This fall, let's remember baseball is as much about magic as metrics
The biggest issue in my marriage, by far, is my husband’s lack of respect — nay, his disdain — for my favorite TV shows. In “real life,” I’m a firm believer in science and measurements. In TV life, I’m up for any show that involves aliens (ancient or otherwise), Bigfoot, or ghosts. Bonus points if the show contends Bigfoot actually is an alien.
“How can you watch this crap?” he’ll ask me, genuinely confused. I just shrug. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it. I think it has to do with wanting to believe there’s still some magic left in the world.
To me, baseball has always been equal parts magic and metrics. Something about the expanses of impossibly green grass, the sultry summer twilights, and crisp autumn eves gives the game an almost otherworldly feel. It summons the spring, when everything looms fresh and new again, and crowns its king as the specter of Halloween looms large, broken hearts strewn across the October weeks like orange and crimson leaves. For these and other reasons, superstition feels as much a part of the game as lineup cards and bullpen catchers; myth as much as managerial hunches; the ethereal as much as ephemeral.
Perhaps it’s because, owing to the sheer volume of games played, we live with baseball like we do with no other sport. It’s less a pastime than a relationship, a summer romance that has the chance, every year, to finally, finally get it right. All relationships require romance. And what’s more romantic than the notion of Joe DiMaggio making sure he always touches second on his way to center field, Richie Ashburn sleeping with his bat, or Wade Boggs making sure to write the Hebrew word for “life” in the dirt every time he steps in the batters’ box?
The emergence of metrics has revolutionized baseball, and for the better. It seems every week we’re being introduced to new stats, all of them sprung forth from those of the Bill James mold, and we’ve come to learn there’s little in baseball that can’t be measured. Metrics are magical themselves, leading to the rise of mad scientist managers like the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, who loves to play the percentages with defensive shifts and ever-changing lineups. We’re past the point of Joe Morgan yelling in cantankerous futility about Billy Beane and Moneyball; We agree the game is played on the field but conceived — and in many ways improved — on a spreadsheet. The only way to unlock true postseason achievement is to get the guys on paper to execute on the diamond. All told, it’s a good place for baseball to have landed.
And yet, as sports social media gears up for another postseason, there invariably ramps up the shouting down of those who still want to wonder at the magic. Now, we don’t really believe that saying “no hitter” can actually break up a no-no. None of us thinks a dead goat is actually cursing the Cubs. We’re well aware that nothing we do or say in the comfort of our homes has a direct effect on what happens in the game. But just as I love the possibility, however remote, that Les Stroud will stumble upon Bigfoot while stomping through the woods wearing 20 pounds of camera gear, we want to believe that Chipper Jones playing computer solitaire until exactly 6:55 each night had some role in his storied career. For it’s the illusion of enchantment in baseball — the idea that maybe there’s something above, beyond or beneath where the stats can reach — that brings so many of us back, year after year, losing season after losing season.
So if I happen to reference the black cat torpedoing the 1969 Cubs, my trusty rally cap, or the fact that I’ve moved from the couch to the floor to try to manufacture some runs, I don’t need the fun police telling me nothing I’m doing really affects the game. Call it self-imposed delusion. Sure, I could look up a player’s splits against a certain pitcher, and I often do, but sometimes it’s just more fun to attribute his success to the fact that he’s wearing his lucky gold thong or stopped at Taco Bell before the game.
So much of our daily lives involves dealing with ugly realities: the long commutes to work, paying bills, coming to existential grips with the Kardashians. Whether your team is playing or not, postseason baseball offers near-pure escapism from the drudgery of modern life. For me and many others, that mysticism means sun-soaked days and cool nights, the inexplicable will of the baseball gods, and the voice of Vin Scully. Let us have our aliens and our ghosts and Wade Boggs taking exactly 150 grounders before each game. If we want to believe there’s a little magic left in the world, it’s only because this game — a game we’ve loved enough to watch grow beyond the bounds of mere enchantment— has given us so much of it already.