re-using the excellent scoreboard from the old SI Football game. I bought my own Strat-O-Matic sets for baseball (1995) and hockey (1998-99?), using the latter to set up a league with friends in Virginia. Around 1996, I also bought an APBA sampler package that had one team each for its baseball and football games. I’d heard for years that APBA was inferior, even to the somewhat lacking Strat-O-Matic, but after playing it I found that … yeah, it was. That found the trash bin very quickly.
As computers and the internet became more ubiquitous, I found myself playing more in online leagues. I joined a Strat-O-Matic league with people I met on a bulletin board in 1992, and it was a 20-game season that the commissioner ran by hand. For the next year, he got the computer version of the game and we played a longer season – 81 games, I think. After that, we played full 162-game seasons, and I still have printouts of some of the league stats from those years in a folder somewhere. 20-some years later, I’m still not over one particular fringe player who had a great card that another manager drafted and who led him to the championship over my 114-win team.
When I moved to Wisconsin in 2002, I lived just an hour and a half south of Chris and his family, so I would often go up and visit for holidays. That was when I managed to get Chris (and, most of the time, his son Nick) into some of my genre of games, from Settlers of Catan and Memoir ’44 (which he bought from me when I was looking to divest myself of some games during my move in 2017) to CCGs like Lord of the Rings and a weird indie game we were fond of called Baseball 3010. And, before I had read any of the books or seen the movies, they provided my first exposure to the Harry Potter world by introducing me to the CCG. I remember Nick laughing at me when I pronounced Hermione as “Her-me-own.”
(One random board gaming note that I can’t figure a better place for … at some point when I was living at home, maybe in my early teen years, a few of us played the Game of Life. On one of the last spaces on the board, there’s a reference to becoming a “Millionaire Tycoon.” Just like with “Major Legal Baseball,” I mispronounced this as “Millionaire Typhoon,” which prompted Chris to leap out of his chair and blow everyone’s money around. I’m not prone to exaggeration, so believe me when I say that I literally can’t not smile every time I think of this.)
After I finally got a decent computer, I picked up the 2004 edition of Diamond Mind Baseball – made by the other co-creator of Pursue the Pennant – and ran a league of my own. Chris was in it, along with Nick (who came up with the best team name in the league: the Knoxville Knucklers). That came after I’d moved to Charlotte; while I was still in Wisconsin, Chris spent a night in my apartment. I remember it being violently cold and windy that morning, to the point that we practically froze to death just getting from a grocery store to my car. (He quipped that we needed a sherpa to find our way.) We ate a lasagna that I had bought from Schwann’s, which is one of about a million random memories that I’ve got rattling around in my head, and played an exhibition game in Diamond Mind. I think that was the last time we matched up, head-to-head, on the virtual field.
Now I’m obsessed with Out of the Park Baseball, which I stumbled across by winning a free copy in 2017. It not only lets you play as any team in history but also progresses players, teams, and leagues with the passage of time, as well as offering any number of different tools so you can customize a league in any way you want. I won’t get into too much of a sales pitch here, but as of right now, I’ve got nearly 1,400 hours played across two editions of the game, so suffice to say I highly recommend it.
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that if Chris hadn’t gotten into these kinds of games nearly 40 years ago, then I wouldn’t have, and I might not be the person I am today. Those early games at the dining room table, whether it was the Yankees versus the Mariners, the Cowboys versus the Jets, Liston versus Foreman, or any of the other games we played, are still among my fondest memories. Chris instilled in me a lifetime of love and passion for sports and sports statistics that I carry to this day. I’ve even recently started up a website to track statistics for a young e-sports league, which is what happens when you’ve been inundated with this kind of thing since you were barely old enough to know what earned run average was. And yes, I can actually remember Chris explaining to me how to compute that.
You know how, when you’re growing up, you feel like your parents know everything? That’s how it was with me and Chris with regards to sports. Despite all my education in analytics and all the years I’ve spent debating, researching, and blogging to become a smarter sports fan, I still deferred to him. When we were in International Falls for Mom’s funeral a few years ago, we watched a Twins game. Torii Hunter was playing, and I remember saying that he was pretty lousy. He wasn’t hitting for a high average, he was a poor fielder, and he was making too much money. I expressed to Chris that I hoped the Twins wouldn’t re-sign him.
He disagreed, pointing to Hunter’s home run totals and veteran leadership. I knew I was right and I wanted to debate him on that – for the season, Hunter had a negative WAR – but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to contradict him. This was Chris, and he knew sports better than I did, end of discussion. I wasn’t 41, I was 7 years old again and didn’t even know how to put together a lineup.
The Twins didn’t re-sign Torii Hunter. On that point, I guess you could say Chris struck out, but as an older brother, he hit a home run.
Christopher Winter passed away this week after a brief struggle with a rare neurological condition that appeared suddenly and progressed rapidly. He was 56 years old.
From left: Jason, David, Stacy, and Christopher Winter, 2015