RBI Baseball Week Post #2 – “Jimmy Key: The Best NES Athlete In History” by Danny Lee

I asked five of my friends if they would write an essay about a mystery topic. I wouldn’t tell them what it was unless they agreed to do it, but assured them it would be something they’d enjoy writing about. All five said yes. The topic was RBI Baseball, a 1987 Nintendo game that I’ve spent hundreds hours playing with all of them. Here is the second entry, by Danny Lee

Read all the essays in the series here

If you grew up in the 80’s, your life was dominated by the NES.  You or a friend may have owned an Atari or a Commodore 64 but once the NES arrived, life changed.  The colors, the speed, the music – it was perfect.  The speed at which new games would be rolled out was incredible.  My parents knew that the promise of going to the Toys ‘R Us to peruse the expanding NES aisle was the ultimate reward for good behavior.  They had everything – the Mario series, Zelda, Ninja Gaiden, etc., but sports games were an infinitely better product – the controllers were more sensitive making you feel more in control of the player.  And of those sports games, two games would define almost every boy’s childhood – Tecmo Bowl and RBI Baseball.

Tecmo Bowl appeared to have everything.  Real teams, real players, a playbook to pick from.  And it had Bo Jackson – to this day considered to be the best video game athlete in history.  I would ban friends from using the Raiders because it was just too easy to win with them.  It almost did not require any skill – choose the Raiders and have Bo run all over the opposing defense, and then get lucky by choosing one of the 8 plays that your opponent can choose from on offense.  Sure it was fun, but it was never truly satisfying.

Then there was RBI Baseball.  Again, real teams and real players but with this game, there was no playbook.  You had to control each pitch, swing each at bat, run each base, and make each throw on every play.  Sure you had a selection of American and National League teams, but the best game was the All Star game, Am vs Na.  My best friend Conor and I started playing AmNa when we were kids, played it throughout our freshman year dorm room in college, to even now in our 30’s when I visit him in California.  And it is always the same – I use Am, he uses Na.  We always make the same substitutions, even knowing when to hit pause before the other requests it so that he can make a change.  We started to use the same nicknames for every player to the point where I can’t say Galar-Mutha Fuckin-raga, or “Dalay” Murphy any other way.  Over the past two decades, Conor and I have played at least 5,000 games of AmNa.  We are very good at this game.  The National League team is known to be a better overall team and most players would pick them if playing an All Star game.  But how then would I have a 90% winning percentage over Conor, always using Am?  Because of Left Handed Pitcher Jimmy Key.

I mastered one pitch – a medium speed curve that would catch the back corner of the plate, and could be thrown to right or left handed hitters.  Jimmy Key could throw these for at least 6 innings without getting tired.  I would get into a zone with Jimmy Key, where I could look away from the screen and stare right at Conor’s face, press A, and listen for the whistled strike call or missed swing.  Even as I’m writing this I can see the perplexed scowl on Conor’s face wondering whether or not that pitch is going to curve in or stay just outside the reach of his bat.  I remember the frustration in Conor’s voice yelling “Why?!” or “How?!” when his pitcher, Fernando Valenzuela, would start to lose steam in the fourth or fifth inning, while Jimmy Key would motor on into the seventh by pretty much throwing just one pitch.  To put this in perspective – if we’ve played 5,000 games of AmNa, and Jimmy Key averaged 100 pitches a game, that is 500,000 times that Conor has seen this pitch and he still can’t hit it.

And that is the difference between Jimmy Key and Bo Jackson.  Anyone can pick up a controller, select the Raiders, and have Bo tear the field up because the system has it wired in for him to do just that.  But there is no satisfaction in that.  Manually manipulating each pitch throughout an entire game, seeing your opponent’s mouth curl in helpless anger – that makes you feel closer to the game and closer to the player, the Key player in all of video game sports.

Eh?? Get it?  See what I did there?  Seriously, feel free to remove that line.  I really wanted to end it as cheezy as possible though.

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