Donna Hartley knows the life of a baseball widow all too well: Lonely nights, a lonely son, room-service meals and days spent in the silence of an empty room while her husband plays at a boys’ game.
She would feel right at home in the box seats behind the dugout of Dodger Stadium, the object of a close-up on national television, kind words spoken by Joe Garagiola about how much of a trouper she is.
“He promises me each time he plays that we’ll do things as a family,” she says of her husband, Al, a highly rated table-top baseball player. “It never happens. Now I’ve learned better.”
Al Hartley has never picked up a bat in his life, never stolen a base. When he “hits one out,” it is in a tournament of Strat-O-Matic table-top baseball. He is ranked as one of the top all-time table-top baseball players in the world, according to Strat-O-Matic tournament director John Kreuz.
“Trying to get an upper hand on Al Hartley is like trying to slip a sunrise past a rooster,” said Kreuz.
Based in Chicago, Kreuz runs a series of weekend tournaments around the country, which Hartley attends. Once a year he hosts the table-top World Series, which Hartley has never won. Kreuz recently started a tournament of champions, which Hartley should qualify for this season.
Equipment for the game, which consists of several dice, lineup sheets and statistical baseball cards of real major league players, are manufactured by The Game Co. Inc. in Glen Head, N.Y.
“It’s an involved game,” said Kreuz, “but I could teach you the basic game in five minutes.”
Using actual statistics of major league players, table-top competitors roll the dice and play mock baseball games against one another. The action can get intense.
“To stay on top, you must always adjust,” said Kreuz, an accountant by trade. “You can’t rest on your laurels in this game.”
Strat-O-Matic table-top baseball is growing in popularity in the United States. Kreuz estimates that at least 50,000 game boards are sold each year and that maybe 400,000 players take the game seriously.
One of the most serious of players is Al Hartley, and that is where the conflict in his home has been developing. To be the best in anything, says Al, you have to practice, practice, practice.
“Most families don’t understand that,” he said.
Donna Hartley has difficulty understanding why grown men would waste weekends on such contests.
“It’s hard for me to be understanding about it,” she said. “But it’s what he likes. I think it’s just a game, but I’m not a guy.”
Early on, the Hartleys, who have been married four years, spent many weekends on the road away from their El Segundo home. The conflict intensified when their son, Michael, was born. Now, Donna says, “I only go to the San Diego tournament, and when I’m there I do my thing and he does his.”
Donna has been known to make her presence felt in the board room.
“I have a temper. It’s difficult not to show that in a tournament,” she said. “He tells me he will definitely meet us for dinner in five minutes. Two hours later I walk in and ask him if he can come now, and he says, ‘No, I can’t.’ That makes me mad.”
Concentration is important. Kreuz offers one explanation for Hartley’s desire to win.
“Al plays with intensity,” he said. “To the fellows that play, it is a tremendous mental game.”
But Donna is still doubtful.
“He’s too fanatical,” she said of her husband.
A computer software programmer, Al has always had a knack with numbers. So much so, that he rates every major league player on his own scale, not the ones provided by the manufacturers. Among his peers he is known as a great defensive strategist, though lately he has been in a slump.
“It hasn’t been a good year for me,” said Hartley, who went on to say that he has cut back on his playing time while experimenting with several different approaches to the game.
Kreuz said it’s almost a lock that Hartley will get the three tournament victories he needs to qualify for the World Series early next year. With two tournaments remaining on the West Coast, Hartley needs to win only one.
“Al’s going through a readjustment phase,” said Kreuz. “He hasn’t had as much success as he would have liked.”
Some suggest that Hartley has too many things on his mind now to concentrate on the hobby he picked up 21 years ago. As a college student, first at USC and then at UC Santa Cruz, he played the game every day.
“I’m a baseball nut,” he said.
But balancing family life with Donna and Michael and his obsession to be the best in the world may prove his biggest game of all.
Al still wants to win in the worst way.
“I want to be known as the best player in the country,” he said. “I take pride in that I’m good. If you win, you’re the best at something. You’re the best. You get recognition. I enjoy the game.”
But he admits that family life suffers for it.
“It’s tough on my son. He doesn’t see me. It’s tough for me to have balance in my family life. I’m competitive, motivated. I’m a driven person.”
Sometimes that competitive streak runs deep.
“When he loses in tournaments,” said an opponent, “he gets pretty angry.”
Hartley moved from Canada to Southern California in 1967, when he was 12 years old. Soon he discovered American baseball. There were players’ cards to be collected and the voice of Vin Scully crackling over the airwaves with broadcasts of the Dodgers.
It was a new world for Hartley. He grew to like it here. As for Donna: ‘It’s not like I told him that this marriage is over or anything,” she said about the conflict. But she did say that if Al quit the game, “It would be great. I would have a smile on my face.”