Monday, April 1, 2019

The Return of the NAFL, Part 2: The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

A few months back, I made a post about how Jeff Pearlman's brilliant FOOTBALL FOR A BUCK inspired me to revive an old pastime I had involving a fake football league I used to run. I reorganized and started up the old league, then set it aside, until this past week after finishing an interesting book that's got me thinking about it again.

I found Robert Coover's THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, INC., J. HENRY WAUGH, PROP by accident. (Isn't that usually the case?) I was looking up Fictional Sports Teams on Wikipedia, (yes, Friday nights aren't what they used to be) and I came across an entry for Universal Baseball Association. I'd never heard of it and went immediately to Google. The book was hard to find and thankfully the New York Public Library had a Kindle version available. (If you live in NY and don't have a NYPL card, go get Seriously, I'll wait.) It was a riveting read that I couldn't put down and had me thinking about it when I was forced to put it down for reasons beyond my control. In some ways it was a bizarre parallel to the novel's main character. To him the real world was nothing more than an inconvenience to the imaginary world that he had created on his kitchen table with some laminated charts, a notebook and a few sets of dice.

Henry is an aging accountant that lives alone in an unnamed city. (My head canon has it as the same city as the movie SEVEN.) He spends his day trudging away as an accountant for the ominously named Dunkelman, Zauber and Zifferblatt firm while his free time is occupied by the Universal Baseball Association. Based on a self-created, complex Strat-o-matic-esque paper and dice game, Henry runs the entire eight team league by himself. Based loosely on teams from the earliest, pre-integration days of baseball, the league is the focal point of a massive, elaborate universe that rivals any epic fantasy world I've experienced.

Layered, complex and vivid, Henry's world is more than just numbers of paper. The scope is massive, fifty-six years of baseball, from the Hot Stove (Blue Season) to the championship all collected in a narrative he calls the "Book," a collection of everything from league documents to newspaper stories and features. He's created dozens and dozens and dozens of well-rounded characters with complicated backstories that we follow as the narrative weaves in and out of some kind of Walter Mitty-esque reality. I found the story of the UBA more riveting than the one Henry was experiencing as he descends into madness over something that happens in the game. One of the players, a promising rookie pitcher with pedigree and personality is killed on the field in a freak accident that Henry rolls. He knows it's going to happen and doesn't alter the results, even though as the creator of the game he could. The death of this player slowly erodes Henry's sanity.

It's easy to dismiss. Who would be that affected by the death of a fictional character? I present Ned Stark, Charlotte, Lenny Small, Artax, Sturm Brightblade, Old Yeller, Leslie Burke...I'll stop. You get my meaning. Now imagine that you had the ability to stop that death from happening and chose not to because you are a stickler to the rules. (There's a Ned Stark's honor parallel here that I could make, but don't feel like it.) There's also some intense religious/creationism motifs going on. Henry is God to his world and you can't help but wonder is there a guy at a kitchen table playing a dice game about our world somewhere. The book was really good, especially if you are a sports fan and I think it's a must for a baseball fan.

Baseball always lends itself to the written word It could be the sport's longevity and its reliance on words to express the story of the game, both verbally or written. Even now, in what could be best described as the twilight of baseball, books about the sport are still popular. Whether that's because of some sense of nostalgia or the mythic nature of the sport's past, I don't know if I'm smart enough to say.

As for the NAFL, I've been playing with a revived version the last few months with an eye for using it for something, though I couldn't say what. I don't have a game, I just sort of make up the results. I never had the attention span for Strat-o-matic. I'm not clever enough to create a game of my own. I'm not much of a video gamer. I like the power of controlling the narrative, so that's what I'm doing for now. I'll have to come up with an alternative at some point but for now, it has been a great way to avoid my social networks, so if nothing else it's worth it. For now, it's for some weird entertainment, though I'm seriously thinking about ways to turn this into something...I just don't know what to call it.

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