October 14, 2011
When 100 Tiles Meets 27 Outs
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Diane Firstman wanted to be the first female general manager in the Majors, but a degree in Athletic Administration and an internship with the Elias Sports Bureau didn’t bear fruit. So, she toils by day as a data analyst for the City of New York. She was the first “fan” to start a blog over at MLB.COM in 2005, and her “Diamonds are for Humor” was voted “Best Comedic Blog” that year. More recently, she contributed quirky stories and analysis to the “Humbug Journal” blog at Baseball Toaster, had an essay included in the “Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories” anthology, and offered game recaps and offbeat statistical analysis at the “Bronx Banter” site. Her latest venture is her own “Value Over Replacement Grit” blog, which features unusual statistical analysis of everything from player name lengths to players’ Body Mass Indexes.
My father raised me to love baseball, taking me to many Yankee games and buying me The Sporting News and Baseball Digest, as well as introducing me to Strat-O-Matic. My mother raised me to love card and board games. We would spend many an evening playing gin rummy or bridge, or what would turn out to be my favorite, Scrabble.
Growing up, I spent as much time absorbing the nuances of platoons, ballpark effects, lineup construction, and situational hitting as I did studying the two- and three-letter word lists and playing the earliest PC incarnations of Scrabble. Counting up “hit points” and lamenting Jim Rice’s propensity for “gb(ss)A” double plays became as much a part of my life as memorizing the anagrams of ARSENIC (CARNIES, ARCSINE).
Decades later, my Strat-O-Matic days are over (though I still find myself muttering “you’re a 5” to the TV as some defensively-challenged outfielder circumnavigates the globe in pursuit of a long flyball, and referring to groundballs and flyballs as “A,” “B,” or “C” depending on their depth/distance). But my two great loves burn bright, as I travel around the country either going to SABR conventions or to Scrabble tournaments.
Yes, Scrabble tournaments. Some folks play in organized Strat-O-Matic tournaments in various venues each weekend. I can be found playing upwards of 31 games of Scrabble over a five-day period at these events in some hotel ballroom in Stamford or Chicago or Orlando. (You might recognize my name if you read Stefan Fatsis’ “Word Freak”, which detailed his initial immersion into the world of tournament Scrabble. I was Fatsis’ first opponent in Washington Square Park.)
Now, I don’t want to make it seem like Scrabblers just sit in their mothers’ basements studying the dictionary (although I did date one such person for a time), but we do seem to bring Scrabble into just about every other facet of our lives. If we’re walking down the block and pass a street sign (say “Sterling Place”), rest assured we’ll be silently anagramming “sterling” as we continue our journey. If a Scrabble tournament is held near any professional baseball park, you can be sure that a group of Scrabbling baseball fans will arrange for a trip there after a day’s worth of tile-tossing. Given our wordy nature, once we get there, we’re interested in more than just the game. Invariably, some version of this scene occurs:
Scrabbler #1: KIPNIS? What’s KIPNIS and a blank?
Scrabbler #2: Umm, let’s see, SPIKING, PIGSKIN, PINKISH and...
Scrabbler #3: Ooh, I played “PINKISH” for 84 points during my last game this afternoon.
(Kipnis singles and the crowd cheers)
Scrabbler #4 (having looked up KIPNIS and a blank on his anagramming app on his phone while Kipnis was batting): You forgot KINSHIP, PIPKINS and KIPSKIN.
Scrabbler #1: Nice hit by Kipnis there. PIPKINS? Hmm… What’s the shortest word with P-I-P-P in it?
The confluence of baseball and Scrabble has even gone so far as Scrabble “roto” contests at some of the larger tournaments, with some including snake “drafts” of tournament players and prizes awarded based on how many wins and cumulative game spread points your selected “team” accrues.
Then you have the story of Peter Morris. Morris was a U.S. National Scrabble Champion in 1989 and then became the first winner of the World Scrabble Championship in 1991. He retired from the tournament Scrabble scene and became a well-regarded baseball historian, publishing four books on the early days of the game, as well as twice receiving the SABR award for best oral presentation at the annual convention.
Organized Scrabble in the U.S. even has its own “Baseball Reference”-type site, called “Cross-Tables.” There you can look up the tournament records of virtually anyone who has played in a competitive, rated event. (Scrabble players earn a rating based upon their won-loss records against other players. The rating scale is similar to that of chess.) Within Cross-Tables you may come across Brian Cappelletto, Scrabble’s version of Bryce Harper (if Harper manages to have a 25-year, Hall of Fame-worthy career).
Cappelletto was one of the first teenagers to show real skill within the tournament Scrabble scene, playing in his first event at the age of 16, finishing fifth out of 327 in his first national championship (at age 18), and winning the National Championship at age 29. The Topps company even went so far as to give him his own “Allen and Ginter” trading card in 2009. Not quite a Honus Wagner T-206 card, but still pretty cool/nerdy.
Now, even though I’m a Yankee fan, I do have a smidgen of fondness for Jonathan Papelbon, as he is known to be a fiercely competitive Scrabble player and has been quoted as stating to teammates, “Don’t make me bring the Scrabble board to the locker room. I will bring it.” Scrabble sets have also been spotted in both major-and minor-league clubhouses.
Sometimes when I am staring at a rack of seven letters, I’ll notice a player’s name lurking within them. Some of these names are legitimate Scrabble words on their own (as deemed by the “Official Tournament and Club Word List” book). One night, I put together an All-Star team of players whose first and last names are acceptable in Scrabble (this is not an all-inclusive list):
Pitchers: Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Bob Gibson, Dizzy Dean, Chief Bender, Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson, Whitey Ford, Herb Score, Mike Marshall, Rod Beck, John Hiller, Lee Smith, Tom Browning, Matt Morris, Mudcat Grant, Rick Wise
Manager: Earl Weaver
Coaches: Dusty Baker, Jimmy Dykes, Bob Lemon, Chuck Tanner
Then there is the ballplayer whose nickname is in fact “Scrabble,” Mark Rzepczynski. This brings me to a minor quibble. Just because your name is a mélange of consonants or difficult to spell doesn’t mean your nickname should be “Scrabble.” It should be “Scripps” or something similar. Carl Yastrzemski’s nickname wasn’t “Scrabble,” and neither was Doug Gwosdz’s, for that matter (it was “eyechart”). Why, you can’t even spell “Rzepczynski” with a standard English Scrabble tileset without using a blank.
But Rzepczynski does carry some clout within Scrabble. If you don’t limit yourself to the distribution of letters in a standard English edition of the game, then “Rzepcyznski” would score the greatest number of points (40). If you stick to the distribution, then former Oakland Athletic (Steve) Wojciechowski, at 37 total points, would be the “most valuable player” in the last-name category, while former Boston Red Sox middle infielder Arquimedez Pozo would take the crown in the first-name category with 31 points.
There are many officially-licensed “themed” versions of Scrabble on the market, each with special rules specific to the theme. Major League Baseball is no exception. There are team-specific games with branding and logos (Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals), as well as one for MLB as a whole.
I bought the MLB set just for the completeness of my Scrabble collection. With this version, you get a cheap foldout board with a baseball field design upon it, 100 round tiles with baseball “stitching” on them, some “dugouts” (racks) to hold your letters, and various baseball logos to designate the premium squares (an American League team icon indicates a triple letter score, a National League team icon indicates a double word score, etc.).
Here is a direct quote from the enclosed instruction manual:
“Welcome to MLB Edition Scrabble where we encourage you to play like you are playing a real game of baseball. Consider starting each game with the National Anthem. If your opponent is taking too long to lay down their tiles, feel free to start chanting “hey batter batter, swing batter batter” or if it suits your style, “we want a pitcher, not a belly itcher.”
Sigh. Further on, we come upon some of the “special rules”:
Playing specific words would add an additional 5 to 15 points to your score, such as: BASE, BUNT, REDS, RAYS, ALDS...
Can I play DH or ROOGY? How about TNSTAAPP?
You can draw eight tiles from the “free agent” pouch, and “cut” one of them prior to beginning play.
But you’d still be on the hook for the tile’s points if another player “signed” it, right?
You can trade tiles with the “opposing team,” but only until the player going first has scored 250 points.
When presumably the tiles would have to clear waivers?
If a player pulls tiles off of their rack and begins to place them on the board, then changes their mind and attempts to remove them, their opponent can call a “balk” on them and they lose their turn.
And all the existing tiles on the board should be allowed to move up one premium square.
If a player plays a word such as “rain,” “storm,” “snow,” “hurricane,” “hail,” “tornado,” or “tarp,” their opponent loses their next turn.
Needed rule: if a player plays “strike,” “union,” “MLBPA,” or “stoppage,” the game immediately ends and can’t be played again for weeks.
Thankfully, there is a much better way to incorporate baseball into a Scrabble game. A group of us baseball-loving Scrabblers have come up with rules for (catchy name alert) “Baseball Scrabble,” as follows:
Let’s try this out. Here is an opening rack in a regular Scrabble game.
You don’t have many great choices. Maybe VOW or TOW? Well, if you are playing “Baseball Scrabble,” you have a very nice opening play.
“VOTTO” cleans up that rack and scores 24 points. Let’s see what our opponent can do. He has “CALZONE” on his rack, but it’s not playable. Thankfully, we’re playing “Baseball Scrabble,” which gives us another opportunity. Hint: former Milwaukee Brewer outfielder.
And with that, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to show that Papelbon how Scrabble is really played.