The History of Nostalgia Baseball!

It all started one winter day when psychology professor Paul Nesselroade’s love of baseball awakened from its off-season sleep as news of spring training scores began circulating across the wires. On a whim, he started wandering down the hall, gauging his colleagues’ interest in starting a local fantasy baseball league. A few were interested, many were not, but one response was peculiar. Craig Slane, a theology professor, declined to participate, not out of disinterest in baseball, but rather based on his belief that fantasy baseball was inferior to simulation baseball.

Simulation baseball, he explained, was a competition where, just as in real baseball, wins and losses were the only things that really mattered. Sure, homeruns, steals, and strikeouts were of interest, but only insomuch as they served to produce a “win.” In simulation baseball, it was important to field complete teams—bullpens, pinch runners, defensive infielders and all. In simulation baseball it was important to pull pitchers when they got fatigued and to get hits when runners were on base. So much of what makes the game so interesting, Slane argued, can’t be reduced to a simple tabulation of high-profile stats used in fantasy leagues. Simulation baseball, however, actually creates games by using probability structures based on real statistics from historical players to yield events for each plate appearance. Innings are played one at-bat at a time; plays are called, and pitchers are relieved—a real game with all of its uncertainty and contingency unfolds.

As the conversation progressed, it became clear that Professor Slane had already been hard at work creating a computer program to simulate baseball games. In fact, he had been at it for several years and was now interested in seeing if his program could be used to simulate an entire grid of game outcomes that would be needed to run a league. Soon, a plan was hatched to see if there might be enough interest in starting a simulation league. In the span of a few days Professors Nesselroade and Slane gathered together about a dozen potential owners and decided to create the first Nostalgia Baseball league. Nostalgia Baseball! was born!

This inaugural season relied on a “sealed bidding” system to assign players from about 20 different historical teams to the various simulation team rosters. There were no long-term contracts, no financial perks, no injuries or waiver wires, and very limited control over the players. When the season was over, the team rosters vanished as well. Nostalgia Baseball! was just in its infancy. Nonetheless, the league was exciting. Every Friday afternoon a gaggle of professors could be seen huddling around a computer in Professor Slane’s office, anxiously watching the games unfold. News of Nostalgia Baseball! soon spread, and by the seventh season, the league boasted 24 owners—including several student-owned franchises.

Over the next five years the current version of Nostalgia Baseball! was created. As early as the second season new features began to emerge, such as multi-year contracts and ordered drafts. Virtually every season thereafter featured some new element added to the game. Some mechanisms were designed to reward winning teams economically, such as tying income to winning percentages and special feats, while others were designed to help faltering teams get back into the mix. The governing criterion, however, was always to be as realistic as possible while striving to maintain a competitive balance within the league. In March 2001 the League took a major step towards automation with the initial version of the NBRemote software. During the previous seasons, all personnel decisions had to be recorded on worksheets and delivered by hand to the commissioner’s office. In September 2002 the League took another important step towards full automation with the Draft cards. Previous drafts were a pre-seasonal rite conducted audibly by attending owners. It was fun, but not very efficient. As a result of this work, what was once limited to a local phenomenon is now able to spread as far as the Internet will take it.

Today, the Nostalgia Baseball! creators like to think they’ve constructed a multidimensional experience that does a convincing job of replicating a variety of real tensions experienced by Major League owners, general managers and field managers.

Do you think you have the stuff to run a baseball team in a sophisticated simulation environment? Check it out and see for yourself.