06 November 2016

World Series Lessons - a Personal Essay

I'm 54 years old. I grew up on the north(west) side of Chicago, about 8 1/2 miles from Wrigley Field, and have been a Cubs fan as long as I can remember. I have memories of the 1969 season, when I was 7, and my father took me to my first game at Wrigley the following year. Since then, I've seen 52 other games in Wrigley Field (I moved away from Chicago for school and work in 1979) and have seen the Cubs play road games in 9 other stadiums.

So, the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series was a big deal to me. When I found out that the Cubs had won, by checking my phone at 2:00 AM after waking up after I had gone to bed after the top of the ninth in Game 7, my mind began racing. After I recovered from my initial shock, I started thinking about baseball in general. Many of my thoughts aren't Cubs-fan-specific, and I thought I'd share these with you. To paraphrase Rex Stout, a mystery writer whose most-famous creation was Nero Wolfe, this article may irritate or bore you, but I hope that it either gives you pleasure or gives you something to think about.

Baseball, and sports in general, do matter. Many curmudgeons - or maybe just people who don't appreciate spectator sports - complain that athletes are paid too much, too much tax money is spent on stadiums, traffic control for sporting events, etc. etc. But, on an individual basis, spectator sports can serve as a necessary break, a diversion from our everyday stresses such as paying bills, meeting job deadlines, dealing with recalcitrant children, etc. We need such diversions to refresh our spirits, or perhaps even to give us something to look forward to during our workdays.

But the 2016 Cubs went beyond that. For this past month, all Cubs fans were one united community,  sharing joys and woes with each other. Two Sundays ago, the day after the Cubs won the National League pennant, I wore a Cubs t-shirt to a church luncheon; parishioners I did not know started conversations with me about the Cubs. The Cubs provided my brother and I with hours of emails and conversations. Long-lost friends reached out and expressed their good wishes. Thanks to all of you.

So, Orioles fans, enjoy the games. Go to Camden Yards with some friends. Join in the cheering. Talk about the Orioles to fans you know who live far away. It's all good.

Baseball, and sports in general, should be kept in perspective. Twice I went to bed for the night with the Cubs game tied. Those nights were among the worst night's sleeps I've had when I haven't been physically ill - I dreamt four separate times that I checked my phone to see the score. And the results were different each time. When I finally woke up for real, the first thing I did, before saying "Good Morning" to my wife, was to check my phone for the score. After a while, I realized that the Cubs had become too important to me, that it was taking over my life. I am working to put baseball and the Cubs back in their proper places. I'm trying to spend more time with my wife. I'm trying to limit my checking of baseball web sites to two or three times a day.

So, readers, let it go. Do something else with your free time on occasion. Don't let your fandom run your life. It shouldn't be the most important thing in your life.

We don't know as much about baseball as we'd like to think. By and large, Camden Depot is an analytical site. We gather data, draw conclusions, and think we understand how baseball games should be won or lost. It may seem sometimes that we're disappointed if our negative predictions about the Orioles don't come true, that we'd rather be right than have the Orioles win.

As I was watching the postseason, it struck me that baseball is far, far more complicated than we make it out to be. Take one example - the oft-repeated statement that batter's strikeouts don't matter, that there is at best a negligible cost to a strikeout. But in the top of the first inning of game 6 of the World Series, Addison Russell hit a fly ball to right-center field that should have been a routine third out. But, as we know, neither Tyler Naquin nor Lonnie Chisenhall caught the ball and two runs scored. If Russell had struck out, those runs wouldn't have scored.

I've seen the studies that show that a strikeout is negligibly worse than other outs. But those studies don't account for balls put in play that might be outs but aren't. They don't account for the presumed loss of extra-base hits if pitches are hit less than perfectly square. They don't account for walks. So while the literal statement "Strikeouts have virtually the same impact as ground outs or fly outs" is probably true, the generalization "Batter's strikeouts don't matter" doesn't directly follow.

So, writers - not just Camden Depot writers, but all writers on baseball, be humble. Acknowledge that we don't know as much as we want to, and that much of what we want to know is unknowable. Don't overgeneralize.

Baseball is meant to be enjoyable. And it's more enjoyable when the team you root for is doing well. I hope that all of you have really enjoyed and appreciate the last five years, in which the Orioles have done well. And I hope that the Orioles continue to do well, even when I think they're not doing things the right way.


vilnius b. said...

Nice article. First of all, I want to say how happy I am for all of you Cubs fans! That's a great team with some incredibly loyal and patient fans. I read somewhere that Cubs fans have been dumping the ashes of loved ones on Wrigley Field now that they've finally secured a world championship. Amazing devotion to the team! There won't be any more "Wait until next year" utterances from their fans for awhile I guess. Some other team will have to take up that doleful cry now.
And thanks for reminding us about keeping the game in perspective. I'm 60 yrs. old and I can remember how crushed I felt after the Orioles squandered a three games to one lead to the Pirates in the '79 World Series. But, you know, life went on and the disappointment of that year and the very close pennant races of '80 and '82 melted away with our victory over the Phillies in the '83 WS.
And I'll admit that I was somewhat disappointed that Mike Mussina---one of my all time favorite Orioles---never made it to the World Series as an Oriole. He certainly deserved to in 1997, when he was terrific in the postseason. But by then I had seen enough relatives, friends and lovers die premature deaths (relative to our current longer life spans in general), so it's been nothing but a game for me for a very long time. Still, it's a great distraction from personal physical ills and the bad news of the world.
If I disagree with you on anything it's about the strikeout comment. Sure, if Russell hadn't made contact and that ball hadn't dropped between three fielders (really bad communication there), maybe the series would've ended differently. But how many times have you seen a really hard struck ball end up as a double play, either because it was hit on the ground right at somebody or because somebody made a terrific play of snaring a line drive? (Which reminds me, where do the 2016 Cubs rank among the best fielding teams of all time? So many great plays from just about every position on the field.)

Pip said...

I appreciate and agree with everything you've said. The most exciting game with a positive outcome for me was the 14 wildcard game between the Royals and the athletics, I was mildly rooting for the Royals, but I got so into the game, I was constantly getting out of bed to check the score on my phone.
The most exciting negative game for me was game six of the 2011 World Series. Ron Washington's terrible managering ruined the Rangers for me.
But yes, very exciting, and yes, completely valid. People don't understand that baseball isn't a slow game, it's nothing, and then, for a split second, or for five or 10 or 20 split second, it is incredibly something. We wait for that something. What a great game! the Rangers are still waiting, and the Astros, the Mariners, the Rockies, and that's why we play the game.

whjoe said...

hey joe,
I am 54 as well grew up in md. hated the senators. I would come home and pick up the
evening star look at box scores. go outside play wiffleball. I was the cubs. banks, santo, hundly, kessinger. Ernie Banks is still in my personal big 5. 1970, wiffleball, cubs. Now that was good times. Thanks for the memory!