Varieties of Baseball Experience


My big brother was a mathematician, and a terrific sports fan. He died of cancer as a young man, but had long seemed wise and mellow and kind. The two of us had similar hearts but different heads. I strained to inch through math problems he conquered instinctively. He contentedly enjoyed literature I made a cult of and championed. He was an easy going guy, whose eyes could bug out if he judged he'd communicate some of the elegance and complexity of the physical world. I keep the notes from his doctoral dissertation -- a stream of chicken-scratched formulas, hundreds of pages of literal Greek.

Tom died just as I was coming into my own as a serious baseball fan, and my sabermetric turn accompanied several changes following his death. I quit my job, which was a decent job but asked me to bullshit and wheedle. I took up work that featured thinking-time and no lies. Professional ambition seemed to me stupid, as it seems to me now. I have around me the same family, books, city, friends, and -- yes -- sports, that set my desperately sick brother to hailing his good luck.

I never knew Tom to take up with advanced sports statistics, but it seemed like something he might have done were his little brother to become a partner. So I came here and met you all, and fell in with the first honest and constructive debates I had ever really encountered -- about anything. I was a literature major in college, and remain fascinated with shifting criteria and hopelessly mixed together values. A couple of lines of Blake could crack my skull open, but I had little experience with theories that build through slow, scrupulous, inspected-and-corrected processes. I don't think I oversell it to say that baseball was my first practical introduction to science. I fell in love with the question, "But is that true?" -- and saw how empiricism could cut a light beam through the shadows of surmise.

My brother was not a "pure" mathematician. He worked to model a certain intracellular function, to do with microscopic pumps and the movement of fluids. I remember his shift toward biology (from physics) and the total amazement he expressed almost daily, catching sight of some new vista. Bug-eyed, he told me that the evolution of all creatures from a single cell -- as impressive as that is -- in no wise competes with the complexity and wonder of that one single living cell.

In 2009, a year after his death at age 26, Tom's department held a conference in honor of his work. Talk after talk showcased upbeat scientists propounding on their inadequacy in the face of a human cell. One speaker put it this way: If machines work best through rational efficiency, cells function with the most fantastic redundancies, varieties, entanglements, and elaborations; more than you could fit into a billion dreams. All a mathematician can do is fashion his "models," essentially stick-figure sketches of the masterpiece. These are never right, of course -- but there's hope, at least, they'll prove useful.

These, then, are the two faces of science. There is the Tom who might remind you matter-of-factly that the Big Bang Theory is not in dispute -- sure, unwooly Tom. Tom who knew math was not fooling.

Beside this Tom, there was Tom in his large, full life -- Tom amid the fantastic redundancies, varieties, entanglements, and elaborations of a world that won't fit into a billion billion dreams. My twice-brilliant brother was as slow-to-judgment and accepting as any ignorant flat-head you'd ever meet. This humility -- as I see it -- is also the scientific view. Sure, he had an outlook and worldview he strove to improve. But they couldn't be right -- they could only be useful to himself and others.

As it turned out, they proved beautifully so.

When it comes to baseball, the crowd at large underrates the math. All we do is underrate baseball. I have no truck with big-bang deniers who would build a roster and run a baseball team through ignorance. In some realms math doesn't fool, and every GM's gotta know that.

But baseball is mostly some other thing. Baseball is mostly what Tom and I grew up adoring with our old man, who conjured the beer-call he'd made in the old days slinging suds at Comiskey Park. Baseball has to do, somehow, with wood bats, uniforms, characters, summer, New York, newspapers, history, my dad, Tom, and you all.

At work I share a locker room with all sorts of sport fans. There are a good many West Indians who come to the game through cricket and still talk of a bum pitch as a "bad ball." I'm friends with an Albanian who taught himself to speak Italian listening to transnational soccer broadcasts growing up; in this country he can barely watch soccer, he says, and he idolizes Ike Davis. Next door to my house, cigar-chompers meet on a Brooklyn stoop and page through a shared copy of the Daily News. "What do you think of this Murphy kid?" they growl over the fence. Baseball to them is neighborhood chatter. And to my wife's mother, it's THE YANKEES.

New York is the greatest baseball town in America for being so thick with narratives and fans. If there was but one type of brain tuned to the game -- our kind, or any other -- the sport wouldn't have the mojo to sustain three newsletters.

So this is a plea for tolerance and good cheer in the face of what might seem idiotic - for slow-judgment and humility in the face of varieties of baseball experience that aren't our own. The game is simple. The Game is vast and shoreless, and we'll never ever find a right way to enjoy it. Of the dozens of baseball fans I personally know to be fine men and women, about two-and-a-half take interest, as I do, in parsing the game with nifty statistical tools.

They aren't right; they aren't wrong. This much I learned from my big brother's math.

Hat tip to Five-Tool Tool for inspiring a part of these ruminations.

This FanPost was contributed by a member of the community and was not subject to any vetting or approval process. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions, reasoning skills, or attention to grammar and usage rules held by the editors of this site.

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