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Video games and imagined baseball seasons

With real baseball delayed indefinitely, a few thoughts on video games and imaginary baseball.

This is not Jack Flaherty. (Screencap from RBI Baseball 20 on Nintendo Switch.)

Growing up, there were several ways I experienced Cardinals baseball outside of the games themselves - which I could attend rarely and were only on television sporadically. There were baseball cards, Rotisserie baseball, a 10-year-old version of Strat-O-Matic I picked up at a garage sale. But more than anything, there were video games.

For maybe the last 20 years, baseball - like every sport - sees annual video game releases with updated rosters. And of course today’s games go even beyond that, with regular roster update downloads, so the team on your virtual field always looks exactly like the team on the real field.

But in the days before roster updates, when MLB licenses were sporadic and game releases might be years apart, our video game seasons were always more imagined than real.

RBI Baseball was my first to feature real teams and players, and even then, the game only had eight teams - the division winners from 1986 and 1987... and it didn’t hit store shelves until 1988. So from the moment it was released, these were not “real” teams. They were amalgams of the teams over a two-year period.

For a Cardinals fan, this was a dream. The roster on the game was the Platonic Ideal of late-era Whiteyball. Ozzie, Willie, Vince... with Jack Clark batting cleanup. Nevermind that Jack Clark was already on the Yankees, soon to be headed to the Padres. The game was a tool for your baseball imagination, and when you imagined the Cardinals, this is the team you imagined... not the real-life version that was slipping into the mediocre 90s.

Baseball Stars was released late in 1989 and probably didn’t land in most kids’ hands until 1990. While it had no official MLB licenses, it did offer the ability to create your own team and players. Being a 12-year-old baseball fanatic, every moment I was not playing Little League or neighborhood wiffle ball, I was in my basement meticulously recreating the National League East.

With Baseball Stars, you could update the rosters year-to-year, so your lineups more closely matched the real teams. But there was still plenty of room for imagination. You set the player skill sets, so each one could be the ideal version in your mind. My Geronimo Pena was a speedster and defensive whiz with surprising pop for a middle infielder.

Each summer of the early 90s, there would be a real St. Louis Cardinals team, slipping further and further from postseason relevance. There would also be an imagined St. Louis Cardinals team on my Nintendo console - typically on-pace to win 135 games with Pedro Guerrero hitting 80 home runs.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had that imagined team to go through the season with. Today’s video games are almost indistinguishable from the real world, and truth be told, with my own 12-year-old now it’s probably been at least 20 years since I found time to play an entire virtual season.

I’ve been thinking about those imagined seasons because that may be all we have in 2020. It’s certainly all we have now, and there’s no way of knowing how long that will persist.

Yesterday, I downloaded RBI Baseball 20 (because I don’t have a Playstation to get The Show). After a series of less impressive sequels to that original 1988 RBI Baseball game, the series went dormant. In 2014, MLB Advanced Media picked it up and began releasing titles in a stripped-down, two-button style reminiscent of the original games. Each installment gets absolutely savaged by reviewers, but if you are an old guy with not a ton of time to devote, it scratches that itch.

Whether you play RBI or The Show, this year’s rosters have gone from being real teams to imagined teams... at least for the foreseeable future. Because I write for a Cardinals Blog, loading up the game felt almost like an injection of actual news.

My first surprise was to see that Daniel Ponce de Leon had made the starting rotation.

What’s going on? Did the programmers of RBI Baseball get some inside info from the Cardinals front office? Did their advanced skill set analysis show something that we did not... oh wait, hold on - they just didn’t create a Kwang Hyun Kim.

In other news... or at least what we’re going to pretend is news... the programmers expect the Cardinals to start the season with Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter only in platoon roles, sitting against lefty starters.

This is all hypothetical and imaginary... but that’s all we have right now. It’s a tremendous bummer, but as I learned when I was 12, imaginary baseball is still better than no baseball.

So if you’re at all of the video game persuasion, why not pickup one of these games and have yourself an imaginary season? You want to bench Dexter Fowler? Go ahead and do it. You want to put KK in the starting rotation? Actually, you can’t do that - he does not exist.

But it still feels good to spend some time at the virtual ballpark.