How can a die-hard baseball fan survive rainouts, or for that matter, lockouts? Quite easily, actually. No, you don't have to watch old games on videotape or replay bloopers and blunders from years gone by. And there's no need to feign excitement over a scratchy black-and-white film trip down memory lane with the greats of yesteryear.
Rejoice! Indoor baseball is here, sort of. I'm talking about the wonder of the microchip, about realistic simulations of America's pastime, where it's always spring and the pennant race has just begun: baseball video games.
Here are five games, compatible with an assortment of video game machines or computers. All of the games are designed to be played alone or with an opponent.
The most detailed and complete game for a personal computer is Earl Weaver Baseball (Electronic Arts, 1820 Gateway Drive, San Mateo, Calif. 94404; $39.95), which was designed with the help of the former Baltimore Oriole manager. His baseball expertise and the design talents of Eddie Dombrower and Teri Mason have made Earl Weaver Baseball a best-seller.
"A lot of my minor league and major league experience is in the game," Weaver says, "...the majority of it from what the Orioles did in the 1969, the 1970 and the 1971 seasons."
He gives some examples: "I'm talking cutoffs and relays when they have a rundown on the play, ...where the shortstop's supposed to be, and who's backing him up, and all that." The game offers a number of options. You can play the game in the arcade mode, enjoying the action on the unique split screen that shows the whole field on one side and a pitcher facing the batter on the other. Or you can choose the full mode, managing the team as well as playing, using all the stats and decision-making opportunities he would have at his disposal. You can hit-and-run, steal, and use your roster of pitchers. You can build a dream team of legendary players: Cobb, Ruth, Musial, Mays—they're all in there. And so is, of course, Brooks Robinson, just the way Weaver remembers him.
"If Brooks doesn't get a hit with a man on second base with two out after the sixth inning," Weaver says of the game, "then there's something wrong with your machine. He always did that for me."
But there's more. In the full game you have to deal with injuries and select from dozens of real stadiums or design your own park. In both modes there are special effects that make this a perfect game for the stat maven. You can examine a controversial play in slo-mo or in freeze-frame. And when you're in a tight spot, you can press a key and "Ask Earl" for his advice.
How realistic is this game? Well, a manager can confer with a struggling pitcher and check his arm. And there will be additional disks available each year to update player stats. This is computer baseball with the works.
If you're interested in fast-paced arcade action, there are games that offer more speed than you'll be able to coax out of your PC.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) became the phenomenon of the 1980s because of its great graphics and arcade-style game action. Games such as Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda, both big hits, helped Nintendo's sales reach $2.7 billion last year.
Fortunately, if you're not into rescuing Zelda, there are a number of baseball games for the Nintendo system. The best is Jaleco's Bases Loaded (Jaleco USA, Inc., 310 Era Drive, North-brook, Ill. 60062; $44.95). The screen shows a realistic view of a pitcher winding up as he faces a determined batter, and has full-screen animated shots for baserunning. Pitching is the key to any good baseball game, and in Bases Loaded you control the ball's speed and placement. You can decide whether or not you want the batter to hug home plate, and whether he should bunt, steal or even be replaced by a pinch hitter. This month Jaleco is introducing Bases Loaded II: Second Season, a faster-playing version with better, more detailed graphics.
If you want even more excitement, look into the newest generation of video game machines. These feature state-of-the-art, 16-bit graphics processors that take the video game experience a step further. The graphics are crisp, the color palette has 512 colors (as compared with 53 in Nintendo), and many more sprites—moving computer images—can move simultaneously.
NEC made a splash with its powerful game machine, the TurboGrafx-16 system. And last November they released World Class Baseball (NEC Technologies, Inc., 1255 Michael Drive, Wood Dale, Ill. 60191; $42), a terrific game with detail so sharp that on some plays you can read the label on the ball. In this game the umpire calls players safe or out. There are insert screens that show base runners, and a small window in the corner lets you see where fly balls are headed and keep track of base runners.
One drawback of World Class Baseball is that it uses imaginary teams and players. Still, the fast-paced action, with runners daring the pitcher to try a pickoff, can be exciting. If you don't need the actual stats of real players to manage a team, World Class Baseball is arcade baseball at its best.
Then there's Game Boy Baseball (Nintendo of America Inc., 4820 150th Ave. N.E., Redmond, Wash. 980525111; $19.95), the hand-held game from Nintendo, with as much power as Nintendo's full-size game system. It's about the size of a paperback book, and it features a 2½-inch liquid crystal display screen, as well as stereo sound through headphones. Though the monochrome screen isn't backlighted, the games are fine, especially when you consider their portability, which allows you to play them almost anywhere.
Each side has four pitchers, with the familiar Nintendo names of Mario, Luigi, etc. There are only two teams to field, but you have remarkable control of pitching and batting. Smash the ball to leftfield, and the screen scrolls to show the cartoon outfielders scrambling to make the play. You can relieve your pitcher, steal a base (and try for a pickoff) and bunt. The speed of your pitches and batting stats for every player are displayed. The drawbacks to the system are that there are only two teams and four pitchers, and the screen is hard to see in poor light.
Main Street Baseball (Main Street Toy Company, Inc., 540 Hopmeadow St., Simsbury, Conn. 06070; $59) is the definitive tabletop baseball game. The main screen displays the field from the batter's perspective, and another, smaller screen shows the batter's stats and the score. Your team consists of players on baseball cards. Each card has a sticker with lines, similar to UPC codes; you move a card through a slot every time a player comes up to bat, thereby entering the player's stats. The game comes with 24 cards and 104 stickers for other players, so you can use your own cards. New stickers are available for both active and former players.
If these games don't get you through the gaps in the season, try ticktacktoe.
In Bases Loaded, the player controls the speed and placement of a pitch.
Matthew J. Costello is a novelist and contributing editor for "Games " magazine.