When the Cubs' Moises Alou leaped at the wall for Luis Castillo's
long foul drive, timing it just right, in the top of the eighth
inning of Game 6 of last year's National League Championship
Series at Wrigley Field, why didn't he come down with the ball?
Because a fan interfered, of course, with what would have been a
great catch. But why did that happen? Was it the 58-year-old
billy goat curse on the Cubs? Or was it something more subtle:
the fact that Alou, who had made the last out of the seventh
inning, was not due to bat in the bottom of the eighth?
Knowing what we know now, alas, it was probably the curse.
You may have wondered lately, What ever happened to "As so often
happens"? If so, you are not alone. The question is in the air.
And an ambitious research project has come up with an answer--a
disturbing answer that has traditionalists grumbling and
statisticians scratching their heads.
April 4, 2004
No one knows when students of the game began to notice how
frequently it happens: A fielder who makes a great play in one
half-inning is the leadoff batter in the next. Coincidence?
Maybe, but a significant one--a nice moment of recognition for a
hero defender home from the field. "As so often happens," someone
says in the booth and here and there in the press box and the
crowd. The pitcher finishes his warmup, the honored defender
steps into his offensive role, his glove hand perhaps still
tingling a bit, and the game goes on, a part of its mythos
"As so often happens" may be inherent in the deep structure of
baseball. We know it entered American literature in 1914, when
Ring Lardner's blithely confident rookie pitcher Jack Keefe wrote
to his friend Al in one of the "Letters from a Busher" that
Lardner would later collect in You Know Me, Al.
Well Al, I busted one down third that should of gone for two
easy, but that lucky dog Zimmerman must of got bit by a bee,
'cause he dove just about out of his pants and speared my beauty
of a liner, to the amazement of all including him. But the same
Zimmerman was first up next inning, as so often happens, and I
made him pay. Whiffed him proper, two hard ones and an up-shoot.
I guess he'll think twice the next time he's inspired by the
prospect of leading off against somebody with stuff such as mine.
Consider some of the most famous catches in history. In the 1947
World Series, Al Gionfriddo of the Dodgers went back, back, back
to the centerfield fence to rob Joe DiMaggio of a home run. As so
often happens, Gionfriddo led off the next inning. The one
spectacular fielding play of the '59 Series was the
back-to-the-plate running catch by White Sox rightfielder Jungle
Jim Rivera off Charlie Neal of the Dodgers in the fifth game,
bottom of the seventh. Rivera led off the top of the eighth. In
the third game of the '69 Series, Tommie Agee of the Mets, in
centerfield, made two great catches against the Orioles. He led
off the following inning one of those times. Baltimore's Brooks
Robinson made three memorable stops against the Reds in the '70
Series. He was first up after two of them. In the third game of
the '78 Series, Graig Nettles of the Yankees made four dazzling
plays at third. He led off the inning after two of them,
including the most amazing one. (Ron Cey made a great play at
third for the Dodgers in that game but didn't lead off the next
inning. Nobody ever said it always happens.)
Every fan knows of Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run that won
the 1960 Series for the Pirates against the Yankees. What people
tend to forget is that it was a leadoff home run and that in the
previous inning--with two outs, Mickey Mantle on first and Moose
Skowron at the plate--Mazeroski made what Roger Angell in The New
Yorker would later describe as ...
... a great play that will forever go insufficiently sung,
because of what happened afterward and because it was a simple
force at second. Indeed with the fleet Mantle barreling toward
second on the pitch, [Pirates shortstop] Dick Groat's best play
on Skowron's grounder into the hole was to first. Groat, however,
after bobbling the ball slightly, looked to Mazeroski and rushed
his throw, which went wide, surely wider than the compactly
put-together Maz could stretch. But Maz, for whom second base is
T.S. Eliot's "still point of the turning world," seemed to lay
every fibre of his being end to end for an instant to snag
Groat's throw and nip the sliding Mantle by a heartbeat. And then
he jogged in toward the bottom of the ninth and immortality.
In 1988 the Royals' Bo Jackson climbed the leftfield wall in
Kansas City to take a home run away from the Orioles' Eddie
Murray in the top of the ninth. Then he led off the bottom of the
inning with a game-winning homer. Headline the next day in the
Kansas City Star: as bo often happens.
Isolated instances, of course. Are we talking about a literary
convention here? Or just the folkloric confabulation--as so often
happens--of mere coincidence into uncanny recurrence? Or a
legitimate phenomenon, statistically verifiable? This may in fact
have been the one aspect of baseball that no one ever felt a need
to put numbers to. Until recently.
We have numbers now, and here's what they say: It did so often
happen. It doesn't anymore.
The "As so often happens" question came to a head last fall at the
annual convention of the '41 Society, an informal association of
baseball buffs whose day jobs are in various fields of advanced
systems analysis. The name derives, of course, from the
miraculous year that DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games; Ted
Williams batted .406; Brooklyn won the pennant; and its catcher,
Mickey Owen, dropped the third strike in Game 4 of the World
Series (and did not lead off the next inning--he had led off the
previous one). At one of the society's sessions a Fordham
economics professor named Kenneth Yorik delivered a report
entitled Who's Up First: A Stochastic Ergonometric Model of
On-Base-Percentage Optimization. It was a cheerfully abstruse
attempt to devise a batting order that would most often bring
table-setting batters to the plate at the beginnings of innings.
Yorik mentioned that in studying the scorecards he had kept
throughout the 2002 season, he had noticed that the incidence of
what he called LOOFA (for Lead Off/Outstanding Fielding
Alignment) was "nowhere near frequent enough to be called
'often,' much less 'so often'--in fact, the frequency was rather
"Kenneth, what is the frequency?" asked someone.
Alas, said Yorik, that which should so often have happened had
happened only slightly more than 3.31% of the time.
Yorik's research seemed to confirm what so many deep-thinking
fans had suspected. The explanation might be, as one society
member put it, that "announcers always used to mention it when it
happened. 'So-and-so leads off after making that great catch. How
many times do you see that? Happens all the time.' So because you
heard about it every time it happened, you took it as gospel,
like 'Lefthanders develop late' or 'Don't step on the foul line.'
Now the announcers often don't have time for that lead-in,
because commercials run right up to when the pitcher is in his
windup. Also, announcers try to affect that ESPN-jockspeak cool,
and an old-school biscuit doesn't pass their cool-quotient test."
Yorik also mentioned that he had done a little extra
research--into how often "As so often happens" is said. He had
typed in the expression on every Internet search engine. He had
found plenty of entries along these lines.
As so often happens, studying these subjects gradually leads one
to mysticism and deeper realms of the nature of existence.
But as so often happens in human evolution, we then lost our way
and began a journey into darkness.
Secondly, however, the whole problem is strung up from the wrong
angle, as so often happens with really important human concerns.
As so often happens, common names are used loosely and
inconsistently in the shrimp family.
All of these points, except possibly the one about shrimp, are
worth bearing in mind in baseball studies, Yorik observed, but
none of them relate specifically to the game. When he narrowed
the search down to sports, it produced this sort of thing:
Miguel's panicky toss over the head of Eric Chavez into the
dugout gave the Twins their first lead and, as so often happens,
opened the floodgates.
"We left a lot of men on base," Baker said. "As so often happens,
if you come back, and you don't come all the way back, they get a
breather, and then they tack on some more."
Mlicki walked Dye to start the fifth, and as so often happens
with a leadoff base on balls, it led to trouble.
He and Geoff took the score past the 50 mark before Hemant was
bowled by a rank full toss--as so often happens it was the bad
ball which got the wicket.
As so often happens in games that go 15 innings, one quick swing
of the bat ended it.
All of these quotes, even the one about cricket, might bear on
the broader issue of what leads people to say "as so often
happens" in baseball, Yorik noted. Maybe saying "as so often
happens" is in many cases not saying much. For instance, except
in the case of a bases-loaded walk, a wild pitch or passed ball
with a runner on third, a bunt or conceivably a tired, lucky
swing of the bat, doesn't every game that goes 15 innings end
with one quick swing of the bat, followed by a bit of
baserunning? But none of those references had to do with LOOFA.
Except for this one Google entry:
The Royals finally struck pay dirt in the bottom of the third.
Kacie Merchand led off and reached on an errant throw after her
well-hit three-hopper. After the next two hitters were retired,
Ashley Clay and Shauna Tracy followed with hard hit singles to
load the bases. As so often happens when a player has rendered a
fielding gem moments earlier, the same player gets a chance to
shine at the plate. Such was the case for Grote, who calmly
ripped a 1-1 pitch into centerfield.
This was in a May 30, 2002, story in The Herald of Randolph, Vt.,
about a softball game between the South Royalton Lady Royals and
Winooski. And this Grote--conceivably the daughter or niece of
Jerry Grote, the old Mets catcher, but that is neither here nor
there--didn't lead off the next inning! She batted sixth. So the
closest search-engine example of LOOFA was not even a true
example. Not even close.
The '41 Society--many of whose members were frankly appalled by
the results of Yorik's Internet searches--was by no means
satisfied by the theory that what so often happens was still
happening but just not being mentioned. A resolution was passed:
The '41 Society would pool its resources over the 2003 season to
come up with some conclusions about LOOFA. (Or, as some members
preferred, LIRPA, for Leadoff of Inning after Remarkable Putout
or Assist.) Was it ever a legitimate phenomenon? Had it ceased to
The report, which was made available to Sports Illustrated last
week, is being released as this issue of the magazine hits the
stands. Here are some of the revelations.
In what is now considered the first major league game ever
played, on April 1, 1871, the National Association's Fort Wayne
Kekiongas were at home against the Cleveland Forest Citys nine
when Cleveland second baseman Gene Kimball made what was called
"a nifty nab" of a Kekiongas pop-up in the bottom of the third
and led off the top of the fourth. By the time "as so often
happens" first appeared in print, in 1897, the notion was
apparently firmly established. "McPhail of the Robins took wing
to ensnare a pellet mightily struck by Gester," The Sporting News
reported that year, "and then 'twas the same Kelleher, was it
not, who first came to bat for his side. As so often doth happen,
as hath so often been said."
Avery Pfuhl, the only man ever to bat out of turn in the World
Series, did so in the flush of having just robbed Pittsburgh's
Honus Wagner of extra bases in the 1909 Fall Classic, between the
Pirates and the Tigers. "It just seemed like I oughta be leading
off," Pfuhl explained sheepishly.
How about the great catch by Willie Mays of Vic Wertz's long ball
in the Giants-Indians Series of 1954? Well, "as so often happens"
didn't quite happen that time. But almost. Mays had made the last
out in the previous inning. And how about Luplow's Catch, one of
the greatest plays ever made in Fenway Park? In 1963 Cleveland
rightfielder Al Luplow made an over-the-shoulder catch of Dick
Williams's long drive to deep right center, on the dead run, and
without breaking stride flipped over the fence into the bullpen.
Luplow was second up in the next inning. These examples seem to
be in accord with the statistical principle known as Fowles's
Postulate, which states, in part, "As regards the legitimacy of a
phenomenon: Its near occurrence, in consonance with its exact
occurrence, while not determinative, is indicative." In other
words, if something not only often happens but also nearly
happens, then chances are something is going on.
In Japan, "as so often happens" is yoku aru koto. In 1948, when
baseball, a gift from American GIs, suggested new beginnings, the
poet Asoh composed a haiku, here translated by Pearl Folladay.
Catch opposing blast,
Lead off following inning:
Cherry blossom time.
According to Diamante Revolucionario (Revolutionary Diamond),
Juan Abril's as-yet-untranslated book about Cuban baseball, the
expression in that country is como pasa tan a menudo. Among
Habaneros it is a popular, ironic catchphrase for bureaucratic
tie-ups, but its baseball relevance is part of the joke. Legend
has it that one day in the '50s when the rebels were playing ball
in the mountains, Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel Castro's
happy-go-lucky, cowboy-hatted lieutenant, robbed Castro of extra
bases and led off the next inning. "Como pasa tan a menudo,"
cracked Camilo, and Fidel, instead of pitching to him, stalked
off the field with the ball.
But this is all just anecdotal. What about the math? In the first
three decades of the 20th century, according to the limited
number of scorecards and play-by-plays that survive from that
era, LOOFA happened 41% of the time (margin of error: plus or
Between 1930 and 1960, going by more extensive data, the number
was remarkably similar: 40.1%.
Between 1960 and 1990, based on comprehensive data, it was 41%.
But between 1990 and 2003, based on data of the same quality, the
number was .041%. "As so often happens," it seems, has gone the
way of the doubleheader, the complete game and the art of
First let us consider how remarkable the old, high numbers were,
and also how remarkable the new, low ones are. Nine players take
the field. Assuming that defensive gems are evenly spread among
them (and setting aside the designated-hitter variable for the
moment), the person who pulled off a gem would lead off the
following inning one ninth, or 11.1%, of the time. Anything more
than two or three points above or below that percentage, over a
considerable period of time, is statistically significant.
Of course some players hardly ever make circus catches. And it
may be assumed that centerfielders and middle infielders are more
likely to make them because these are the positions requiring the
most skill. On the face of it what this means is that the "so
often" phenomenon should occur even less frequently than 11.1% of
the time--but surely not as infrequently as .041%. (And '41
Society analysis that is too algebraic to go into here confirms
this; see si.com/siexclusive for a breakdown.) For heaven's sake,
"as so often happens" now happens much less often than it should
happen randomly. What is going on?
The '41 Society's report does not try to explain the why of "so
often happens," and players themselves have sometimes pooh-poohed
Yogi Berra: "I don't think it happens all that often, usually."
Rickey Henderson: "What happens is what happens. All I got to do
is be Rickey. And things happen."
Once, after making a great catch in centerfield, Mickey Rivers
duly led off the next inning. The Yankees batted around, so
Rivers also led off the next inning, the final one. "How great a
catch was that?" said Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle after the
game. "Mickey may lead off every inning for the rest of his
Rivers just said, "I don't want to hear 'So often happens.'
Sometimes things just be's that way."
But players may not know their every motivation. Sports
psychologist Aubrey Folley says, "When a player knows he'll be up
first the next inning, it may give him a little extra in the
field because he figures it's more likely that he'll make a great
play. Self-fulfilling prophecy. Conversely, when he's batted in
the previous inning--especially if he's made the last out--he may
still be thinking a bit about his offense, either feeling good
about having gotten a hit or brooding about having gotten his
pitch and missed it. Maybe he'll press too much in the field,
trying to make up for having made an out. I once observed Cal
Ripken Jr. in the field after he had uncharacteristically taken a
called third strike right down the middle. He overleaped for a
line drive, and it hit him in the wrist. If he'd been due to lead
off the next inning, he might have felt subliminally that making
that catch was in the cards."
At any rate strategists have been known to take the "as so often
happens" factor into account. With two outs on the other team and
his team trailing, Reds manager Sparky Anderson would sometimes
order his pitcher to walk a batter if the on-deck hitter was a
great fielder. Sparky didn't want the guy batting ahead of, say,
Larry Bowa to make the last out because Sparky didn't want the
Phillies shortstop, who was already quite likely to foil the
Reds' catch-up efforts, to have the extra edge of knowing he'd be
leading off the next inning.
Observers often wondered why Phillies manager Gene Mauch, in late
innings against lefthanded pitchers, would sometimes replace a
lefthanded-hitting fielder with a righthanded-hitting fielder who
was no better defensively. After all, if Mauch just wanted a
righty batter leading off the following inning, he could wait and
pinch-hit. But Mauch knew he was more likely to get a great
fielding play from the righthanded hitter, who would be more
eager than the lefthanded hitter to lead off against the
southpaw. The '41 Society report cites figures indicating that
lefty-hitting fielders were less likely (by 14%) to make a great
catch the inning before they were due to lead off against a
lefthander, and the percentage goes down further with nasty
southpaws such as Randy Johnson. "Unconsciously they may be in no
special hurry to get the other team out," says Folley. "People
don't think of a pitcher's intimidation factor extending to the
other team's defense, but the figures are there."
Unconsciously says a lot. "As so often happens" may have been so
inherent in the deep structure of the game as to defy rational
explanation. Jungian psychology may be applicable here. C.G. Jung
often spoke of synchronicity, a seemingly random set of
coincidences that cannot be accounted for by cause and effect, as
when you step on an alkaline battery in a hallway and the first
thing you hear as you get up is the radio saying that Al Kaline
has been elected to the Hall of Fame. For no reason known to
science, that sort of thing often happens.
Moe Berg--the brainy, multilingual catcher of the 1920s and '30s
who traveled widely abroad as a U.S. spy before, during and after
World War II--met with Jung in Zurich in 1941. Primarily they
discussed Jungian archetypes as they might apply to national
security, but the question of "as so often happens" did come up.
Jung mentions the conversation in a letter to his American
protegee Willamae Happ. "Given the strictly alternating formality
of the baseball 'lineup' as I understand it from Mr. Berg, I do
not see how a player's performance when his side is defending can
influence his line of succession once his side is 'up.' However,
the reverse might well be true: that his anticipation of the
impending focus upon him in the order of things, 'leading off,'
might well lead him, unconsciously, to a premonition of the
central point within the psyche that is a source of energy, the
almost irresistible compulsion and urge to become what one is,
and therefore to make a 'leaping catch.'"
For whatever reason, it appears that there has often been a
potential "as so often happens" alternative behind a true "as so
often happens." Consider Mazeroski's leadoff homer in 1960. If
the Pirates had not scored in that ninth inning, the leadoff
hitter for the Yankees in the top of the 10th would have been
Clete Boyer. Boyer, who often made dazzling plays at third, was
playing shortstop in the ninth because in the Pirates' five-run
eighth a bad-hop grounder had hit Tony Kubek in the throat,
knocking Kubek out of the game. Kubek had been temporarily
replaced at short by Joe DeMaestri, but Gil McDougald, who
entered the game in the top of the ninth as a pinch runner, had
stayed in as the third baseman in the Yankees' ninth and Boyer
had moved over. If instead of his homer Mazeroski had hit a
scorcher to short, Boyer might have made a great play out of
position and gone on to lead off the next inning. And people
would have been saying, "Jeez, look at all the things that had to
happen for 'as so often happens' to happen now."
But if "as so often happens" has been so near-spookily intrinsic
to the game, why has it so near-spookily melted away?
The designated-hitter rule comes, as so often happens, to mind
here. Perhaps the DH has disrupted the equilibrium of baseball.
We used to have a game whose mathematical backbone was the number
three: three strikes, three outs, nine innings, twenty-seven
outs, 18 players. Now we have 20 guys in the game at the same
time. Not divisible by three. Bad karma. Everybody knows threes
are powerful, going back to Biblical times. The DH is unnatural,
like beer with fruit in it.
Numerology aside, the DH rule did, no doubt, have some
statistical impact; after all, "as so often" can never happen
when the DH leads off, because the DH can't make a great play in
the field. Of course we may not think of the pitcher--the player
replaced in the batting order by the DH--in connection with "as
so often happens," because we don't think of pitchers as making
many great fielding plays or leading off many innings. But
consider this: The only time Jack Morris, the redoubtable
mainstay of four American League pitching staffs between 1977 and
1994, ever came to bat in a regular-season game was in 1987 with
the Tigers, right after he had made a behind-the-back stab of a
broken-bat liner by the Angels' Wally Joyner, as a piece of the
bat flew past his head.
At any rate the designated-hitter rule went into effect in 1973,
but the precipitous decline in "as so often happens" did not
begin until 1990. Why?
"When you're 29 and already own 14 sports cars and a Hummer, and
every year with the weights and whatever you're getting stronger,
you think everything's always going to happen," says a former
player turned sportscaster who prefers to remain nameless. "Look
at Barry Bonds. The best player in baseball. Pitchers aren't
trying to hit the corners on him, they're trying to just miss
them. So he can wait and take his walk--no disgrace in that
anymore, unlike in Ted Williams's day--and when they make a
mistake or decide they have to come in with it, he's waiting to
cream it. Whatever he gets is going to be a ball or a fat one. So
he sits on the fat one. You got a deal like that, and are good
enough to take advantage of it, why would you be thinking about
'so often happens'? Guys today are in touch with the numbers but
not with the magic."
Maybe that's it. Whatever the explanation may be--assuming there
is one that can be put into words--one thing seems clear.
Something has gone out of baseball. Gone out of America, maybe.
Gone out of life. As so often happens.