Local tabletop baseball league a throwback in a digital age

The PA/NJ Baseball League, created and run by Berlin resident Rich Sarkisian, is currently looking for new owners as it plays out its 92nd season.

Berlin resident Rich Sarkisian said it was a baseball game he’d never forget.

It took place nearly 90 seasons ago and featured Hall of Fame pitchers Rube Waddell and Christy Mathewson facing off in the 1905 playoffs. Waddell was brilliant, allowing just three hits and striking out 15 hitters. But Mathewson upstaged him, tossing a no-hitter to help his team to a win.

Mathewson’s no-hitter never took place in real-life, let alone the World Series. Mathewson also wasn’t pitching for the New York Giants, but instead for a team called the Bombers. Waddell was pitching for the Creators, a team Sarkisian owned. The event didn’t take place on a baseball field either, it was held in a mall food court. The game was part of the first round of the 1905 playoffs in Sarkisian’s PA/NJ Baseball League, a tabletop baseball simulation league.

Rich Sarkisian and Ben Vasta, members of the PA/NJ Baseball League, face off in a series on Tuesday. The PA/NJ Baseball League is replaying the history of baseball through a tabletop baseball game Sarkisian created in the early 1980s.

Sarkisian and 18 other baseball enthusiasts are replaying the history of baseball. The league started up with a replay of the 1903 season in real-life 1984. Thirty-five years later, the league is still going strong, with the league having replayed more than 90 years of baseball history. Currently, the PA/NJ Baseball League is in the middle of its 1994 season.

An accounting professor at Camden County College, Sarkisian has always loved working with numbers. This love of numbers combined with a love of sports led Sarkisian to playing every tabletop sports games he could get his hands on as a kid.

“When I was a kid, I would play all of those (tabletop sports) games: (Strat-o-Matic), APBA, Sports Illustrated,” Sarkisian said. “I played them and I would see what was wrong with them. And there are major things wrong with those games. So I made my own game.”

Sarkisian made his own tabletop baseball game while in college in the early 1980s. In tabletop baseball, each real-life MLB player for a particular season will have a card. The card is meant to represent how the player performed in a particular season. To play the game, a player will typically roll dice or use another random number mechanism to determine what happens with each play. Sarkisian’s league sues a deck of more than 200 playing cards with random number combinations on them to simulate dice.

Jeff Conine bats for his team, the Spartans, in the PA/NJ Baseball League.

In recent years, tabletop sports have become more of a niche hobby as sports fans have gravitated to either fantasy sports or computer simulation games such as Out of the Park Baseball. But for Sarkisian, nothing will ever beat his tabletop baseball league.

“It’s a social activity,” he said. “I made friends. The godfather to my daughter I met through the league. And the variety of people in the league who would never be friends, would never meet in any stage of life except through this game.”

“Today, with computers, it’s much easier,” Sarkisian added. “But back when I started this, there were no computerized games. The reason I made 1903 was because there was no 1903 game.”

The league began while Sarkisian lived in Harrisburg, Pa., where he landed his first teaching job in 1984. Today, the league consists mainly of residents from South Jersey and the Harrisburg area, with a few other owners living in other parts of the country after they moved. While most games are played in-person, the owners living outside of the Philadelphia region will play their games on Skype.

Jeff Conine bats for his team, the Spartans, in the PA/NJ Baseball League. The league is replaying the history of baseball through a tabletop baseball game Berlin resident Rich Sarkisian created in the early 1980s.
Ben Vasta, owner of the Spartans franchise in the PA/NJ Baseball League, draws a card during a game with league founder and Creators owner Rich Sarkisian last Tuesday.

The league has a 72-game schedule and takes five months of real-life time to complete. Every five months, one season ends and the next one begins at the Old Village Inn in Morgantown, Pa. All of the owners gather together for the day, and the league’s two finalists will face off in the World Series. After the championship series is finished, the next season begins with the annual draft.

To keep up with the five-month schedule, Sarkisian spends his free time creating the player cards for the next season. Sarkisian uses www.baseball-reference.com to gather the statistics and create every card by hand. Sarkisian is currently making the 1995 season player cards ahead of the start of that season in the fall.

“I make a batter’s card in five minutes; a pitcher’s card in three minutes,” Sarkisian said. “For me, it’s almost like knitting. I get into this plane where I just relax.”

As the league has gone on, an alternate baseball universe has developed with results different than what took place in real-life. Entering the 1994 season, Babe Ruth remains the all-time home runs leader and Pete Rose came up just short of catching Ty Cobb for the all-time hits lead. There have been 18 documented no-hitters in the league’s history with  two documented perfect games thrown by Pedro Ramos, a player who spent the bulk of his real-life career with the Washington Senators in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Randy Jones, a two-time all-star pitcher with the San Diego Padres in the mid-1970s. The league is continuing to compile more no-hitters that took place over its history.

“We have our own Hall of Fame that we vote on,” Sarkisian said. “We have our own encyclopedia, we have our own records.”

As the league plays through the 1994 season, members are also looking for a few new owners. The league recently expanded in parallel to the real-life 1993 MLB expansion. Sarkisian believes anyone who loves baseball can take over a team and learn the game quickly. Owners are required to play 72 games in a five-month period, with each game taking about 30 minutes. Sarkisian added scheduling is flexible, allowing owners to meet up and play the games around their own schedule. There is no money involved in the league, it’s all about bragging rights.

“We know there’s people out there that will like this and will enjoy this,” Sarkisian said.

Anyone interested in joining the league can contact Sarkisian at rsarkisian@camdencc.edu. For more information, visit the league’s website at http://panjbaseballleague.blogspot.com.