Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hall of Fame Harwell and Ur-Sports Games

Not having grown up in Michigan and mostly rooting for the Detroit Tigers only when they played the dreaded, hated, despicable New York Yankees, I never had to sneak my transistor radio under the mattress in order to hear Ernie Harwell's broadcasts. My sneaking had largely to do with listening to Vin Scully broadcast the Dodgers and Dick Enberg (and his predecessors I have sadly forgotten) broadcast the then (and now again) L. A. Angels. My only experience with Ernie Harwell was on an old PC version of APBA Baseball for Windows. Harwell was the voice for that product, a marvelous but clunky digital rendition of the popular board game. Yet, that experience is enough to make me feel diminished this morning as I hear about Hartwell's death.

I suppose nearing the magic 60-year-old mark is having a psychological effect on me. I find myself glancing at the obituaries a little more attentively each day. I shake my head sadly when I see more and more people younger than I am listed there. Yet, here I feel diminished by the death of a 91-year-old man who only retired about 8 years ago. Even though I'd only heard him via digitized voice within the context of this sports product (that I'll be digging out of storage soon for sentimental reasons), it seems as if some of my memories of youth--watching the CBS telecast of The Baseball Game of the Week on Saturday mornings with the late Dizzy Dean and late Pee Wee Reese, live from the old Tiger Stadium--have lost energy. I experience a personal sense of loss.

Yet, I was able to hear a rebroadcast of Harwell's final broadcast this morning. I was struck by what he said. He started out by stating that it was the last broadcast of his career. He hated to say good-bye, so he preferred to say "Hello" to a new life and "Thank You" for allowing him to be a part of his listener's lives. He assured his listeners, "God has a new adventure for me...." Wow! Could there ever be a more eloquent epitaph than gratitude combined with certitude. Thank you for what we've experienced together. Take comfort that I'm certain to be moving on to a new adventure.

This is a great example for all of us--especially the old geezer who has been so negligent in keeping up this blog. I've always had trouble saying "good-bye." It always feels like I'm leaving a part of myself behind so that I am constantly disintegrating. Too often, I forget that while I'm leaving a part of myself behind, I'm also departing with accrued experiences, relationships, knowledge, and wisdom from those with whom I've worked and played. If I could only learn to say, "Thank you for letting me be part of your lives!" and then, share that I'm certain that God has a new adventure for me, transitions (even that one of which I'm so conscious as of late) would be easier.

I do want to share some thoughts about sports games with all of you, but I want to take some time to take care of some long, unfinished business. For those of you who knew me during what I consider my golden years at Computer Gaming World, I want to say "Thank you for reading my editorials, even when I was 100% wrongheaded, but believed in them passionately. Thank you for putting up with my bad Rumor Bag humor and groaning inside with all of the improbable, if not impossible, ways the bag guy claimed to get his rumors. Thank you for all of you who shared "off the record" and "deep background" material with them. I hope you never felt betrayed because I consistently tried to maintain confidences and treat any information I received with respect. Thank you for those who accepted my verbal NDAs. Thank you for those of you who let me see your innovative products, computer game history in the making." I need to say this in public because I've been very resentful of CGW's transition and demise after my stewardship. But for the record, I'm tremendously thankful and feel incredibly warm about all those years there.

And for all of my colleagues: Russell Sipe, our founder, Vince DeNardo who taught me to get over myself (sort of), Chris Lombardi who forced me to grow as a person as he matured even faster than I did, Ken Brown who literally saved my life, Alan Emrich who collaborated with me on numerous wicked projects, Terry Coleman who was my frontier marshal to solve any problem, a great competitor, and tremendous collaborator, Jeff Green who always made coming to work fun, Denny Atkin who inspired me with his professionalism and challenged me when needed, Mike Weksler who showed me the meaning of curiosity, Dave Salvator who showed me the value of consistent testing, Robert Coffey who proved that there could be quality freelancing and quality editing overlapping in a single person, Charles Ardai who transformed my perception of quality by constantly raising the bar, and Loyd Case who still blows my mind with his prolific activity in both technology and gaming. And even though I mentioned more names than most of you wanted to read, I know I will always have a fondness for Charlotte Panther whose intellect was even more compelling than her beauty, Kate Hedstrom who broke the gender ceiling in "Johnny's Boys Club," Joe Vallina who tried to help us move from U of Chicago to AP style, Thierry (sic) Ngyen (sic) whose boundless energy and enthusiasm spilled over to the rest of the staff, and all of you I have shamefully failed to mention.

And, while I'm being indulgent, Thank you to everyone who made my experiences at Wizards of the Coast and Paizo such a wild ride. Thank you to Charlotte who hired me, John Dunn who led us into a new frontier technologically, Pierce Watters who worked circulation magic, and all of the creative people like Chris P, Jesse D, Erik M, and Dave G who made those universes come to life. I so regret not being able to work with you again, but be assured that I remember our experiments, our successes, and our failures fondly. My new adventure in academia is much quieter, but still challenging.

And now, something about games. You know, I truly regret the loss of control compared to what I used to experience in SSI's Computer Baseball, the Lance Haffner text-based games, APBA for Windows, XOR Football, and even Dani Berry's (Dan Bunten's) Computer Quarterback. I know those first games had about 16 offensive plays and 5 defensive formations for football and extremely limited physics (compared to Earl Weaver Baseball and Tony LaRussa Baseball) for baseball, but there was something tremendously satisfying about making a play call and watching how it played out. You see, I haven't fantasized about being a professional ballplayer since I was cut from the freshman basketball team in high school. I never deluded myself with the idea that I was coordinated. However, anyone can second-guess a baseball manager or football coach. So, I fantasized about taking on that role.

I know Accolades' Hardball! won hearts and minds by giving us that TV-eye view from center field and offering us a chance to choose pitch location. I know High Heat offered the most satisfying pitching simulation with high-res, high-speed performance. Still, I remember those days of waiting for the clunky old Apple II to spit out those Computer Baseball results with the same kind of intensity I used to listen to San Francisco Giants games on the radio when Mays, Cepeda, Alou, and my personal favorite, Stu Miller, were playing. I remember my heart almost stopping as I awaited each pitch when Leon "Big Daddy Wags" Wagner was batting for the Angels in Chavez Ravine (the euphemism for the ballpark when the Angels were still playing in Dodger Stadium). That's the way I used to wait for the Lance Haffner baseball game to resolve its calculations.

Maybe it's because those earlier games were all words and statistics that I'm reminded of them with regard to Harwell's passing. I love going to games and I love watching games on television (or even streaming on the web), but there is something basic, comforting, and exciting about listening by radio and having to fill in the gaps with my imagination (I get twice as tense listening as I do watching.). Maybe that's why I loved those early, crude simulations (as well as some of the early versions of Front Office Baseball and Baseball Mogul. They seemed to be the primordial baseball experience--not all they could be, but enough to keep me fascinated. For those of you who have grown up with the more vivid displays and reflex-testing versions of these sports, I just want you to know that those of us who played those ugly, primeval versions of your favorite sports games enjoyed them the same way some of us listen to radio broadcasts of sports games--with great anticipation. Text games may be commercially dead, but they live in some of our memories and they still have a place in our hearts. And, in case none of this made sense to any of you, a lot of you still have a place in mine. Thank you! I'll still be here for a while and I'll try to post more regularly. But even when this old ticker stops, know that God has a new adventure for me.


  1. Great post! I got to meet Ernie Harwell in the 1990s when working for Stormfront Studios.

    (P.S. My old email addy for you no longer works)

    Clay Dreslough (cjd at sportsmogul dot com)

  2. Great to hear from you. That being said, I hope Sports Mogul is still doing well. Your company is to be commended for keeping the essence of sports alive, the big picture of the strategic franchise game that keeps real fans talking all year about their favorite sports. Your games are the epitome of "hot stove leagues" where someone can make a difference instead of "just sayin'..."