Eleven months ago, magazine production artist-former editor-former screenwriter-longtime baseball junkie-tax payer-upstanding citizen Jeff Polman launched one of the most ambitious baseball blogs in the history of western civilization, 1924 and You Are There!!. Using Strat-O-Matic, a well-known baseball simulation board game, and his flair for the written word, Jeff builds an online novel around the fictional replay of a classic Major League season. Well, actually, its told through the “eyes and hearts” of his two different protagonists, Vinny Spanelli, a 17-year-old hardcore Phillies fan, and Cal Butterworth, star baseball beat writer from Detroit.
Jeff was kind enough to put down the dice, push away the keyboard, and jump into the box for six Batting Practice Fastballs:
Scott: This is supposed to be one question, but I’m going to cheat here and a lump a few together. Where are you from? What was your favorite team growing up? Who was your favorite player?
Jeff: I’m a New Englander through and through, born in Hartford while living in Providence, then raised outside Springfield, Mass. Needless to say, this makes me a Red Sox junkie, and the allegiance was sealed when my dad took us to Boston in May of ’63 to see them play the Maris/Mantle Yanks. All it takes is one day at Fenway Park to make any impressionable kid a baseball fanatic, because the field is so small it glues you to the action. Watch the people behind home plate the next time you see a televised game from there. They barely move, and stare at the field like it’s some priceless Van Gogh landscape. Anyway, Carl Yastrzemski was far and away my favorite player, despite his talent for making final, tragic outs.
Scott: I understand you were a screenwriter in a previous life. A horror film of some sort? Give me the quick-and-dirty on your Hollywood experience:
Jeff: I was a newspaper writer and editor in Vermont when I moved out here to L.A. in 1982 to try my hand at scripts. Two of the twenty I wrote actually got produced: a straight-to-video ghost story called Grave Secrets, kind of an X-Files story before anybody knew what the X-Files were, and a suspense thriller with Donald Sutherland and Amy Irving called Benefit of the Doubt that was out in movie theaters for two weeks.
Neither experience was all that rewarding. Benefit ended up with three producer teams on it, the last pair being the Weinstein brothers at Miramax, who had the gall to put other writers on the project while I was in Hawaii on my honeymoon. Naturally the script got worse, and when Gene Siskel called the movie “two hours of sleaze” on national TV I felt pretty vindicated. When you look at how screenplays are routinely put through ego blenders, it’s a wonder any good films ever get made here at all.
Scott: What’s the inspiration for “1924 And You Are There!”?
Jeff: It’s more like an inspiration stew. My favorite movie of all time is The Time Machine, George Pal’s excellent 1960 version, which I actually paid to see 17 times when I was a kid. Something about its cool time-travel effects and utter heroism of the main character (a home inventor who saves human civilization) just got me going. Then I had this goofy script idea for years called Bosox Anonymous, about a club of crazed Red Sox fans who find a way to go back in time to 1920 and kidnap Babe Ruth to keep him from going to the Yankees. I naturally abandoned the project after the 2004 Curse-breaker season, but always felt time travel and baseball would be a nice mix.
Then two things happened. I’d been replaying past seasons with some regularity for a long time, and after discovering the excellent Strat Fan Forum site, decided to start sharing my results there with game blurbs and daily standings. (The Astros outlasted the Indians in the never-played 1994 World Series, by the way.) I got a lot of great response there and realized it was something I had a knack for, so decided to get more creative and branch off with my own blog site for 1924. As far as the Strat Negro League set goes, I honestly didn’t think of adding it to the narrative until mid-summer when I learned when the cards were being released. Cobb and Ruth and Johnson and Hornsby were enough to get the thing cooking in my head.
Meanwhile, I had taken a few years off from screenplays to write a novel called The Madcat, a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old roller coaster operator named Vinny, based on my own experiences during the mid-70s. It landed me a reputable New York literary agent who got it into the marketplace. Then early last year I saw that my old pals at Miramax were coincidentally releasing Adventureland, a coming-of-age movie about a young amusement park worker during the mid-80s. The tone and decade were different, but the subject was close enough to briefly devastate me, and my 17-year-old Phillie fan Vinny Spanelli was born as a result. The wonderful thing about writing on the Internet is that you don’t have to wait one to six months for an agent or development person to get back to you. The response is immediate, your satisfying “published” feeling a daily event.
I guess the Internet in itself is also an inspiration. Ninety-five percent of the baseball news I get now is not on TV or in newspapers, but on a myriad of fabulous Web sites devoted to the game. I’m a loyal member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, which has well over 100 blogs now and is growing like a weed. Most of these blogs are focused on individual teams, but on Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, the ESPN baseball page and NBC’s Circling the Bases there is a metric ton of inspired, informative, often humorous writing. I am certainly no sabermatician—Rob Neyer tore me a new one last spring for a woefully under-researched rant about pitch counts I got posted on the Seamheads site—but I still cherish my Bill James Abstracts from the late 70s and believe the stats revolution is one of the best things to ever happen to the game. Obviously my site was designed to mine the more literary, nostalgic side of baseball rather than the statistical one, but like the best bloggers I also wanted to do something thought-provoking and fun and avoid cliches at all costs.
Scott: Between playing the games, writing stories, finding appropriate graphics and posting on the web, we’re talking about an awful lot of work on your Strat-O-Matic season replay. How much time do you put in each week on this labor of love?
Jeff: I have a full-time job as senior production artist for a magazine publisher, but it’s not the kind of work you bring home so it never intrudes on my daily blogging. My normal routine is to plot out each entry while I’m walking my dog early in the morning, then spend about 30 to 45 minutes researching, writing and posting it before heading off to work. Sometimes picture-hunting can take a while, but Google Images usually makes that part of the job a breeze.
I can play a Strat game in about ten to fifteen minutes, so with at least four played each night, that’s about two hours minimum of work on the site per day, or ten per week. I’ve been posting on Sundays lately to try and speed the season up a bit, but also because people tend to be on their iPhones more and more and do read blog material through the weekend. And just in case all this doesn’t keep me busy enough, I’m also entering my second 160-game season in a fabulous nationwide draft league that’s been going for over 35 years.
Scott: If a conventional publisher approached you and said “I like your blog, pitch me a book idea,” what would it be?
Jeff: Something like this, probably…
“Many baseball fans secretly wish they could forget about steroids, million dollar contracts and freezing World Series games past midnight and return to the sweet, simple days of yesteryear. Since last February, 1924 and You Are There! has been providing that transportation. Told in the language of the time, the ‘daily baseball time machine’ is for lovers of story and character, and like fans of old-time serials, for the daily anticipation of reading a fresh installment. Because I generally let game outcomes decide the course of the interweaving plot threads, I’m never sure how things will unfold, creating what can only be called a ‘living baseball novel.’ Will the Pirates and Senators continue to steamroll the opposition? Will young Phillie fan Vinny Spanelli ever marry his Brooklyn fan bride? Will Tigers reporter Cal Butterworth keep from having a nervous breakdown? Stay tuned…
There are scores of fantasy baseball sites on the Internet, but there has never been anything like this. I strongly feel 1924 And You Are There! lends itself perfectly to book form, either as is, or re-shaped as an historical novel set in the ‘actual’ season with the same characters.” Whaddya think, Mr. Tweed?
Scott: What’s one question you’re dying to answer, but never gets asked?
Jeff: I guess a good question would be “What’s on your Strat-O-Matic blogging agenda for the new year?” One reason my ’24 characters have been put through so many twists and turns is because both pennant races are in the toilet and I’ve been forced to get more creative. But that can be exhausting, so my current plan is to do this again with Strat’s new past-season release, 1977, use the same 16-team format with the best eight teams per league and hopefully have some tight races again.
Obviously I’ll come up with some new persona/voice from the Disco Era to report the games, but I’d also like to get the readers more involved by soliciting rotations and lefty-righty lineups from “absentee managers” in the teams’ home cities, something I did successfully on the Strat Forum in 2008. The ultimate fantasy would be to have a handful of Strat-playing notables in the owner mix, such as Spike Lee or Joe Sheehan for the Yankees, Joe Posnanski for the Royals, Negro League researcher extraordinaire Scott Simkus for the Cubs or White Sox (your choice, and you don’t have to manage the South Siders wearing shorts), Jon Miller and Bob Costas for whoever they want, Doug Glanville for the Phillies, etc., and then I’ll just play the games and report the fun results. I won’t even take Boston just to be fair, though with people like Reggie Cleveland, Mike Paxton, and Don Aase on that pitching staff I shouldn’t have to worry about them winning.
Scott: A chance to manage Bill Buckner, Ivan DeJesus and Bobby Murcer on the ’77 Chicago Cubs? Count me in.
Thanks, Jeff. You’re outta here….who’s next?