August 16, 2006
Catching Up With An Ace
A modified version of this story was run in The Traveler Watchman's September 25, 2003 edition.
When I was 13, a few of my friends introduced me to a board game called Strat-o-Matic Baseball and I've been hooked on it ever since.
Made by a company based solely out of a small, brick building across from the railroad tracks in Glen Head Long Island, Strat-o-Matic, or "Strat," as it's better known by junkies of this wonderful game, like myself, is a dice-used board game (sorry, no spinners) that attempts to replicate the game of Major League Baseball down to every last intricacy using individual "cards" for each professional player. Season sets are available for nearly every season starting from the early 1950's, when the game was created, right up to and including the past season.
The game, which is played with the roll of two dice, one red and one white, is then followed by reading a result from either a pitcher or a batter's card. It's incredibly realistic, immensely popular, and completely customizable to the player and it has a following that includes Spike Lee, Tim Robbins and even Cal Ripken Jr., who once said that one of his biggest thrills upon making the majors was seeing his first official strat card.
The season that came with my first (of many) Strat-o-Matic purchases was 1969, a memorable year for Mets fans that saw the NL team from New York go all the way to its first ever World Series crown. The team they edged out for first place that year was the Chicago Cubs and that's the team that I chose to use when I first started playing Strat. My most memorable game occurred against a friend using the Mets and it was so memorable because it was my first no-hitter. The pitcher I used to throw that no-hitter was named Bill Hands.
It never occurred to me that sixteen years later I'd be speaking to the man, who now resides in Orient, whose card I used in that game. Talk about a thrill! Hands owns and operates the Orient Service Center, enjoys his life, golfs, boats and spends time with his family.
Born in Rutherford, NY in the spring of 1940, Hands was called up for what is proverbially known in baseball talk as a "cup of coffee," late in the 1965 season by the San Francisco Giants, a team that had Cooperstown legends such as Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Warren Spahn, Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal on its roster.
Hands pitched in four games that year before being traded along with catcher Randy Hundley to the Chicago Cubs in the off season. Bill was used both as a starting pitcher and as a reliever by the Cubs in the 1966 and 1967 seasons before being moved permanently to Chicago's starting rotation in 1968; a breakthrough season that saw the six-foot-two right-hander go 16-10 with a 2.89 ERA. He was just beginning to scratch the surface on what would prove to be a very successful Major League career.
"After the 1968 season I felt that I really belonged," said Hands. "I said to myself, you know what, I'm not that bad. But you never know when disaster's going to strike."
What came next certainly wouldn't be described as a disaster. In 1969, Hands quietly put together one of the greatest individual pitching performances in National League history, going 20-14 with an astonishing earned run average of 2.49. Hands took the mound in the opening inning 41 times that year, starting more than 25% of the franchise's games; an unheard of feat by today's standards. He proceeded to pitch in 300 innings with 18 complete games and three shutouts to his credit. Amazingly, neither he nor Jenkins (21-15 in '69) made the All-Star team that season.
"Jenkins and I sort of got the short straw that year, but I was never one to complain," he said. "1969 was such an exciting season because we were playing to a full house nearly every home game. Cubs fans are very loyal and we were in a real pennant chase."
The Cubs finished in second place behind the Mets that season, despite going 92-70 and the following season had to settle for another second place finish behind the Pirates. Hands went 18-15 with a 3.70 ERA in 1970 and pitched two more seasons for Chicago before being traded to Minnesota after the 1972 season.
One of the highlights of his career came late in the 1972 season when he pitched a complete game, one-hit shutout against the Montreal Expos.
He is often asked to make an appearance at a local baseball camp and as always, he happily obliges. "It's always fun to meet the kids and offer advice, but I don't have the same presence compared to a current Major League player," he said. Little does he know that our one hour conversation temporarily transformed this reporter back into an awestruck 13-year-old.