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Hayden Goethe, Published February 09 2014

West Fargo man keeps 1980s-style baseball league up and running

West Fargo - As he watched Jose Bautista round the bases after hitting a pinch-hit home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Jim Pettersen pumped his arms into the air while Todd Clark couldn’t hide the disgust on his face.

This scene – someone celebrating while surrounded by friends after seeing a home run – plays out in man caves all of the time.

But it’s the platform on which the home run occurred that makes what George Ellis provides during the winter so unusual.

Ellis, 68, is in his 27th season running the Computer Baseball League, which is a baseball simulation league that runs on a game called “Micro League Baseball.” The 10 league owners meet each Wednesday during the Major League Baseball offseason in Ellis’ basement in West Fargo to play out their games.

“Not everyone can say they have something exciting to do every Wednesday,” said Linda Ellis, George’s wife.

“Micro League Baseball” was first developed in the mid-1980s for computers and video-game systems such as Atari. The quality of the game’s graphics are similar to what you might find on early Nintendo games like “RBI Baseball.”

Ellis, who serves as chairman of the Fargo American Legion baseball program’s Board of Directors, believes the last time the game was updated was in the early 1990s before it was bought out by a competitor.

Ever since then, Ellis has single-handedly kept the league alive, updating his version of the game with players and statistics from the previous season. Ellis estimates that it takes him 80 to 90 hours during the summer just to set up the league for its winter season.

During the CBL season, Ellis puts together a 38-page newsletter each week recapping the previous week’s games with updated standings and season statistics.

One doesn’t have to go deep into Ellis’ baseball memorabilia-filled basement to see the multiple computers and printers hooked up that keep the CBL in operation. He keeps standings live on a felt board with numbers.

Ellis strolled from game to game on a recent Wednesday night not just to update the standings but also because he has a rooting interest in the games. His team, the Cincinnati Reds, were still fighting for a playoff spot.

“Do you think Bud Selig stands behind (Twins manager Ron) Gardenhire and says, ‘C’mon Gardy,’ ” said Clark, who is better known as radio host Jack Michaels.

The league may have been unusual three decades ago. The fact that the game is still being played now – with this much work going into it to keep it updated – is surprising for some of the participants.

“I am shocked at how much time he puts in,” said Wayne Budke, who manages the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the CBL.

And while the CBL operates like a video game league, the managers of teams don’t push buttons to swing a bat or throw a pitch. Instead, they enter key codes on offense and defense every time a new batter comes to the plate.

For example, on offense there are codes for “swing away, aggressive run” or “hit and run.” On defense, the play card includes “infield in at corners” or “pitch around.”

This keeps the 10 managers, who pay an annual $75 entry fee, very much involved not just in roster management but also game management.

The lengths that Ellis – formerly the sports information director at North Dakota State – goes to keep the league running are often equaled by the lengths some owners would go in order to attend every Wednesday night.

Kyle Richardson, who manages the CBL’s Washington Nationals, showed up one night during the league’s trade deadline after the birth of his child.

“After 45 minutes, my wife called and said, ‘Are you still there? You said you were just stopping by,’ ” Richardson recalled, which drew plenty of laughs from the other managers.

The league started in 1988, with Ellis and Pettersen the only remaining original members.

The venues to host the CBL have changed over the years, with previous seasons being played on campus at NDSU and in the press box at Newman Outdoor Field before finally winding up at Ellis’ house.

Ellis says he even reached out to the company that created “Micro League Baseball” roughly 20 years ago to tell them about his league.

“When I put out this newsletter before the company closed, they were kind of shocked,” Ellis said.

The league isn’t without its quirks. Ellis admits that when things go wrong with the game, sometimes there’s nothing he can do.

“I can’t get any tech support because the game no longer is in existence,” Ellis said.

Richardson reviewed the box score from one of his games after its completion and noticed a run missing from the individual portion of the box.

“That’s what happens when you’re playing with equipment from the early ’60s,” he said, exaggerating a bit.

Readers can reach Forum Assistant Sports Editor

Hayden Goethe at (701) 241-5558