Archive for the ‘Philadelphia Phillies’ Category


Larry Bowa

May 20, 2022

I’ve spent thousands of hours playing Strat-O-Matic alone. Many, many thousands of hours alone. I’ve experienced only a few hours of playing the game with others. In one of the rare exceptions, early on in my Strat-O-Matic career, I played against a farm boy who was three years older than me and who lived up the road from my family’s house. I don’t want to be coy about the identity of this kid, but I also have been conscious since mentioning him in my Cardboard Gods book of appearing to “dine out on his name,” as the saying goes. But the truth is, and as I tried to make clear in that book, I owe a deep debt to that farm boy, Buster Olney, the baseball writer. In the book I describe how important his magnetic passion for baseball and baseball cards was in getting my brother and me into those things. He had the same influence on us with Strat-O-Matic. As with his massive baseball card collection in comparison to ours, so did Buster’s Strat-O-Matic knowledge dwarf our own. In a league he and my brother were in during their high school years, Buster regularly annihilated everyone by snatching up unsung walk machines such as Gene Tenace while everyone else, wowed by batting average, wrestled over the likes of Enos Cabell and Mickey Rivers. I didn’t get a chance to play Strat-O-Matic against him until a few years later, when, one summer when he was home from college, he and I were both marooned in our tiny central Vermont town. He had nothing better to do than play Strat-O-Matic with his friend’s younger brother. I knew I didn’t stand a chance against him, but that whole summer, inexplicably, I got the rolls, which, as he wrote many years later in his ESPN column, enraged him.

Whenever I got one of my uncommonly friendly dice rolls, he had a saying: “what a chunk of shit.” But calling it a saying doesn’t really do it justice. It was volcanic, operatic, a white-hot roar.

For example:

Josh’s team is down by a run with two out in the bottom of the ninth and one man on. Goose Gossage is on the mound and Dámaso García is at the plate. Goose Gossage has nothing on his card but strikeouts, while Dámaso García has a few singles but not much else. He hit three home runs all season. There’s virtually no way he’ll hit a home run. Josh rolls the dice. Dámaso García homers.

[long, smoldering beat]

Buster [roaring]: What a CHUNK! OF! SHIT!

I wish you could have heard him say this. The passion, the gravitas, the authority. One thing feeding into this was that he was the most competitive person I’ve ever known. Another thing feeding into that particular turn of phrase: he was a farm boy. I don’t know if you really know what being a farm boy means, but what I witnessed was that it meant he learned from very early on what hard work was. I worked on his farm a few times helping to throw bales of hay onto a wagon (during one afternoon doing this we worked out a Strat-O-Matic trade involving Fred Lynn; I can’t remember all the details but I’m sure he fleeced me), and those afternoons haying with Buster still stand as by far the most physically taxing work I’ve ever done. And he started every day at the crack of dawn doing that kind of work. But the other thing you need to know, as it relates to his standard exclamatory protestation of the unfair rulings of chance, is that his work—as it was on a dairy farm, with, you know, lots of cows—often involved shit. Actual shit in unending supply. He knew a chunk of shit when he saw one. And his friend’s little brother lucking out with Dámaso García home runs was a Chunk. Of. Shit.

He had two other verbal tics that came out while he was playing Strat-O-Matic that have stayed with me over the decades. One was the sound effect he provided when one of his pitchers recorded a strikeout. I don’t think he did it for every pitcher and in every situation, but he definitely used this when his closer, Goose Gossage, was on the hill, and the rolls were in line with overwhelming probabilities and not veering into the realm of chunks of shit:


That’s what he’d yell, imitating an umpire’s third-strike bleating, when Goose was mowing them down. One day, we were over at the high school playing one-on-one on a basketball hoop in the parking lot, and a karate class was taking place nearby. The instructor kept going “HUAAA!” We were unable to continue our game. Yes, I owe Buster a debt for a lot of things, including that he’s the reason for at least one of the times in my life I literally fell over in a paralyzing seizure of laughter.

And the last of his Strat-O-Matic verbal tics that I remember was a fricative sound effect he made with a burst of air through his teeth:


This was an imitation of a hard-hit ball being snagged in a fielder’s glove. But not any fielder’s glove. He may have used the sound effect for other fielders, but I only remember him doing it for one. It was a player that he always had on his team and that, if I remember correctly, he related to and held in high esteem as a fellow hard worker, a fellow grinder, a fellow ferocious competitor.

Life is uncertain enough. Even if you get everything set up for a seemingly ironclad win, you could still end up with a chunk of shit. So you’d better have at least one thing locked down.

You’d better have Larry Bowa at shortstop.


I wrote yesterday about how my 1977 Strat-O-Matic online team is built for Mark Fidrych and built around Joe Morgan. After Joe Morgan, the player I most wanted on the field behind Mark Fidrych was Larry Bowa. In the Strat-O-Matic game, a dice roll on a pitcher’s card will often result in an additional 20-sided dice roll based on a given fielder’s ratings, and in a reflection of the relative frequency that balls are hit to a shortstop, the shortstop is the most frequent object of this secondary roll (as can be seen in Fidrych’s card, where a 6-9 and 6-10 roll will bring the shortstop’s abilities into play). I wanted Larry Bowa in place when these rolls came up.

The guiding principle for my team, in terms of run prevention, was “bend but don’t break.” To save money for everyday players who could hit well and field well, I loaded up on cheap pitchers who gave up a lot of hits but kept the ball in the ballpark (Fidrych himself being a mid-priced and slightly less batting-average-friendly version of this type) and hoped that my team would limit the damage invited by the mushballers by giving up fewer home runs than the league average, by not giving away runs with errors, and by leading the league in double plays. So far, so good: the Worcester Birds have given up six fewer home runs than the league average; are tied for the league lead for fewest errors; and lead the league in double plays. The team is eighth in a twelve-team league in runs allowed, but because the offense is second in the league in scoring runs, the mediocre run prevention, bolstered by spectacular fielding at every position, has been good enough so far to keep the team in first place.

That’s the spot in the standings to which Larry Bowa was most accustomed. He’s presumably somewhere in the team photo at the top of this page. Something mysterious happened to a few teams from my childhood collection of cards, including the Phillies, and I don’t have a single Larry Bowa card. It’s fitting perhaps that my only relic of him in my collection makes him indistinguishable from his teammates, as Bowa seems to not have cared about individual achievements but only about winning as a team, which the Phillies started doing in the middle of the decade and didn’t stop doing until Bowa was traded away (to the Cubs, who started winning as soon as Bowa was aboard). In an enjoyable recent episode of the Lost Ballparks podcast, Bowa says, “I didn’t care about any of that stuff [individual achievements]; I just wanted to get a ring. . . . Everyone can take everything away except for the World Series. That’s what I played for.”


Worcester Birds notes, games 58 through 60:

  • G58: W 8-2
    • Bowa leads lineup from the 9 hole with 3 hits; Campbell gives up 1 run in 4 innings in relief for the win
  • G59: L 4-2
    • Lee struggles but saves the bullpen to fight another day by logging 6.1 innings
  • G60: W 8-3
    • Bowa goes 2 for 2 with 2 RBI (including a suicide squeeze); after Tiant is injured, Campbell allows 1 run in 5 innings for another win