By Eric Neel and Andy Behrens
Page 2

Games should come with warning labels. Not the your-tyke-is-going-to-choke-on-the-parts kind. We need something more serious.

We need labels that say, "Listen up, Bub, this game is about to consume you. It's going to be all you think of or talk about. And it's going to burn through your time and money like a brushfire in the drought-ridden Sierras."

There is only one proper way to hold a Clix.

We need labels that say, "Step away from the box, Chief." Labels that shout, "You want this game? You can't handle this game!"

Stuff like that.

We bring this up not because our girls are knee-deep in Clickits and Thomas the Tank Engine, though that's true enough. We bring this up because earlier this summer we rather innocently began playing something called Major League Baseball SportsClix. And our lives haven't been the same since.

Here's how the game is played:

You have a team full of miniature versions of real Major League players -- Prior, Ramirez, Chavez, Schmidt, the works. Almost 300 guys in all. Each of them stands on a green base full of symbols and numbers that approximate their value as a hitter, defender, or pitcher. You roll die to determine the outcome of each at-bat.

They call it Clix because if your guy does something good, you get to "click" his base one notch up to a higher level of performance; and if he stinks up the joint, you have to "click" him down a notch.

Every player's base has a point total that describes his overall value. Guys like Ichiro and A-Rod are on the high-end in the mid-100s. Guys like Mike McDougal and Toby Hall are on the low end, between 40 and 70. And there's a point limit, like a salary cap, for each game. Your nine can't be worth more than 1,000 points total. So if you start Todd Helton (161 points), you're going to have to find a place for somebody like Gary Bennett (68 points) down near the bottom of the batting order.

This means you're constantly tooling and retooling your lineup, looking for the perfect blend of hacks and stalwarts that will add up to a good show, like a community theater director. It also means, after a while, you start to see the world as a cut-throat, Darwinian assemblage in which everyone is assigned a score.

Eric says ...
"Are you playing your little game with Andy," my wife Gwen says as she walks into the office.

She doesn't mean anything when she says, "little." She thinks we're cute. Geekish beyond comprehension, but harmless enough.

I'm huddled over the keyboard, sitting cross-legged on the floor. My guys are standing sentry along the left edge of the playing mat. Andy is in Chicago. I'm in northern California.

"Yeah, check out this Bartolo Colon," I say to her. "Just look at him! The paunch is perfect. You can't put a price on that kind of detail. This isn't some replica of Bartolo Colon. This is Bartolo Colon!"

"Um, yeah," she says. "So when you do think you'll be done?"

"I'll be right there," I whisper anxiously. "I've got Matsui up with runners on first and second. Manny on deck and A-Rod in the hole. Could be a huge inning."

She shakes her head and shuts the door.

I'm lucky she's not thinking about a lawyer.

I roll. Andy rolls. Base hit up the middle!

I jump up, pump my fist. Then type a "Yeah, Baby!" into the IM window.

At least I think she's not thinking about a lawyer.

The Goodyear Blimp provides the aerial view of SportsClix Field.

In the early summer, we play head-to-head games as often as we can. My Jason Schmidt strikes out 19 of his hitters. His A-Rod goes deep on my Arizona Schilling, crushing the little plastic guy's spirit like a can of sodie pop. My Carlos Delgado, warming up after his real-life slow first half, hits three jacks in one game.

The games are good, but we play with a vague sense of unrest. We know there are other players out there. We know our sets are incomplete. And we know the only way to address that is to spend a lot of time in fantasy game shops with guys who wear trench coats, cargo pants, and first-generation Battlestar Galactica t-shirts.

We worry ourselves.

We decide to hold a draft of all the players.

Partial transcript from the draft:

Andy: I'll take Pujols.

Eric: Oh, man. (Blubbering and whimpering.)

Andy: All right. You take Pujols. I'll take, um, Grudzielanek ... if that's all right.

Eric: (Sniffling.)

Andy: You're pathetic.

Eric: But I still get Pujols, right?

Andy: Whatever. I'll take Ichiro, instead. Wait, what's his stance like?

Eric: He's holding the bat aloft, like he's Ali with the Olympic torch in Atlanta.

Andy: Good. Give me Ichiro, then.

A package arrives. It's a brown rectangular carton stamped FRAGILE on all sides. The box is obscenely large, roughly the size of Eric Gregg's old strike zone.

Upon seeing "E Neel" on the return address and detecting an absurd level of enthusiasm, my wife Jen begins to mock.

"I see your little plastic men have arrived."

It's Christmas everyday when you open a Box O' Clix.

"I'm not sharing. Get your own."

For several weeks, a small community of little plastic men have been sitting atop the highest corner of our tallest bookshelf, a safe distance from anything decorative or useful. This box is going to change that. In a big way.

My wife has noticed the plastic men, but hasn't voiced any objections. She's amused. We've been married for 10 years. It isn't as if I've kept my sports geekery a secret. The little men seem to fit nicely into my imaginary sports sub-existence: Nerf hoops in every bedroom, several iterations of Madden football, a diverse portfolio of fantasy teams.

Still, there's something different about SportsClix.

I've never allowed my wife to witness a game. Part of me -- the part that never mentioned Advanced D&D to any girl in junior high -- feels that, perhaps, I've crossed a line. Eric and I can tell ourselves that since the game involves baseball, it's not geeky in the same way that Magic The Gathering is geeky. But retailers keep their SportsClix and their Magic cards in the same display cases. So there is a kinship.

"You want me to leave you alone with your box?" Jen asks.

I'm silent at first, considering various potential responses and their impact on our long-term happiness and my near-term exuberance. I settle upon this witty rejoinder:

"Yes. Yes I do."

Ah, the box. It contains half of the known population of little plastic Clix. Dozens of them.

There's a one-inch tall Edwin Jackson. And there's Edgardo Alfonzo. And Big Papi. Only he's little. And Hee Seop Choi, and perhaps a hundred other small versions of big leaguers, some prominent and others obscure.

Derek Jeter and Joe McEwing are entangled lovingly. It takes nearly a minute to pry them apart. They'd spent several days together in that big, dark cozy box. But I have other plans for them. I'm going to need more shelf space.

I'm giddy. Like it's 1979 and I've just pulled Jim Rice and JR Richard from the same pack of baseball cards.

Note to Topps: When you start making vintage Clix, like J.R. Richard and Jim Rice, well, let's just say, "People will come, Topps. People will come."

Transcript of pre-game instant message, dated July 14, 2004.

Eric: What do you do with your guys when they're not playing?

Andy: They're on display, the way the gods kept their little clay men in "Clash of the Titans." I like the vengeful god/hapless mortal dynamic. The relationship I've always wanted with Sammy but never had. You?

Eric: I've got a velvet-lined box, with cut-outs for each guy to rest in. It's a modified chess set arrangement. Still working on carving an appropriate space for Hideo Nomo in the tornado windup.

Andy: Nice.

Eric: You ever talk to them?

Andy: We just go over game strategy and stuff. Situations, mostly.

Eric: Yeah, us too.

Tim Hudson prepares to deliver the heat.

It's hard to describe the sensation of holding the guys. They're fragile, but you can't really take your hands off of them. The poses compel you.

Rocco Baldelli sprints for a stolen base. David Eckstein is raring back to throw the ball across the diamond, as only he can. Jim Thome's got his arms up in the air, celebrating a home run. Cezar Izturis is diving for a hot shot. Dontrelle's knee lifts high in the wind-up.

You find yourself mimicking them. You stare at them, thinking for just a second that maybe they'll move.

Baseball cards live in a drawer. Fantasy teams are on your laptop. Owning those things is an abstraction.

But Clix are right here in front of you, and you can move them around, and you can set them on your bedstand at night and say good night to them one by one, the way John Boy used to do.

I'm sorry, was that out loud?

Transcript of cell phone calls, Sept. 29, 2004.

Andy to Eric: Where are you? It's 6:15. We were supposed to play at 5:30. Are you dodging me?

Eric to Andy: I'm right here, Skipper. Just picking up some groceries, then making some calls on an Andrei Kirilenko piece, and mowing the lawn. After that, I'm just waiting on you. Bring it on, Ace.

Andy to Eric: Have to pick up Ella, get the car washed, interview Billy Corgan about his fantasy football team. After that, it's on.

Prior, Ichiro, and Lo Duca face off.

Eric to Andy: Where are you? It's 9:15 my time. You hiding out? Don't make me call the land line. Don't make me wake the ladies.

Andy to Eric: It's about 1 my time, now. You sleeping? Whose roll is it? It's mine, right? Juan Pierre gets a Bat+6. You know you weren't guarding the line, so just give me the double now ...

Eric to Andy: Sorry I missed your call. 'T' had my phone. And my dice. But not my Vlad Guerrero, Daddy-O. Juan is hosed. Talk to you tomorrow.

Eric says . . . Topps markets SportsClix to kids. But this is a game for men -- men who played Strat-o-Matic once upon a time, men who remember opening packs of cards with stiff boards of gum in them, men who want to be boys, men who tell themselves this is all in good fun, men who track games in scorebooks at the ballpark, men who collect ticket stubs, signed balls, and sweaty wristbands, men who wear jerseys with their favorite players' names and numbers on them ... to work.

The game is a brilliant mix of strategies. You determine batting order, defensive positioning, and whether to hit for contact or power. So it's strategy and chance -- the roll of the dice, the proper wrist action, the appropriate rolling surface. Which is to say, the game is like real baseball. You tweak your lineup like LaRussa, and you hold your breath like LaRussa too.

When we were young, and free time was the only time we knew, we would have Clixed in the lazy hours after school and on weekends, blowing off homework, playing through dinner and tracking our guys' stats on hand-lined spreadsheets.

Those days are long gone.

We use Excel now.

And time, like a 1-2-3 inning from Mike Timlin, is a rare and wonderful thing.

We travel with our Clix (sheepishly explaining their odd shape to TSA officials during luggage screening). We carry lineup cards in our wallets. We work out double-switch scenarios while driving.

We get up early to Clix. And the time zones work against us.

I set my alarm for 5 a.m., pull the box of guys from under my bed and stumble to the computer in the blue-black of dawn ... just to find Andy with maybe 20 minutes until his daughter, Ella, needs feeding and dressing and such.

The cat wants out.

The fridge is empty.

Jamie Moyer gives up back-to-back singles to start the first inning.

It's a lonely life.

Get ready to grip it and Clix it with Palmeiro and Kendall.

Andy says ...
A glossy baseball diamond is spread across my desk. Nine little men are positioned more-or-less appropriately according to the hitting tendencies of Eric's leadoff man, Robby Alomar. Dice are rolling. Terse IMs are being exchanged. We're in the late innings of a pitcher's duel between Prior and Halladay.

Suddenly, my three-year-old daughter snatches J.D. Drew from right field, then pulls herself on top of the desk.

"Daddy, I want to play with your Cubbies."

She refers to all athletes, real or imagined, as "Cubbies." Later in life, she'll discover this term applies only to old, disappointing athletes. But for now, the broad brush is cute. We let it go.

I've been confronted with this situation many times: Ella thinks I'm playing a game. She wants to play, too. I need a quick distraction.

That's where the little plastic Kaz Sasaki is helpful. And Preston Wilson. And Toby Hall. And Carl Everett. And Chris Stynes.

I give Ella a small group of unwanted Clix that she can use for her own dark purposes. They'll distract her. She can think she's playing dad's game. Meanwhile, her dad will return to the serious business of crushing Tess's daddy.

"Here are some Cubbies for you, Hon."

I see the irony in this immediately: Wilson, Everett, Hall. I'm probably handing my daughter the core of the Cubs' 2006 batting order. But I don't have time to fret about that right now. I'm rolling dice, dealing with Alomar.

"Thanks, Daddy."

As Ella climbs off the desk, her foot catches a bin containing most of my non-roster and duplicate Clix. The bin falls to the wood floor with a horrible crash.

"Uh-oh," she says. "Sorry."

"It's OK," I say.

But it isn't OK. It's very far from OK. Those are my little men in there. No, they aren't my best little men, but they're part of the farm system. Immediately, the game is suspended so that I can take an inventory of the carnage. Eric understands.

Gary Sheffield broke his bat. Austin Kearns lost his little head. Curt Schilling's left arm was sheared off at the shoulder -- good thing the real Curt Schilling could still pitch in this condition.

"Can I have this?" asks Ella, curiously examining the severed head of Austin Kearns.

"You really want the head?"

"Yeah!" she chirps.

Days later, I discover it wedged in the mouth of a small plastic triceratops, at the top of a bucket of toy dinosaurs. Gotta remember to teach her about plant-eaters and carnivores.

David Eckstein winds up to Clix into action.

We want our daughters to love baseball as much as we do. And when the time is right -- like, say, when our wills are read aloud before a crowded office full of grieving family -- we want our girls to enjoy our Clix as much as we do.

But it's hard. The girls are young. Their motor skills are sketchy. They know nothing of the history of the game yet.

Tess and I are memorizing names, though.

"Is this Eric?" she says, holding up Eric Chavez, always by his base, just like I taught her.

Like Ella, she wants her own.

I've got two Chavezes, so I loan her one. And, like Ella, she gets a Chris Stynes, one of my four A.J. Pierzynskis (all of whom are bouncing into a double play somewhere right now), and my extra Jay Gibbons, too.

She trundles off happily, and sets them up in her doll house.

I'm torn. On the one hand, I've got breathing room. Andy and I can get an inning in, maybe two, before she tires of this and comes calling for more of my guys and more of my attention. On the other hand, it saddens me just a little to see even A.J., for whom I feel nothing but a fan's contempt, sitting idly on the third floor of the doll house, dwarfed by a stuffed bunny in a Laura Ingalls Wilder hat.

So there I am, preparing to roll my die, knowing I need to seize this opportunity, knowing Halladay needs my full support. And my head isn't quite in it because 'T' is mis-using the guys.

Then, like a bolt, she comes running back over to me and says:

"Daddy, can I have a pitcher? Eric needs someone to throw to him or else he can't swing his bat."

I give her my extra Barry Zito.

She's earned it.

My heart swells.

Transcript of e-mail, October 22, 2004

From: Andy Behrens
To: Eric Neel
Subject line: Priorities

"Are you thinking of your guys right now? Because you can be sure I'm thinking of your guys right now."

Eric says ...
There ought to be sacrifices for something you love.

You ought to be crazy.

Never underestimate Rocco Baldelli -- the pride of Rhode Island.

I love Clix all the more because we get to play it in snatches, because it's time stolen out of the rest of the day.

It's time that feels so much like time I've known my whole life, when things slow down just a little and your head isn't a distracted juggling bear on a bike. Instead, it's a beam, pointed right at the guys on your squad and focused on what they're doing for you.

There's a long-lost simplicity about it, really. Clix is better than XBox. It moves at the pace of memory, at the pace of baseball.

I figure Gwen would find this somewhere way beyond cute, somewhere out there near sad, actually. But when Andy and I play, even in this harried way we do, I find myself thinking of the future.

I see easy afternoons again some day. I see a time when we'll be playing on one table and Ella and Tess will be playing on the one next to us.

I find myself thinking about Clix 2009 and 2019, about busting out the old guys of 2004, about blowing the dust off the little Mike Mussina guy and setting out the Torii Hunter and the Carlos Beltran, and trying to decide who I'll start today, trying to get a feeling.

I'm sick for the Clix, no doubt. So sick I say they do me good.

Andy says ...
Frankly, Eric scares me a little when he talks like this. He gets tired, starts to wax philosophic. Usually happens when we go into extra innings.

Me, I don't want to see Ella and Tess, as adults, seated at a table with their drooling fathers, rolling dice and moving little plastic men. But that's just me.

I tell you what I do want, though. I want to see some of those 1979 retro Clix. I want my Eric Gagne to knock Eric's Joe Mauer on his bonus-baby backside. I want to win Game 1 of the World Series we're playing in conjunction with the one the Sox and Cardinals are playing right now. I want world enough and time to work out the kinks in the stadium I'm building for my team. I want to think and re-think my 25-man roster. I want to start a league, and hold winter meetings, and steal away Eric's Albert Pujols during the free-agent signing period.

And if any of this is wrong, well, then I don't want to be right.

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. His "On Baseball" column appears weekly.

Andy Behrens is a freelance writer in Chicago.