"I spent so many summer days slugging the hell out of the ball, the cornfield always my sanctuary. I’d run every top slugger of the time (1993) out there, 100 pitches each, and afterward record their totals in spreadsheets. I’d be surprised by results, and forced to test them again. Could Greg Vaughn really have more raw power than Danny Tartabull? Was Darryl Strawberry better than Bobby Bonillia? I had to know."
I was young once. And Sporting News Baseball was fun once.
I remember it well, and I remember exactly why. Sporting News Baseball featured a homerun derby mode that, as far as Super Nintendo baseball was concerned, went above and beyond, trumping anything thereto released on the system. For comparison’s sake, stand its derby side by side with the compelling, ageless Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball and you’ll see why I was so enamored.
In Griffey you could choose from six competitors – only one of them based on a real likeness, Ken Griffey Jr. himself – and take on the computer one on one in a ten-out finale at Camden Yards in Baltimore. It didn’t matter that the game had hundreds of other players, or twenty-seven other stadiums; these were your limited options, and you had to take it or leave it.
Sporting News not only was less restricting, but suddenly there were no restrictions. Rather than basing it on the traditional ten outs, you now began by selecting the number of pitches, with options ranging from ten to one hundred. Though there were only three generic stadiums in the entire game – a traditional 1970s cookie-cutter, a steely dome, or a Costner-inspired cornfield – all three were selectable. Moreover, any of the eighteen batsmen each team boasted could be selected to compete, and they all hit with raw power; the eighteenth man on the roster could easily club at least 55 out of 100 over the fence, while titans like Griffey or Barry Bonds could blast upwards of 90.
I spent so many summer days slugging the hell out of the ball, the cornfield always my sanctuary. I’d run every top slugger of the time (1993) out there, 100 pitches each, and afterward record their totals in spreadsheets. I’d be surprised by results, and forced to test them again. Could Greg Vaughn really have more raw power than Danny Tartabull? Was Darryl Strawberry better than Bobby Bonillia? I had to know.
Moreover, there were other quirks, the kind that stick with you, ones that are easily recalled as the memories rush back. I never completed a full season in Sporting News Baseball – never even came close – for one of its drawbacks is that it’s a slow, plodding game. But I remember the idiosyncrasies. One was that left-handed side-armed pitchers were unhittable; Graeme Lloyd threw many a no-hitter for me, and lost so many more in the later innings when the best batters could just barely graze his curving sphere slung from the most awkward of angles. I remember Juan Bell. Though his statistics from the previous season (and his entire career, no doubt) said otherwise, the Brewer backup was actually a beast (for some reason, baseball games released during this time had to turn one career bench player into a stud – see Kevin Maas in Ken Griffey Jr. Presents). Graeme Lloyd and Juan Bell were poised to lead me to the pennant… if only it wouldn’t have taken two months of playing time to do it.
There were other novelties I absolutely adored. You could edit the all-star teams! Whereas Griffey tortured by always forcing one-year wonders Scott Cooper and Dave Hollins upon your roster, now you could replace them with Matt Williams and Dean Palmer. You could now stack your line-up with every team’s clean-up hitter, or lead-off hitter, or merely throw together a ragtag bunch of everymen and bench players. This kind of flexibility prevented it from ever growing old. Sporting News Baseball even attained the MLBPA license; unlike in Griffey, hours no longer had to be dedicated scouring a Sports Illustrated almanac and tediously renaming everyone in the game. When Mike Piazza stepped into the batters box it said “PIAZZA,” not “J. DOE.” Players could also make errors – it wasn’t a column just for show anymore. Sporting News Baseball, at the time, had every extra feature that to me would have made Ken Griffey. Jr. Present Major League Baseball truly timeless. I loved it so.
The baseball itself wasn’t great. Griffey is the faster, more fluid, flat-out fantastic engine whose pistons fire to this day whereas just one game of Sporting News Baseball will leave you feeling gypped and stranded. It’s slowed by unnecessary animations; after every pitch not put into play, you see the ball lobbed back to the pitcher. Players don’t run or step deliberately but creep and crawl about the field, and diving catches look more the cause of untied shoelaces than defensive prowess. As you move to field a ball, note how all the players move as a set; the leftfielder moving a step to his right causes the centerfielder, rightfielder, shortstop and pitcher to make the same identical move regardless of whether it leaves him out of position to cutoff or backup throws. This, really, was not good baseball. It just had all the peripherals I so badly wanted after years spent with Griffey; the fact that it wasn’t that good was entirely permissible.
So I’m left with a strange emotion. On one hand, Sporting News Baseball is as terribly dated as almost any other sports game on the system; a few entertaining hours may still be gleaned from the homerun derby, but after that, it’s slim pickings and slow baseball. But on the other hand, looking back, it gave me exactly what I wanted at the time. What more can you ask from a game at the time of its release than that? I wanted more options. I wanted less rigidity. I wanted new quirks. And if each game took five to ten minutes longer, and the defensive play lagged substantially, then those were tradeoffs I was completely willing to make at the time.
Never a popular game, I rented it from Blockbuster once and loved it; my preteen self must have rented it three or four times thereafter. I tried finding it in stores from Allentown to Wilkes-Barre but to no avail; I asked for it for my birthday – it was all I wanted – and my mom ended up ordering it directly from Hudson Soft. Somehow, someway, it was as if this little known gem was built and designed especially for me, shipped directly to me, a special present for the diehard kid who just wanted to edit the damn all-star team.
It may not hold well to this day, but sometimes timeliness is more important than greatness. It was mine, the Holy Grail a younger me once sought. I’ll forever appreciate that.
Staff review by Jackie Curtis (September 08, 2008)
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