Baseball, writing, numbers, and my newfound desire to learn Calc

Growing up, I hated math. I can’t pinpoint when the hatred started, only that it was there through the majority of my formative years. As the years passed, the hatred morphed into scorn: not only do I not like you, math, I do not need you. Early in high school I decided that my purpose in life was to write words that people pay money to read. Like a lot of young people who decide that their destiny has revealed itself, I decided that any academic endeavor not directly related to the pursuit thereof was an insulting waste of time. I was going to become a writer, and that was that.

If I never took a job that required me to write about baseball, I might still hate math. But a funny thing happened after I started covering the Phillies for the Daily News. I realized that numbers were pretty damn useful. Where once I envisioned myself as a chronicler of the abstract I was now spending hours poring through the massive amounts of data that quantify every concrete aspect of the game. I began to look at sports from a perspective that had been foreign to me for the first eight years of my career. Like most writers, my initial attraction to sports was the human drama that plays out on its stages. We don’t write about sports – we write about people. That is a thing that writers say. And it is true – to an extent. The human drama will always be a reason why we care. My favorite stories are still the ones that have taken me inside the hearts and minds of the people who play these games. Tonight, I watched Daniel Nava step into the batter’s box against Jered Weaver, and I flashed back to the moment at Fenway Park when I watched him crush a grand slam off Joe Blanton in his first at bat as a major leaguer, and I listened to a couple of Boston reporters excitedly recite the path that had carried Nava to this point, from team manager at Santa Clara to junior college star to roster cut in the Independent League to Independent League star to 25-year-old non-prospect in the lower levels of the Red Sox organization to sitting in a dugout once inhabited by Ted Williams. That, my friends, is drama. It is why we watch.

If it wasn’t for numbers, the story might have ended there. But then I dialed up Nava’s web page at Baseball-Reference.com, and I looked at his .379 on base percentage, and his .453 slugging percentage, and the 10 home runs he had produced in 327 plate appearances, and his story acquired another dimension: Daniel Nava wasn’t just an underdog who fought his way to the top, he was an underdog who reached the top and then became an important contributor to a resurgent team. He might be an outlier, but the outliers are the ones who prevent us from turning rules of thumb into law.

This struck me as relevant, because earlier in the day I had watched another potential outlier smack a double off of a hotshot starter named Kris Medlen. And while Darin Ruf might never post a .263/.363/.408 batting line in 227 major league games, a player like Daniel Nava shows that we can’t rule it out. But I am only able to say that because I know what .263/.363/.408 means, particularly when viewed with the context of the Phillies’ production in those same departments.

And that brings me back to my hatred of math. Turns out, I never hated math. I only hated the context in which I learned it, because the context did not mean anything to me. I did not care about the time of night that an east-bound train and west-bound train would cross paths, because I did not care about trains. I did not care about numbers on a blackboard, because those numbers did not signify anything. I did not care that you could add them and divide them and square them and derive them, because all that I saw were lines of chalk. But once those lines of chalk symbolized a reality that mattered to me, I started to care about the various conclusions that they could yield.

In a way, words and numbers are the same. Write the letters N-G-A-T-S on a blackboard, and they mean nothing to me. They are lines of chalk. Rearrange them so that they read, “angst,” and suddenly they start to speak. But only because I know what the word “angst” means, and the reality that it symbolizes. The goal of a writer is to utilize the words and sentences that most accurately reflect the reality he or she is attempting to relay to the reader. Sometimes, those words are numbers. Either way, the scrupulous selection and organization of those symbols – words or numbers or otherwise – is the writer’s most important mission. There is a certain trust granted by a reader that the words he is reading have been subjected to the same meticulous vetting as any mathematical solution that has been deemed to be accurate. An inaccurate word, or a word used in the wrong context, can have the same impact as an inaccurate number, or a number used in the wrong context. The unwitting turn reality into fallacy. The witting turn it into propaganda.

I have no idea what I hoped to articulate when I began to type this dispatch. Over the past few days, I have been energized with a desire to learn or re-learn the mathematical processes that I wrote off as irrelevant two decades ago. It is an intimidating desire that became only slightly more accessible after I spent a couple of hours with some Calculus I lecture notes I found online. So I decided to write about it, and I think that I will continue to do so as I attempt to resume the development that my hubris arrested so many years ago. If anybody has any suggestions on some good pre-Calc resources on the Internet for somebody who needs a serious refresher, please holler. In an information age where words are getting emptier and, thus, easier to ignore, I can’t shake the desire for a better understanding of numbers and their various applications. After all, a thorough portrayal of reality requires a thorough understanding of it.

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