FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from

Monday, December 15, 2003

Baseball As Context (Part V)

This is part V of my essay "Baseball As Context"

Like Sandburg (Carl, not Ryne), during these years I read and collected everything I could get my hands on that was baseball related. Ted Williams’ The Science of Hitting and a book on pitching by Ferguson Jenkins stands out. In particular, and like any red blooded American kid, I collected baseball cards. My first card was a 1976 Walt Williams, fondly nicknamed "No-neck" because his head seemed to sit directly atop his shoulders. From that auspicious beginning my brother and I collected over 10,000 cards, many of which I still have and the most cherished of those hang on the walls of my office as I write this. Unlike kids who today put cards neatly into plastic holders to protect their value (although I could never understand the interest in putting cards in bicycle spokes, which would ruin their appearance), we valued them primarily for the wealth of statistics on the back. We poured over the cards daily and gleaned all sorts of important facts like the following gem. The Topps 1974 Richie Hebner card informed us that Hebner dug graves in the offeason in order to keep in shape (remember that this was the era before the reserve clause was upended and in which players often had to work during the offseason)[1].

Our favorite activity, however, was attempting to put together full teams and then arranging the cards in their respective positions. Of course, our biggest concern was building a team of Cubs and much to our disappointment we could never seem to find a shortstop. It turns out that neither could the Cubs until DeJesus secured the position from 1977-1980 after coming over in a trade along with Bill Buckner for Rick Monday (one of the better Cubs trades I might add, falling in behind the deal for Ryne Sandberg with the Phillies, and the trade with the White Sox for Sammy Sosa). At that time, however, we had Jerry Morales in right, Rick Monday in center and Jose Cardenal in left (for which I paid one of my friends the princely sum of $1.75, far more than its worth), Bill Madlock at third, Manny Trillo at second and Pete LaCock at first. Catching was Steve Swisher or Brian Hosey. The shortstop we were looking for was the extremely light hitting Mick Kelleher. Over an eleven year career Kelleher would bat 1,081 times without hitting a homerun. His only semi-regular season was with the Cubs in 1976 when he hit .228. His career average skirted the “Mendoza line” at .213.

Although I was spending my spare time getting a baseball education, baseball returned the favor by increasing my fondness for numbers as no other game is so rich in statistical tradition. Although this is partly due to the fact that the tradition now stretches back over a century and that the relative continuity of the statistics allow for comparison[2], it is also due to the fact that in no other sport are the statistics (especially for batting and pitching, fielding is another complex and sadly problematic story) so linked to a player’s performance. As a result, when looking at a line like so:

505 81 125 17 0 40 94 85 85 .248 .519 .357

a baseball fan can almost visualize this player and narrow down the owner from a field of over 10,000 to under 10. In fact, it would come as no surprise if some readers, upon reviewing the line, immediately conjured up an image of Darrell Evans, the husky Braves, Giants, and Tigers first baseman who played from the late 60s to the late 80s. Because of this close association with individual players, some of the individual statistics then take on identities in their own right including 755, 73, 511, 56, and 4,257[3]. In this, baseball statistics (in the words of Bill James) have acquired the "power of language", which makes them endlessly fascinating since they tell stories as much as they reflect accomplishment.

The lure of these numbers and their rich tradition drove us to scoring games, computing batting averages, and calculating statistics which in turn created an ease with numbers, fractions, and percentages as well as learning to do quick sums in my head. In a direct way, this impacted my fallback career choice, software development.

Ultimately, the love for statistics led to more "serious" pursuits that included playing baseball simulation games in which we created our own leagues and tracked the statistics. After cutting our teeth on Cadaco All-Star baseball (invented by former big leaguer and Yale baseball coach Ethan Allen) and other less precise games, the ultimate expression of this pursuit was the replaying of the 1983 National League season by four of us including my brother using a popular simulation game known as Strat-O-Matic (still advertised I noticed in Baseball Digest, the monthly magazine I subscribed to from 1976 through the mid 1980s). Each of us managed three teams, scored each game, and tracked the statistics as we replayed the entire 1,000 plus game schedule, complete with off days over the course of almost a year.

Although none of my teams won their division and one, the Padres, even lost 112 games due to no fault of the manager, I still today keep a copy of the statistics from that make-believe season and look at them from time to time remembering the comradery of good friends. As I peruse the stat sheets the attributes of the players come to life through the language of the statistics in a unique way that is reminiscent of, but truly distinct from, the real players on which the simulation was based. Only in baseball can the numbers tell so much of the story.

[1] Hebner played for the Pirates in those days but would go on to play, and contribute, on the 1984 Cubs team.
[2] Yes, there has been continuity as evidenced by league batting averages fluctuating around .260 since the 1940s, but in many instances it has been a continuity forced on the game by subtle changes of the rules. The lowering of the mound in 1969 is one prominent example. Only when Babe Ruth saved the game from financial ruin brought on by the Black Sox scandal, did the powers that be choose to let the game move in a different direction, which produced the rift between the "dead ball" and "lively ball" eras. Interestingly, this common nomenclature is likely misleading as documented by Bill James in the Historical Baseball Abstract, who argues that the outlawing of the spitter and its variants along with the more frequent introduction of new baseballs into games had more of an effect than any change in the balls being used.
[3] Hank Aaron’s career homeruns, Barry Bonds single-season homerun record, Cy Young’s victory total, Joe Dimaggios’s hitting streak, and Pete Rose’s hit total.

No comments: