The holidays are often a time of rediscovery. When you go home for the holidays, or pull the Christmas decorations out of storage, or find your way to the roof to rig up the lights, you inevitably find something that you hadn’t seen in a very long time. It might be an old magazine that had fallen behind the sofa, uncovered only when you moved it to clean up the remnants of an ornament that fell off the tree and shattered. Perhaps it’s a $25 gift card to Chili’s that was accidentally thrown into the bin of lights last December, or a Luke Skywalker LEGO minifigure that’s somehow worth more than $250 because it came in one set from 2003.
None of those three happened to me this year (although I admit that third one would be pretty neat), but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a rediscovery of my own. While decorating for the holidays, I found on a bookshelf a box of MLB Showdown cards from 2003, complete with the game mat and two 20-sided dice.
What is MLB Showdown, you might be wondering. Back in the early 2000s, trading card games were all the rage, and in the pre-MVP Baseball 2005 era, videogames had not yet created a franchise mode that truly captured the nuance of roster construction. Naturally, then, there was a market for a baseball trading card game, one that followed in the tradition of classics such as 1866’s Sebring Parlor Base Ball and 1930’s National Pastime. Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro and current publisher of Dungeons and Dragons and Magic the Gathering (at the time, it also published the Pokémon Trading Card Game), decided to fill that gap.
At its core, gameplay was straightforward. The pitcher rolls the 20-sided die. If the result plus the pitcher’s control is greater than the hitter’s on-base stat, then the next roll uses the pitcher’s table; if the result is equal to or less than the on-base stat, the next roll uses the hitter’s table. The batter then proceeds to roll the die to determine the outcome of the at-bat. For example, in the above picture, if Mike Mussina were to roll an eight or higher, the batter would use his chart, while if it were seven or lower, the batter would use Derek Jeter’s. Considering the fact that dice rolls one through 16 are outs on Mussina’s card, but only one through six are on Jeter’s, that is a big difference.
Adding wrinkles to the game were what were known as Strategy Cards. Categorized into offensive, defensive, and utility, these cards allowed a player to influence the game outside of the dice rolls.
As a kid, my brother and I had a lot of fun with these cards, pitting teams against each other created out of the cards that we had. Sometimes we followed the official rules, building a team of 20 players using four starting pitchers, a handful of relievers, and a dozen or so position players whose cumulative points score was 5000 or less (the number of points a player was worth is found on the card). More often, however, we ignored these rules entirely and used some other method to build teams; for example, sometimes we used team affiliation, using players from the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mets (three teams that we had a lot of players from) as the foundation and filling in the gaps with other cards. In truth, the possibilities were endless, limited only by the imagination.
Flipping through these old cards, I couldn’t help but think about the universality of the experience. Sure, not everybody played with this particular kind of cards, or even knew they existed — there’s a reason that the series was discontinued after the 2005 season, after all. But in many ways, MLB Showdown combined two of the biggest trends in baseball fandom, the collecting of baseball cards and the desire to join the competition through videogames and fantasy baseball, and turned it into something that is as comfortably familiar as it is unique. As we wade through the uncertainty of a lockout that appears to have no end in sight, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic that is entering its third year...well, sometimes a bit of unique familiarity and a trip down memory lane is just what is needed right about now.