The Immaculate Grid Is the Hottest Thing in Baseball

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 homer in Detroit; a triumphant Tony Gwynn sliding in for the winning run in Pittsburgh; a stately Cal Ripken Jr. blasting a homer in his All-Star farewell in Seattle.

Those Hall of Famers — like Stan Musial, Derek Jeter and so many other greats — had something in common: Except for the All-Star Game, they never changed teams. That singular identity gives their stars extra glimmer, but largely removes them from a new game sweeping the baseball landscape.

The name is Immaculate Grid, and with apologies to the surging Atlanta Braves — who had eight selections for the National League’s team in Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Seattle — it’s the hottest thing going in the sport.

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 every weekday.

“I thought it would be one of those niche games with a small following,” Minter said in a phone interview. “But not like this.”

Players are permitted just nine guesses to fill the nine boxes with answers that correspond to categories listed across the top and down the left side. Most of those categories are teams, so correct answers are anybody who played for the franchises listed atop and beside each square.

As online brain teasers go, it is a perfect match for Baseball Reference, which bought the site on Tuesday for an undisclosed sum. It is also a victory for well-traveled former big leaguers everywhere.

“I love it,” said Mike Cameron, the former outfielder who coached in the Futures Game in Seattle on Saturday and played for eight teams across 17 seasons. “I think of all the guys I played against and my mind starts to turn. I played in every division against every team, and I had a lot of teammates from the start. My first couple of years, all I did was sit on the bench and watch, so I know a lot of those guys.”

Todd Greene, a former catcher for six teams from 1996 through 2006, plays every day, comparing grids with his two sons and son-in-law. He has used himself twice, and said he playfully scolded his family members for not doing so.

“I try to fill it with backup catchers from when I played,” Greene said. “We all bounced around a little bit. At first I was just trying to get all nine answers, but now I take more time.”

Minter, 29, had seen similar games online, but wanted to see if he could make an automated grid by using a new JavaScript framework and a different hosting provider. It worked, giving players an instant rush when a correct answer pops into the grid in the form of the player’s headshot. Until Tuesday, only prominent players tended to have actual photos, conferring an unofficial status symbol on their careers.

“It’s like: You played, but let’s not get too excited,” said C.J. Nitkowski, a former reliever for eight teams, 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 atop their statistics page on the website when selected in the grid. The new host also offers a complete list of all possible answers for each box, but otherwise the game has the clean, simple setup that Minter has used since he started it this spring.

“The main goal is not to mess it up,” said Sean Forman, the president of Sports Reference, the parent company of Baseball Reference and the keepers of statistical data for several sports. “It’s incredibly rare to have a product that fits with our audience so well, so quickly. We want to build it out on our other sites — basketball and football are no-brainers — and we’re trying to launch those as soon as possible.”

Forman noticed Minter’s site earlier this season, when visitors to Baseball Reference’s “multi-franchise” tool exploded.

“It was getting almost no traffic two months ago,” Forman said, “and now it’s one of the top five visited pages every day.”

That could imply that some users cheat, yet most players do stumble someplace; the average score on Tuesday — in a one-time afternoon bonus grid — was 6.9 out of 9. Minter said he realized last month that adding a rarity score (the lower the better) would entice players to seek the most obscure answers possible instead of merely completing the grid.

The site immediately calculates how popular each answer has been that day. By late afternoon on Tuesday, for example, 50 percent of users had picked Gerrit Cole, the American League’s starting pitcher Tuesday, for the Astros/Yankees square, but only 0.01 percent of users had chosen Nitkowski, who played one season for Houston and two months for the Yankees.

The sum total of the nine answers — with a 100-point penalty for a missed box — creates the rarity score.

“The other side of the rarity score is, instead of trying to get the worst guy in every spot, can you get the one who’s most popular?” Nitkowski said. “I think it’s fun both ways.”

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 about a lot,” Minter said. “For Astros/Yankees, immediately I thought of Gerrit Cole. But it’s fun to think of those older players. It gives you a sense of nostalgia and a reason to flip through those mental baseball cards.”

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