Constable: MLB still up in air, but tabletop baseball league cancels tourney
Owners and players are attempting to negotiate a deal to salvage the 2020 Major League Baseball season, but the suburban guru of an old-fashioned, tabletop game played with cards and dice just canceled the group's annual Chicagoland APBA Tournament in Des Plaines.
"We were going to have it in August and I pulled it," says Rob Spatz. Cramming more than four dozen players into a Comfort Inn conference room for an entire Saturday just seems risky in this age of COVID-19, says Spatz, 49, who knows people who have died from the virus.
"Last year, we had 48 players and a waiting list," Spatz says. The first Chicagoland tourney in 2012, before Spatz got involved, drew five players. APBA players, including some from as far away as California, Cincinnati and Toronto, often make a weekend out of Spatz's tournament, maybe attending a Friday night baseball game at the Schaumburg Boomers Stadium and going out for pizza on Saturday night after the trophy presentation. Spatz didn't want to wait until July to cancel.
Having recently played in an online tournament based in Florida, Spatz says he didn't want to host an online version of the local tournament because that would sacrifice all the camaraderie and fun that comes from sitting across a table from your opponent and hearing the unmistakable sound of the dice emerging from the familiar shaker tube. Created in 1951 by J. Richard Seitz, who died in 1992, the American Professional Baseball Association game known as APBA (pronounced app-bah) uses actual MLB statistics to create a card filled with numbers for every player. Using two dice to get results from 11 to 66, the game injects some randomness into players' statistical probability, and leads to remarkably accurate results, Spatz says.
He learned the game from his father, Bob "Pops" Spatz, while growing up in Northbrook. His dad, now 72, still plays in APBA tourneys, alongside other fathers, sons, daughters, kids and moms. Both President Bushes were players. As teenagers, a buddy and I discovered APBA baseball and immediately became addicts, playing 12 hours straight at times. As a young police reporter working nights at the Daily Herald, I joined an APBA league that played our games at 1 in the morning, and led my team to a World Series triumph over the team compiled by late legendary sports writer Keith Reinhard.
As an adult, Spatz came upon the APBA Baseball page on Facebook. "Wow, there are other strange people out there," he remembers thinking. Doug Schuyler of Antioch officially took over the task of organizing tournaments, beginning with the 2013 tournament at the Woodstock Public Library. Spatz reached out to Schuyler before the 2015 tourney at the Grayslake Historical Society.
"We met at a Buffalo Wild Wings. We were rolling three games just to get back in the swing of things," remembers Spatz, who found it all coming back to him. "I hadn't played the card and dice version for 15 years, but it's like riding a bicycle."
Instead of four double-sided cardboard charts the size of old-time newspaper pages (Spatz calls his the Dead Sea Scrolls), the game now uses a spiral-bound manual, and offers computer versions, too. With Schuyler spending more time watching real baseball games played by his son T.J., a catcher who already has committed to play for Indiana University when he graduates from Antioch High School in 2023, Spatz now runs the local tournaments. He's too busy organizing and glad-handing to play in his tournaments, but Spatz does play in others. He won a tournament in Michigan playing with the cards for the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays.
"It's cool when I go to Michigan and see my name on the trophy," Spatz says. A White Sox fan, he always enjoys playing with the White Sox teams of 1919, 2005 and his favorite Sox team from 1983. Tournaments often have themes, such as you can only play with a team from before 1973, or you can only select teams that had losing records. Spatz played in one tourney where players could add one franchise player to each team, which allowed him to add slugging Frank Thomas of 1994 to the roster of the 1919 White Sox, infamous for throwing that year's World Series.
While APBA game stats often mirror the MLB numbers, there are a few quirks, Spatz admits. For instance, St. Louis Cardinals rookie right fielder George Puccinelli batted just 16 times in 1930, but had nine hits and three home runs, making his APBA card more powerful than Babe Ruth's. So Spatz enforces "The Puccinelli Rule" limiting the pinch hitter's use to the 6th inning or later.
"I do not play for money. We're playing for fun," Spatz says, adding the competitors pay $20 to cover expenses but are just excited to share their passion with like-minded individuals. "Everyone is insanely cordial."
His wife, Kathy, doesn't play, but "understands it's a labor of love," says Spatz, who often sneaks in some games by himself on weekend mornings before she gets up. The APBA Baseball page had about 1,000 members on Facebook when Spatz joined. Now it's closing in on 4,000, and growing every week of the COVID-19 era.
"Ever since this happened and people have been at home, there has been an uptick in people coming back to the game," Spatz says. "With what's been going on in the real world, people miss baseball and there's been a resurgence from people who used to play the game."