The nostalgic allure of 'Immaculate Grid' makes obsessives of MLB players, fans alike

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The nostalgic allure of 'Immaculate Grid' makes obsessives of MLB players, fans alike

Brian Minter created Immaculate Grid, and even he didn’t get an immaculate score the first time he played.

The tweet is still there, even if the actual puzzle is lost to the internet:

Having claimed both the URL and the Twitter handle of ImmaculateGrid, the 29-year-old Atlanta-area software developer tweeted out his results in the automated game he created. He got eight out of nine correct.

“The first one doesn’t exist anywhere,” Minter said Tuesday, the day it was announced that he’d sold his game to Sports Reference LLC, the parent company of Baseball-Reference.com.

The game officially launched on April 4, the sixth day of this baseball season. Minter made the game to test out some new technology he was playing with. He’d seen grid games online and decided to try his hand at one.

Like Wordle or Sudoku for baseball fans, the grid has three rows and three columns. Each row and column has an MLB team logo or a statistic or award. Players have to fill in each box with a player who fits both categories, having played for both teams, reached a statistical milestone or won an award.

“I think what makes it so perfect is because of the format, it gives it such great variance in difficulty because it gives something for everybody,” said Jordan Shusterman, half of the Twitter team Céspedes Family Barbecue and a writer for Fox Sports. “The casual fan can do it and it can indulge the ultimate dorkiness that is internet baseball fandom in 2023.”

In the testing phase, Minter had only teams as a category until his younger brother, Steven, suggested statistical achievements and awards.

For a while, the grid was automated, but Minter found that it would repeat categories, so he now creates each grid “by hand” so that there aren’t repeats.

Creating the grid means he doesn’t actually play any longer, but he does love hearing from his brother, father and father-in-law when they have a particularly random player used on the grid.

“(It) allows us to indulge in a bit of nostalgia about the players we grew up watching or the baseball cards we collected,” Minter said. “And there’s a little bit of pride in that when you’re able to recall that. And so I think that’s kind of the magic sauce of it.”

Sean Forman, president of Sports Reference LLC, was particularly proud of a recent use of Scott Leius, an infielder who had played for both Cleveland and Kansas City in the 1990s.

You’d assume Forman, who created Baseball-Reference.com, would be a ringer in the game. The Scott Leius pull aside, Forman said he’s probably better than average, but not exceptional.

“I hope I’m better than average, but I feel like over the years I’ve downloaded a lot of my baseball memory into the site,” Forman said. “I’ve let go of a lot of the information that I might have kept a little closer, knowing that I can find it whenever I need it.”

Immaculate Grid can now be found on Forman’s website. Tuesday was the first day that Minter released two grids — the first in the morning, as usual, and the second coinciding with the press release announcing that he’d sold the game to Forman’s company.

For now, Minter will continue to make the grids by hand, but doesn’t have a long-term plan for his involvement.

Forman, though, does. He wants to expand the game into other sports, including football, basketball and soccer. It fits right in with the nature of the sports reference websites. Minter may even get to play. The Georgia Tech graduate said his football knowledge is probably his strongest after baseball, but it’s a distant second in his fandom.

While the first grid isn’t available online, the second is. Right there in the Twitter feed is Grid No. 2, with Yankees and Nationals (you can count Yankees manager Aaron Boone, an Immaculate Grid player, as a correct answer.)

While the game first launched in April, it was mostly for Minter and his friends. He remembers the May 15 tweet of the day’s statistics that had 10 players.

That’s about where he thought it would stay, until one of his brother’s friends put the game on Reddit. The site got more traffic. It truly exploded in the internet baseball world after the Twitter account @FoolishBB shared it on June 13. Minter really knew he had something when one of his favorite podcasts, “Baseball Bar-B-Cast,” hosted by Shusterman and his partner Jake Mintz, mentioned his game.

“The key to good trivia, for people who aren’t going on Jeopardy!, is that it’s not too easy or too hard,” Shusterman said. “This is perfect. You can both remember some guys and find out who had 200 hits in a season.”

Boone said on the “Talkin’ Yanks” podcast that the Yankees clubhouse was obsessed with the game, as was he.

Boone discussed not just getting all nine boxes filled on nine guesses (it is an “immaculate” grid, after all, and an immaculate inning is striking out the side on nine pitches), but then graduating on to the rarity score.

That rarity score is part of the evolution of the game. At first, scoring was simple: how many you got right in the nine guesses. After that came the individual rarity scores, with each guess revealing just how popular your answer was with all players. That led to the total rarity score, adding up the percentages of each guess, which can now be shared on Twitter.

That rarity score came out of the way fans played the game; it was the users, not Minter, who were finding ways to compete beyond the basics. Still, you can play the game however you like. The rarity score just offers more of a challenge.

This fits, as Shusterman noted, both the casual players and the dorkiest of the baseball dorks who remember Steve Farr’s baseball card with Cleveland and then the disappointment of seeing a Royals card emerge from a pack only to find out it was Farr, a journeyman reliever, and not George Brett. But at least, 38 years later, Farr comes in handy (for reference, he also played for the Yankees and Red Sox. You’re welcome.)

Now that it’s part of Baseball-Reference, the first addition to the game was a link to all possible answers, made possible thanks to the website’s infrastructure.

Forman was at last week’s Society for American Baseball Research Convention in Chicago, and Immaculate Grid bragging was in full force. Although Tuesday’s announcement was already in the works, he couldn’t talk about it yet.

One of Forman’s friends, Chris Jaffe, had an ace up his sleeve, knowing the Matt Stairs played for all four of the 1969 expansion franchises, so he was just waiting to use Stairs for the Royals, Padres, Nationals (Expos count, and Stairs played for both the Expos and Nationals) or Brewers (Seattle Pilots). Stairs played for 12 different organizations in total. So, Forman said, he’s been thinking about memorizing all the teams of Edwin Jackson or Octavio Dotel, as kind of a chess opening move or Wordle starter word. Jackson played for a record 14 teams, breaking Dotel’s record of 13.

(Editor’s note: Jackson played for the Rays, Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, Tigers, White Sox, Diamondbacks, Braves, Cardinals, A’s, Padres, Orioles, Marlins and Blue Jays. Dotel played for Astros, A’s, Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Mets, Rockies, Pirates, Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Yankees and Blue Jays.)

The ability to set your own definition of a win is part of the appeal, as is the social aspect, like Wordle before it. Forman plans on monetizing the game by putting an ad on the page. He’s also seen an uptick in traffic on certain days, as players research answers or simply remember some guys as a result of playing. Subscribers may get access to older puzzles.

There shouldn’t be too many changes, Forman said, because the game stands on its own. While there are those on Twitter bragging about their rarity scores of 1 or 2, Forman said nine-of-nine is where he finds his satisfaction.

“To be honest with you, it’s enough of a struggle for me that I’m mostly happy to get it correct every day,” Forman said. “But being my age, the rarity score comes on its own for free.”

(Top image: Ray Orr / The Athletic; screenshot courtesy of Sports Reference)