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For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
The Numbers Game|
October 8, 1998
There is no disputing that baseball's appeal for many of its fans is a kind of sacred numerology: there's 56, the number of games in which Joe DiMaggio hit consecutively in 1941; .406, Ted Williams's batting average in that same year; 755, Hank Aaron's career home run record. And 1998 has added a constellation of new numbers to be hoisted into the firmament: 114 (wins by the New York Yankees, the most ever in the American League); 1,071 (career appearances by the Red Sox relief pitcher Dennis Eckersley, a major-league record); 2,632 (consecutive games played by Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr.); and, of course, 70 (home runs hit by Mark McGwire, the most in a single season).
Only four years after a protracted labor dispute led to the cancellation of the World Series and to bitterly penned obituaries for the national pastime, this proliferation of magical numbers has led the 1998 baseball season to be roundly declared The Best Ever. National television broadcasts of baseball games enjoyed their largest ratings increase in thirty-two years: an estimated 33 million Americans watched each nationally broadcast game during the last nine weeks of the season. Fed up with the scandal broiling in Washington, Americans embraced baseball. The number 70, certainly, was preferable to 1800, which at the end of the regular season was roughly the number of points the Dow Jones was off from its peak in July.
But let me sound a note of reservation. Baseball has been appropriated and distorted by the overemphasis on statistics, by the fetishization of the number. Fanatics of baseball statistics -- who are all over the Web, in the form of Statheads and participants in fantasy (or "rotisserie") baseball leagues (check this out for a representative sampling) -- have become so obsessed with the recording and analysis of numbers that they have lost sight of the drama and the humanity of team sport at its best.
This seems to me a peculiarly American phenomenon. The rest of the world loves its soccer, which admits few numbers. The panache of the Brazilians, the doggedness of the English, the efficiency of the Germans -- these team traits all defy quantification. Baseball, however, has been made into a science. Literally. Sabermetrics, a field of analysis founded by the statistician Bill James in the 1970s, has made brilliant study of just about every aspect of baseball. There's the RC/27, for example, which measures how many runs nine clones of the same player would score in a game and is calculated -- I'm not kidding -- thus:
A = H + BB + HB - CS - GDP; B = TB + .52 * (SB + SH + SF) + .26 * (BB + HB - IBB); C = AB + BB + HB + SH + SF; RC = A * B / C; O = AB - H + CS + GDP + SH + SF; RC/27 = RC / O * 27)There's also the study of which umpire has the smallest strike zone; the analysis, per dollar of salary, of run production (which is not just runs batted in but something altogether more complex); and the Society of American Baseball Research.
What other spectator sport's program comes with a grid for official scoring, replete with arcane symbols (K, BB, RBI, E) and complex rules? Baseball's emphasis is now too much on the statistic, too much on the individual. Consider this: in 1982, when the Cardinals won the World Series, they had fewer home runs as a team than McGwire had as an individual in 1998. Isn't the fanfare surrounding McGwire's (legitimately impressive) achievement a case of misplaced emphasis on the accomplishment of a lone individual?
Maybe I feel this way because of my preference for team play over individual performances. Maybe it's that my temperament is more artistic than scientific. Maybe it's that I think baseball players are less athletic and therefore less spectacular to watch, on average, than other sports figures. Maybe it's that I realized that all this recording and statistical analysis is a necessary distraction from what is -- on the field -- often a really boring sport. Or maybe it's that, succumbing to baseball's mystical numerology, I worry about what the 1998 season forebodes: after all, the 1941 season of Williams's batting .406 and DiMaggio's hitting in fifty-six straight was followed by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the World Series victory of the 1927 Yankees, one of the best teams of all time, was followed very shortly by the stock-market crash and the ensuing Great Depression. If the record-breaking 1998 Yankees continue to cruise easily through the playoffs, it might be time to think about buying gold. Or about retiring baseball, and its creepy numerology, as our national pastime.
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Scott Stossel is the executive editor of The American Prospect.
Illustration, copyright © Stathead Consulting.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.