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A hundred thousand ghosts from baseball's golden age come to video games

Nearly a century of long-forgotten minor league stars join Out of the Park Baseball this year

Charlie Brown had Joe Shlabotnik, Annie Savoy had Crash Davis, and I have Kelly Jack Swift. Few institutions in American sports are as enduringly romantic as the baseball minor leagues, whose ferment of rawboned talent, steely-eyed experience and last-chance desperation has produced some of the greatest players you never saw.

More than 150,000 of them — all real-life, career minor league baseball players dating back to 1919 — will join the roster of Out of the Park Baseball 17 when it launches March 22 for Windows PC and Mac. The acclaimed sports management simulation will introduce fully accurate minor league rosters going back to 1919.

Compared to what triple-A console games do year to year, that is a jaw-dropping roster update. Among OOTP's diehard community, it may even trump the debut of the Major League Baseball Players Association's official license, which lets Out of the Park Baseball use the images of active major leaguers for the first time in the series' 18-year history.

"The minor leagues we had been using were all real teams, but they only included players who had made the major leagues at some point in their careers," said Chuck Hauser, 64, a retired programmer from Washington state who wrote software for manufacturing and healthcare companies for more than 40 years. "That makes it kind of boring, because there are lots of really amazing players who never made it, for one reason or another."

Out of the Park Baseball is a management simulation similar to Sega's well known Football Manager franchise on PC, for soccer. That means the game rides more on players' decisions to sign, waive, trade, promote, demote, start and bench personnel in order to build a championship club, rather than user-controlled pitching, batting and fielding action like the MLB the Show series on PlayStation.

Through the years, most OOTP players have chosen to start careers with the current season and build a dynasty from there. The parent club's minor league system has long been part of the game. But in the historical mode — that is, starting the game with a big league club from decades ago — players' farm systems were populated primarily by random players, who weren't indicative at all of what a general manager was actually working with in 1933, 1943 or 1953.

Out of the Park Baseball acquired full league licensing last year, giving it rights to the names and emblems of all 30 American and National League clubs, and their predecessors. Yet this made the lack of fully accurate historical minor leagues even more glaring to tens of thousands of diehards who prize accuracy above all other sports fans. It has been a longstanding community demand.

"In 2010, I was invited to be on the beta team, and the game had accurate minor leagues but a lot of the guys did not have career stats," said Rod Kronholm, 62, of Maine, a self-described tinkerer who worked with Hauser on the minor league database. "I didn't like that. I'm a perfectionist, and I took it on myself to convince Markus [Heinsohn, OOTP's lead designer and chief executive] that I could put those stats in."

All of the statistics are drawn from public records and databases. Licensing permeates the conversation of sports video game development, but here, if a player and his statistics are fact-based and text only, it's fair use under the law. EA Sports' Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy PGA Tour series can and does do the same thing with real tour professionals' names in the game's career mode.

Once he got the go-ahead from Heinsohn, Kronholm spent six months culling the data from online sources. He handed it over to Hauser around November to "work his magic," which meant compiling it into a usable form and applying it to OOTP's algorithms.

"It's 157,640 players," Kronholm said matter-of-factly. "Half a billion cells of data, pitching, batting and fielding stats."

Out of the Park Baseball has a passionate, user-driven culture, many of whom mod the database to suit their own preference. Kronholm was one, but this project was unlike anything anyone had undertaken before, much less on an official level. Heinsohn, who created Out of the Park Baseball in 1998 and nurtured it to the phenomenon it has become among hardcore baseball fans, remained skeptical. Not that Kronholm's data was bad, but that the sheer size of it might overwhelm a simulation that depends on fast, smooth and accurate performance.

"In the end I worked full three months on the routines for the import, player ratings, automatic affiliation changes and relocations," Heinsohn said. "Under normal circumstances no single feature should take that long."

This means that Heinsohn had to be sure Out of the Park Baseball 17 could accept a player; can properly evaluate him year-over-year according to real-world measurements; can accurately reassign his contract to another team if his parent club changes its affiliations; and can rename and relocate that entire franchise if it moves —  which was and is a frequent occurrence in the minor leagues.

But it also means that, if an OOTP manager wants to take control of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1940s, he or she will get a farm system with a 19-year-old Joe Bauman. Who's that? In 1954, Bauman hit 72 home runs for the Roswell, N.M. Rockets of the Class C Southwestern League — a professional baseball record that stood for 48 years.

Hauser has experimented with Bauman's stats in previous personal modifications to OOTP, usually sticking him on the St. Louis Cardinals and calling the player up in his prime years. "He hits around 20 to 22 home runs," Hauser said, "which is not bad. But he plays first base and he's horrible at it." Current general managers will have to make the same cost-benefit analysis. But if one plays a league that allows designated hitters that far back, he could become an otherworldly performer.

For me, I see the chance for Kelly Jack Swift, who is the last minor league pitcher to win 30 games in a single season, to finally get his cup of coffee in the big leagues. In 1953, Swift (above image, back row, fourth from left) won 30 for the Class D Marion Marauders of the Tar Heel League, a team not featured in this game because it wasn't a part of a major league club's farm system. But Swift's milestone performance won him a promotion the next year all the way to Memphis, the double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, at the age of 34. And that is good enough to get Swift into a video game 53 years later.

Swift is the father of my high school english teacher. I co-wrote a feature about him for Sports Illustrated in 2011. When I was reporting it, Jack's brother, Ray, swore to me that Jack pitched a game for the White Sox against Detroit in Tiger Stadium in 1954. It would have been the perfect epilogue to Jack's triumphant climb out of the well of the low minor leagues, but there is no record of such a thing anywhere. Maybe it doesn't matter now, because I can finally call Jack up to the big leagues on a computer.

Unknown legends who never got a chance finally get their shot in OOTP 17

Hauser says minor league players will perform accordingly to their statistical record. They aren't rated individually according to their attributes, as athletes are in current sports video games like NBA 2K16 or Pro Evolution Soccer.

Still, Swift's blazing fastball, an overwhelming 95 miles an hour against saucer-eyed millhands and apple-cheeked college boys, should have some representation within OOTP's formula thanks to his high strikeout and low base-hit totals. Of course, so will Swift's lack of a breaking ball, and the inscrutable episodes where he lost his accuracy, in the form of high totals in walks and extra-base hits. Swift was said to be one of Connie Mack's prized prospects — his wife, Betty, cooked Mack a fried chicken dinner when the hall-of-fame manager inspected Savannah's roster one year — but both shortcomings kept Swift away from the major leagues' door more than his age did.

Rewriting history with unknown legends will be one prerogative of the player in OOTP 17. Conversely, they'll have to be careful with how they manage even the well known talent. Mickey Mantle won a batting championship for the Class C Joplin, Mo. Miners in 1950; he also played shortstop, and badly at that. A general manager controlling the New York Yankees' postwar empire would have to manually reassign Mantle to center field and then call him to the parent club at an appropriate time to gain the full benefit of Mantle's hall-of-fame ability. Out of the Park Baseball 17 will not do this automatically.

"There are about 10 different databases that are all linked together to calculate that," Hauser said. "It's so many gigabytes of data that not one database can handle it all. Luckily, this is what I've done for 40 years, and it's simple in that I know how to do it. It's complicated in that, holy smokes, this a lot of stuff."

Kronholm deflects most of the credit for the huge roster's inclusion to Hauser, but he still was a large influence on getting its go-ahead from Heinsohn. Kronholm had been agitating Heinsohn to incorporate fully authentic minor leagues, and his pleadings were usually met with concern over what a project of this scope could do to the rest of a highly technical game that prides itself on smooth computation.

Then, says Kronholm, Heinsohn mentioned the minor leagues idea to a big fan: John Henry, the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, who plays OOTP and is a fan.

Polygon asked Heinsohn about that conversation; Heinsohn didn't deny they talked but said he wished to keep the details of the conversation private. Kronholm is convinced, however, that Henry's interest in such a feature is what finally pulled the trigger on its inclusion for OOTP 17.

"In a lot of cases, a lot of people thought it wasn't possible, and they were wrong," Hauser said

That means Joe DiMaggio will be surrounded by all his San Francisco Seals teammates from 1933, when his 63-game hitting streak foreshadowed an unbeatable 56-game stretch in the A.L. eight years later. It means the Pacific Coast League's fabled 1934 Los Angeles Angels, whose 137 victories are the most ever in a single season of professional baseball, are here in their entirety.

john elway oneonta yankees

It means the 1995 Winston-Salem Warthogs and Durham Bulls, combatants in the infamous benches-clearing brawl on "Strike Out Domestic Violence Night," are all present. So is John Elway, who patrolled the vast center field of Oneonta's Damaschke Field in 1982 a year before embarking on his hall-of-fame NFL career. And so is the Carolina Mudcats' Rich Aude, whom I saw hit a home run clean through a hole where Five County Stadium's new video display would later be installed.

"All I did with that big pile of data was to generate a bunch of ghosts," Hauser said. "We don't know anything about them or their personality, but we can make them play like they did in real life.

"It just takes a great big pile of data, and makes them into a ballplayer."

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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