They are indelible All-Star snapshots, midsummer memories for a sport steeped in tradition: a boyish Ted Williams clapping in delight after his walk-off home run in Detroit; a triumphant Tony Gwynn sliding in for the winning run in Pittsburgh; majestic Cal Ripken Jr. blasting a home run in his All-Star farewell in Seattle.
Those Hall of Famers – like Stan Musial, Derek Jeter and so many other greats – had one thing in common: Except for the All-Star Game, they never changed teams. That singular identity gives their stars extra shine, but mostly removes them from a new game sweeping the baseball landscape.
The name is Immaculate Gridand with apologies to the surging Atlanta Braves — who had eight picks for the National League team in Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Seattle — it’s the hottest thing in sports.
The grid — named for the immaculate inning in which a pitcher strikes out the side on nine pitches — is a daily quiz in the form of a tic-tac-toe board designed by Brian Minter, a software developer in suburban Atlanta. He said the game averages about 200,000 players each weekday.
“I thought it was going to be one of those niche games with a small following,” Minter said in a phone interview. “But not like this.”
Players are only allowed nine guesses to fill in the nine boxes with answers that correspond to categories listed across the top and bottom left side. Most of those categories are teams, so correct answers are anyone who played for the franchises listed on and next to each square.
As online brain teasers go, it’s a perfect match for Baseball Reference, which bought the site on Tuesday for an undisclosed sum. It’s also a win for well-traveled former big leaguers everywhere.
“I love it,” said Mike Cameron, the former outfielder who coached in the Future Game in Seattle on Saturday and played for eight teams over 17 seasons. “I think about all the guys I played against and my mind starts spinning. I played in every division against every team, and I had a lot of teammates from the beginning. My first two years, all I did was sit on the bench and look, so I know a lot of those guys.”
Todd Greene, a former catcher for six teams from 1996 through 2006, plays every day, comparing gridirons with his two sons and son-in-law. He used himself twice, and said he playfully scolded his family members for not doing so.
“I’ve been trying to fill it with backup catchers since I’ve been playing,” Greene said. “We all jumped around a little bit. At first I just tried to get all nine answers, but now I’m taking more time.”
“It’s like: You played, but let’s not get too excited,” said CJ Nitkowski, a former eight-team assistant who turned his blank headshot into his Twitter profile picture. “But our time has come, for people who know.”
After the sale to Baseball-Reference, almost every player now has an actual headshot that matches the one on their stats page on the website when they are selected on the gridiron. The new host also offers a complete list of all possible answers for each box, but otherwise the game has the clean, simple layout that Minter has been using since he started it this spring.
“The main goal is not to screw it up,” said Sean Forman, the president of Sports Reference, the parent company of Baseball Reference and the custodians of statistical data for several sports. “It’s incredibly rare to have a product that fits our audience so well, so quickly. We want to build it on top of our other sites — basketball and football are a no-brainer — and we’re trying to launch those as soon as possible.”
Forman noticed Minter’s website earlier this season when visitors to Baseball Reference’s “multi-franchise” tool exploded.
“It got almost no traffic two months ago,” said Forman, “and now it’s one of the five most visited pages every day.”
This might imply that some users cheat, however most players stumble somewhere; the average score on Tuesday — in a one-time afternoon bonus — was 6.9 out of 9. Minter said he noticed last month that adding rarity (the lower the better) would entice players to look for the most obscure answers possible instead of. simply completing the grid.
The site instantly calculates how popular each answer was that day. By late afternoon Tuesday, for example, 50 percent of users picked Gerrit Cole, the American League starting pitcher Tuesday, for the Astros/Yankees square off, but only 0.01 percent of users picked Nitkowski, who played one season for Houston and two. months for the Yankees.
The sum of the nine answers – with a 100-point penalty for a missed box – creates the rarity.
“The other side of the rarity score is, instead of trying to get the baddest guy in every place, can you get the one who’s most popular?” Nitkowski said. “I think it’s fun on both sides.”
If the All-Star Game is a showcase for baseball’s best, then the rarest Immaculate Grid boards represent the opposite: places to honor the more random names among the 23,000 or so to ever play in the majors.
“It gives you the opportunity to remember players you haven’t thought much about,” Minter said. “For Astros/Yankees, I immediately thought of Gerrit Cole. But it’s fun to think about those older players. It gives you a sense of nostalgia and a reason to look through those mental baseball cards.”