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Feb 29

It’s the statistics–why I love baseball

A baseball fan has the digestive apparatus of a billy goat. He can, and does, devour any set of diamond statistics with insatiable appetite and then nuzzles hungrily for more.
–Arthur Daley (1904-1974) N.Y. Times sportswriter?

“You are going to Surprise for spring baseball training, again? Do you really love baseball that much,” asked my young friend who was clearly incredulous.

There was only one answer I could honestly give her, yes. But I added this disclaimer, I am blaming my lasting love of baseball on my Great-Aunt Ida who lived, incidentally, to the age of 98 and spent the last summer of her life watching baseball and spouting stats like she had every summer since the early 70s.

It rubbed off, I guess.

Aunt Ida was an unabashed lover of all things baseball from the first moment the Kansas City Royals became a team in 1969. She liked the Kansas City Athletics just fine, but when the Royals emerged on the scene, she was smitten.

My great-aunt lived in Denver where the Kansas City Royals were considered the home team and the favorite of most people who lived between Kansas City and California. This was long before anybody had conceptualized the Colorado Rockies.

My family visited her every summer, but if the Royals were playing when we arrived, we kids knew to sit quietly and watch the game with her. That was not the time to suggest going out to dinner or to make small talk. She recited baseball stats as well as Jack Buck, Harry Carey or Bob Uecker and her prowess left us speechless.

Not being a math aficionado myself, it is strange to me how I picked up Aunt Ida’s love of baseball statistics. However, I learned over the years that the brain handles statistics a little differently than it processes those pesky eighth-grade math word problems that never made any logical sense to me anyway.

Statistics, now that is another matter.

Curious about this weird trait I have of loving baseball stats and hating math, I wandered around the web and found a blog written in 2009 on this very subject titled “Why I Love Baseball: Statistics”. It is written by a blogger who calls himself Sixty Feet, Six Inches (in baseball ‘stat speak’ that is the exact distance between the pitcher and the batter).

Sixty Feet, Six Inches says it better than I can:

“I’m horrible with numbers. In fact, I can’t do basic math without at least having a few minutes to figure out the answer. Yet, there’s something different about baseball statistics that allows my brain to completely utilize its potential and come to a quick answer… Statistics describe baseball; they are the language of the game. Stats let us know who is a great hitter (.300) and who is below average (.200)…Statistics add to the dramatic story that is a baseball game. If each game were a movie, then the player’s stats would be the character development. When the bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth people want the hero who is batting .315 with thirty home runs to step up and save the team, yet without stats, most of us would not know who that person is. While we all love seeing the improbable happen with a walk off blast from a career .168 hitter, we would not fully understand the rarity of that underdog moment without stats.”

So off I will go to Surprise, Arizona, one day this spring to take in the sunshine, watch the Kansas City Royals in spring training and pay attention to the stats, which you know by now that I love.

Fair warning. Last spring, I wrote three columns about spring ball, so I can’t make any promises how wordy I will get this spring.
After all, baseball is, as writer-cartoonist Saul Steinberg once noted, “an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about fate, and sober self-esteem.”

And I might add, about statistics.
Play ball!