It wasn’t one of those pitching duels for the ages — the final score was 4-2 — but it was two hurlers facing off who between them have an astonishing 615 Major League wins. It was likely Hall of Famer and Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia against Walter Johnson. Yup, that Walter Johnson: the Washington Senators pitcher who won a mindboggling 417 games.
Just for the record, Johnson died in 1946. Sabathia was born in 1980.
But that’s the beauty of the dice baseball league conceived by Burlington, Vermont lawyer Tom Simon. It’s the best against the best from throughout baseball’s long history.
No, that’s not the beauty. This is: It’s a dice baseball league for kids who love the game. The official name is the Buster Olney SABR Junior Club. SABR stands for the Society for American Baseball Research. Buster Olney is an ESPN baseball analyst and former New York Times sports reporter who was born in Randolph, Vermont. The kids named it after Olney as a small homage.
The group meets Sunday afternoons on the third floor of Simon’s Burlington home, but only during the off-season. “The kids want to be outside playing baseball during the regular season,” Simon told me.
Simon, 47, is a baseball historian and, like me, a serious baseball geek. “Almost everything I learned came through baseball: history, geography, how to pronounce people’s names,” he admitted.
Actually, Simon is way more of a geek than I am. He makes me look like my wife when it comes to baseball knowledge, and my wife once asked me how come all the players don’t dress like the catcher for safety. Although the dozen kids who gather at Simon’s home play a lot of dice baseball, they also learn about the game. The Sunday I visited them earlier this month and watched that Sabathia-Johnson match-up, a Boston Red Sox scout also joined them. Simon has been a member of SABR since 1993. He has edited two books about Vermont baseball and written a third, “The Wonder Team in the White City.” He designed this three-dice version of dice baseball and the hundreds of individual player cards the kids use. Each card is based on the player’s statistical record. As a result, in Simon’s game Babe Ruth is more likely to homer than anyone on the New York Mets’ current roster.
Of course, even I’m more likely to homer than anyone on the Mets’ current roster. I have cats more likely to homer than anyone on the Mets.
Simon’s love for the game dates back to when he was eight and got a phone call from Willie Mays. Yes, that Willie Mays. Mays was a pal of one of his father’s friends and as a birthday present invited Tom into the Mets’ dugout, where Mets reliever Tug McGraw lifted him up and blew a giant bubble gum bubble in his face. Years later, Tom invented his game as a way of sharing his love for the sport with a boy he was mentoring in the King Street Youth Center’s “Big Brother” program.
Today his league has eight teams, each roster filled with players the boys in the club drafted themselves. One team is managed by brothers Alexandre and Sam Silberman. Alexandre is 14 and Sam is 10. Alexandre told me that he enjoys baseball because it’s a game that “can be fast or slow. You can do other things while watching or listening to it.” He often follows games on the computer or listens to them at night.
Alexandre’s observation brought me back to my own childhood and the myriad Mets games I listened to on the radio. I grew up on the East Coast and loved it when the Mets were playing Chicago or St. Louis in the central time zone, because the games dovetailed perfectly with my bedtime.
In fact, everything about Simon’s — and I say this without hyperbole — incredibly wonderful baseball club reminded me of being a boy and something Donald Hall once wrote in “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons,” his essay about the meaning of the sport: “For baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.”
And so who is the youngest member of the group? Simon’s own son, Nolan, now eight.
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If you’re interested in learning more about the club, email Tom Simon at email@example.com.
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This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on January 13, 2013. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives on July 16, 2013. To add it to your Goodreads “Want to Read” list, click here.