MLB Showdown is the first game I got into on a competitive basis. Showdown is a collectible card game where players play baseball using a 20-sided die and a deck of strategy cards. This was in the height of the collectible card game (CCG) craze and at the time Pokémon was popular and you could find a CCG with just about any theme you wanted. The one I chose, MLB Showdown, made perfect sense for me, being the baseball lover that I am.
Wizards of the Coast made the game and, like their other major CCGs, they offered a tournament structure in order to keep interest high and people buying product. They had a number of MLB Showdown regionals: major tournaments throughout the country where players were hoping to win in order to get free airfare and accommodations to go to the National Championship. The winner of the National Championship got free season tickets to any Major League Baseball (MLB) team.
I started playing the game at a local mall in 2001, but by 2002 I was ready to play in my first major tournament. Along for the ride with me was my best friend Gary, who would be entering as well. We were longshots to win the thing, but we didn’t know that at the time.
When we got there, it was at a small card shop in Rocky River, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. There were tables set up throughout the entire store. These tables were not even close to enough though, as there were over 50 entrants. We knew it was going to be a tough task indeed. The good news is that with so many entrants, it would be unlikely that Gary and I would have to face off with each other—or at least we hoped.
I remember winning my first ever tournament game by beating the daughter of a very serious player from Canada. Then the second game came along and I was soundly beaten. I rebounded after that, and my record was 2–1. I then dropped another game, and then won one, bringing me to 3–2. I had one game left, and the chances of me making the final elimination rounds were slim, but I still had hope. Who would I face in this match?
It was determined I would face Gary. Neither one of us were happy about that, but we just had to play the game. The game was going well for me overall. When we got to the 9th inning, I had a 3-run lead. Baseball fans know that a 3 run lead in the 9th is usually safe. Well, the safe lead was starting to look less and less safe by the minute. Gary got one runner on base. He then got 2 more, and the bases were loaded! With a swing of the bat, he could win the game. While he loaded the bases, I managed to snag 2 outs. I was 1 out away from winning the game.
At that moment, Gary brought up a light-hitting 2nd baseman named Craig Counsell to the plate (Currently the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers). Most fans might know him for one of three reasons. First, he scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning for the Florida Marlins to win game 7 of the 1997 World Series off an Edgar Renteria single against the Cleveland Indians. Next, people may know him for his very odd hitting stance in which he holds his bat WAY, WAY high above his head. The last is that he was a good defensive player.
There was really only one reason to play Counsell in MLB Showdown, he had a very good defensive rating. In Showdown, your team can only cost 5000 points total and you look for value with some cheaper players, and Counsell was a modest 210 points to play. If you were looking for a HR powerhouse, Counsell was not your guy, as you needed to roll a 25 with your die to hit a homer—this of course is hard to do on a 20-sided die.
Well, Gary played what just about everyone played, a card called “Lean Into It”. What the card did was let you add to the swing die-roll of a batter based upon how good their defense was. This makes zero thematic sense as having great defensive skills does not translate into any offensive prowess, but it was a smart move for the game. Counsell had a +5 defensive rating, so he got to add +5 to his roll.
Can you see where this is going? Three runners on base, 2 outs, bottom of the 9th inning. The only way Gary wins this at bat is if Counsell gets a HR. I was getting frustrated as the inning wore on because I could taste the victory while I was 3 runs ahead. To lose it in this fashion would be beyond painful. I had a bad roll, which allowed Gary 1 die roll on Counsell’s batting chart. Gary needed a 20 to have a walk off Grand Slam with Counsell. Against all odds, Gary rolled a, you guessed it, 20.
GRAND SLAM. GAME OVER. MY TOURNAMENT RUN: EXTINGUISHED.
I was furious. So what did I do? I took my deck and threw it into the parking lot. Childish? Of course, but it felt cathartic at the time. I eventually picked up my cards.
While I was mad at the time, Gary and I can look back and laugh about this one now. I was never winning the tournament that day anyway. I would come back the next year and do much better. I even took 2nd place in a regional in Indianapolis in 2004, which gave me an entry into the National Finals. Only 1st got free airfare, but in 2004 the nationals were in Cleveland, so I already had somewhere to stay for free. I finished in the middle of the pack in the National Finals that year.
Funny thing is, for all the success I had in playing MLB Showdown at its highest level, the game that remember best is the one I squared off against Gary, and lost on a tragic home run.