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Fake stats, real nostalgia: Bonding with my dad through simulation baseball

The author and his dad in Massachusetts in 1995.
Courtesy of Josh Willis
The author and his dad in Massachusetts in 1995.

There's a screen on my computer that my wife calls the "desktop background." It's funny, because despite being ubiquitous, this screen is neither colorful nor eye-catching — there aren't even any pictures. With tidy tables of names and numbers and prices stacked on top of each other, it may look like just another spreadsheet, but it's actually a time machine that bridges generations like only sports can.

Welcome to the world of simulation baseball, where numbers and nostalgia bring baseball history to life.

Inside these humble rows and columns, the past is present, waiting to be revised or reimagined. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but for baseball fans, there are sacred numbers — like .406 and 56 and 714 — that can conjure up thousands of images all on their own.

These numbers and the names that go with them — Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Aaron, respectively — evoke sights and sounds and even smells, redolent of hot dogs and fresh-cut grass, memories of childhood and endless summers of possibility.

Josh plays with a baseball in 1989.
/ Courtesy of Josh Willis
/
Courtesy of Josh Willis
Josh plays with a baseball in 1989.

Sim baseball may seem like something born out of the video game era, but it's actually been around since the middle of the 20th century, when popular tabletop games like All Star Baseball and Strat-O-Matic made their debut. Back then, players used board game mechanics to simulate gameplay, rolling dice to determine whether a hitter got a single or made an out. Today, these simulations have mostly moved online, spawning games like MLB's own Out of the Park Baseball and sites like WhatIfSports.

But despite changes in technology, the basic concept is still the same: to play out a baseball season as if it were really happening, but with results based on probabilities rather than people actually playing the games.

Dating back to the earliest days of the game, baseball has always been rich in statistics, which is what makes it such an ideal vehicle for simulation. Thanks to baseball innovators like Henry Chadwick, inventor of the box score, we know the performance of individual players dating back to the 1870s, and statisticians have developed ways to normalize for differences in context, allowing us to compare players from vastly different eras of baseball history.

But baseball simulations do more than let us compare across eras: they let us compete against each other, assembling teams that pit our childhood idols against the heroes of past generations.

I grew up watching and playing baseball with my dad, but during the pandemic, this got more complicated. We live in different states, and like a lot of families, we went months at a time without meeting in person. Many people turned to the internet as a way to connect during COVID, and for me and my dad, sim baseball has become the digital equivalent of playing catch in the backyard.

Josh with his dad at a Philadelphia Phillies game in 2022.
/ Courtesy of Josh Willis
/
Courtesy of Josh Willis
Josh with his dad at a Philadelphia Phillies game in 2022.

One of the surprising things about playing sim baseball with my dad is the way that it bends time for both of us. We can each build teams of players that we remember fondly, and in this way, both of us are able to revisit our own boyhoods, seeing the stars of our youth take the field once more. But at the same time, we're also sharing our childhoods with each other.

I'm getting to know the players my dad grew up watching and rooting for, guys like Luke Easter, who started his career in the Negro Leagues before joining the Cleveland Indians in 1949. I'd never heard of him before, but then he hit 53 home runs for my dad's team last season, so you better believe I know him now.

For me, though, the real magic of sim baseball is that it gives me and my dad something to take seriously that isn't actually serious. Nothing could be less important than whether my Joe Morgan is in a slump or if my dad's bullpen blew the win for Herb Score again last night, but the way we talk about it, you'd think we were contestants on a game show called The Loudest Voice.

And since my dad doesn't even text, my mom has now become his team secretary, transcribing lengthy messages full of invented and highly colorful post-game interview quotes. I look forward to them every week. Of course, that's the secret of it all, the thing that makes sim baseball so meaningful: the games don't matter, but who you play them with really does.


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Joshua Willis
Joshua Willis is the senior product manager for NPR.org, where he works with journalists, designers and software developers to build website experiences for NPR's digital audience. Before joining NPR, he was a senior product manager at WHYY, the leading public media organization serving the Greater Philadelphia region. While at WHYY, Willis launched the Fresh Air Archive, the digital home for more than 40 years of the Peabody Award-winning interview show Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He is a graduate of Tufts University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.