Daniel Rubin: Phils Lose, circa 1924

The team was bad, famously bad, but Vinny Spanelli liked their chances anyway, because he was a 17-year-old street kid from South Philadelphia and they were his beloved Phillies.

How bad?

That April in the Detroit Free Enterprise, beat writer Calvin J. Butterworth predicted another season in the cellar for the 1924 Philadelphia nine:

“And then we have the Quakers, a sorry collection of what-nots, if-onlys, wish-they-coulds and why-bothers, who should emit foul athletic odors to every region of the latrine-like Baker Bowl.”

Butterworth’s pity was bottomless for fans like Vinny — “they should be allowed into their grandstands free of charge, much as witnesses would to an execution.”

That’s the set-up for one of the more weirdly obscure blogs you’ll find this year, but I mean that in the good way. Jeff Polman writes what he calls “a living baseball novel.”

Using the players’ statistics from the 1924 season, Polman re-plays each game with Strat-o-Matic Baseball cards and three dice. Then his two fictional heroes — the Philly kid and the grizzled sportswriter — alternate days describing the games Polman has painstakingly staged in his Los Angeles den, which his wife, (“my most tolerant wife”), calls The Baseball Grotto.

His blog is called “1924 and You Are There!!” It’s a fanatic’s conceit.

Polman picked the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies because 1, they weren’t from New York, and he’s tired of reading about New York teams, and 2, because their prospects could not have been more different.
The Tigers were contenders, led by the fiery Ty Cobb. The Phillies were going nowhere. But Polman was intrigued by the Baker Bowl, the field at Broad and Huntingdon, known for its cantilevered construction and short, right-field porch.

And he loved that the Philadelphians were losers. Polman, 54, grew up following the early ‘60s Red Sox, who were equally hapless.

“What my site is about is the love of baseball and the love of sitting in the park, regardless of how the team is doing,” he says. “I put myself in the seat of this hopeless kid following his team.”

Strat-o-Matic is for the hardcore fan. It allows them to participate in every play, and requires that they make decisions about, say, how a certain hitter fares against lefties or righties or whether to send a runner when the outfielder’s known for having a Howitzer arm.

Polman learned the board game when he was 8, and his older brother, Dick, now the Inquirer’s national political columnist, received one as a present, then promptly left for camp. By summer’s end, the younger brother was dangerous with the dice.

After working at alternative newspapers in New England, Jeff Polman wound up in Los Angeles and wrote two screenplays that were made into low-budget thrillers, Grave Secrets and Benefit of the Doubt. His day job is production design for a magazine publisher.

His hope is that within his blog are the makings of a historical novel. That may explain why Vinny manages to get into many misadventures, such as the road trip out West, when he and his friend Benny drive a new Chrysler to St Louis to watch baseball in a segregated park, or when they have to do some explaining to a small, dark-eyed Chicago Cubs fan who turns out to be Al Capone.

Polman plays each game by himself, making both sides’ managerial decisions. It takes him about 10 minutes to go through nine innings. The process, including the writing, takes him about three hours a day.

He’s not sure how the season will turn out for the Phillies, who in real life lost 96 games that year and wound up in seventh place.

But the dice cannot perform magic that is not contained in the cards.

“The Phillies do not have a chance,” he said, but “I think it makes for enjoyable reading.”