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by Hannah Smart                                                                                                                  4904

A Nonstatistical Analysis of the Futility of Statistical Analysis


It’s 7:04 p.m. on Tuesday, May 30, and I’m about to enter Fenway Park for what will be my first ever major league baseball game, sponsored by several dozen companies I don’t want to give the satisfaction of listing here. On Jersey Street, where people queue up and discuss whether their e-tickets are downloaded and whether they’re on your phone or my phone and whether you’re sure those are the right ones, various strategically-placed stands sell assorted savory junk foods—one advertises PEANUTS – PISTACHIOS – CASHEWS, another is boasting ITALIAN SAUSAGE and ALL BEEF HOT DOGS, and one purports to offer something called MONSTAH BAGS.[1] All are overpriced the way only sports games’ food can afford to be overpriced.

Tonight, the Boston Red Sox will be facing the Cincinnati Reds.[2] The Sox far outrank the Reds, so people here are gearing up to be pumped, hyped, and generally pleased. The atmosphere is cheerfully optimistic. Accompanying me is my best friend and life partner, who I will hereby refer to as M____ (as a sort of John Barth-inspired gesture, as well as to protect his anonymity, but it’s more for the Barthian thing if I’m being honest).

My reasons for attending this game are twofold. The first is that M____ thought (and I agreed) that it would be a shame to live in Boston for two years—within walking distance of Fenway Park, no less—and never experience one of the most cherished Bostonian pastimes. The second is that I wanted to analyze just why it is that people enjoy watching professional sports and what (if any) crucial, fundamental defects make such enjoyment impossible for me.

And M____ is here to show me the ropes—he’s somewhat of an expert, having played baseball in elementary school, where he “never hit a single ball.” Luckily, the ability to hit balls is not a prerequisite for understanding baseball culture or the game’s rules, which rules are shaping up to be so convoluted and decision-tree-like that I wonder whether baseball is too ambitious of an entry point into the professional sports scene.[3]

I scan my ticket with some difficulty while a man I can only describe as a skinny Chris Farley tells me whether my phone is too high or too low with reference to the scanner and where to move it so that my ticket will be validated with whatever the maximum efficiency is for someone as inadept at scanning baseball tickets as myself. Throughout this interaction, I experience a creeping paranoia, like I’m in danger of being found out. I don’t know what they could even discover—I haven’t stolen anything, and I’m not attempting to smuggle food that was purchased elsewhere for a reasonable retail price or any other sorts of illegal contraband into the stadium, but I feel like an infiltrator nonetheless. I wonder how many games I’d have to attend before this sense of impostordom would subside. Does everyone else here also feel like a fraud or a mercenary, to some extent? I don’t think so. I’ll get more into why I don’t think so later.

The indoor section of the stadium is gray and drab and has a vague fried scent that somehow doesn’t resemble any fried food I’m familiar with, and I realize that what I’m smelling is the fry itself. I’m currently wearing a single N95, but there are no other masks in sight, which to me indicates a widespread and generalized lack of concern for the potential future consequences of one’s decisions. An ability to live in the moment, in other words. There’s a certain at-ease-ness to sports fans that I simply don’t possess—not in my everyday life, and not at even my loosest, which, to be fair, is probably most people’s business casual. As we head outside to our seats, my frustration at not being able to achieve the level of Zen looseness this place embodies begins to mount.

Our seats are pretty good ones—seats that someone who appreciated baseball a bit more than me might be really jazzed about. They’re slightly elevated and about ten degrees to the right of the batter, so that the path of pitched balls is nearly perpendicular to us. The older fans seated at the end of our row stand up and awkwardly shuffle out without making eye contact, and I don’t sense that they’re in any way resentful about having to let us in. There’s a stereotype about sports fans being angry and belligerent, but they seem friendly so far. The friendliness feels more like indifferent friendliness than true generosity, but perhaps there’s no meaningful distinction.

Salesmen traverse the stadium’s rows, hefting crates of various snacks and drinks over their heads, making a real show of it, as if it requires immense skill.[4] Concessions offerings phase in and out of rotation, but they include lemonade, seltzer, Bud Light, pizza, popcorn, cotton candy, and pretzels. The vendors sort of purposefully meander, barking the name of whatever they’re selling for those unable to read the giant printed capital letters on their crates.[5] A giant screen on the opposite side of the stadium alternately displays players’ stats, close-up shots of the game, and baseball fast facts like what the difference between a curveball and a slider is, which difference I don’t have time to note before the screen changes again. Whenever batters switch, music that sounds like something that would have been played at one of my high school dances blares over Fenway Park’s speakers for just a few seconds at a time[6]—there’s a persistent refusal to allow even a moment of the game to pass without some form of entertainment.

Sports fans adhere to a complex social code of clapping, sighing, booing, cheering, and “oh”-ing. We are presumably supposed to know when to do each one because the audience of 37,000 is completely synched. I’m always a second or two behind the curve, and I never quite know why I’m making any given exhortation, besides that everyone else is doing it. I’m also acutely aware of how many people are coughing. As a result of the mass cultural trauma of the past few years, I’ve developed a kind of cough echolocation by which I can precisely pinpoint how far away and in which direction the culprit is sitting. At 7:12 p.m., I upgrade my N95 mask. This new one is yellow and nerdy-looking and sticks directly to my face, ideally allowing no room for any unfiltered air to pass through. I put the old one back on top of it for good measure.

At 7:21, the first audience ball-catch occurs. The lucky fans are at about sixty degrees to the left of M____ and me and seem to be a family of about four. Were it not for the giant net covering our own seats, M____ and I would likely see a fair share of balls coming our way (which, to be fair, is probably the same line of thinking the net-constructors had). According to M____, ball-catching is a significant facet of baseball culture. That’s one thing I knew already, having read Don DeLillo’s Underworld and being the annoying type who never misses an opportunity to mention it. I ask M____ whether seats are often chosen on the basis of ball-catching probability, and he doesn’t know (all expertise must end somewhere, I suppose). Nonetheless, I find myself dully wishing we’d picked un-netted seats—catching a ball would make for a great story, and I could throw in some DeLillo allusions too. I suppose this will have to be good enough.

I might not be shaping up to have much in common with the fans, but here’s something I share with a lot of the players: I’m left-handed. In the second inning, Boston plays four lefties in a row: Masataka Yoshida,[7] Jarren Duran, Enmanuel Valdez, and Reese McGuire. They say left-handedness is often an advantage in professional sports because while left-handed players are accustomed to going against righties, the inverse is not true. When it seems like half of both teams are left-handed,[8] I’m not sure that logic holds.

Balls are tossed with an inhuman speed that simply has to be seen to be believed. They’re more shot than thrown, fired like giant bullets across the entirety of the field in about as long as it takes to say, “whoa.” They land neatly in catchers’ mitts as if drawn there by some magnetic force or hurtled down an invisible, turbo-charged zip-line. [9] Of the game’s hundreds of throws, only one is dropped—by the Sox—and the outrage the folly produces makes me fear for the guy’s safety. Much like the audience, their cheers and oohs and ahhs and ohhhh….aw!s[10] in perfect harmony, the players apparently possess a hive mind. There’s never any disagreement over who should retrieve a bat and to whom he should throw and which base’s runner should be targeted, and I consider the level of discipline and obsession that must be required to become part of a shared consciousness like this. Surely there isn’t anything in my own psychic makeup that precludes me from reaching such state. And yet I never have. I have no clue what it would be like to be positive that every person in your immediate vicinity knows your thoughts.

Sometimes mindreading isn’t enough, however, and musings must be verbalized. People here talk continuously and loudly.[11] From what I can surmise, the most common topic of conversation is baseball—usually the current game, though sometimes earlier games are referenced, and often, general baseball theory is invoked. Here are some real quotes I heard during the first hour of the game:

“That looked like a strike, but it wasn’t.”

(In reference to the sound of a ball being solidly hit) “It’s such a pleasant noise.”

“As they make it to each base they should have to kiss, fondle, and then have sex with the basemen. Don’t you agree?” (No discernible response)

“Refs have to be really okay with being hit in the face. In ref practice I wonder if they say, ‘Time to get hit in the face a few times. We need to destigmatize [sic?] it.’”

“I’m gonna send that picture to my wife saying, ‘We’re hydrating with friends.’”

That last comment, made by the same man who earlier had the petulant stalemate with the vendor, was uttered right before taking a selfie of himself and the others in his row, their two-minute-overdue seltzers on proud display. What’s worth noting is that none of these people knew each other when the game started. They all arrived separately and then somehow got intimately enough acquainted to want to be in a photo together. I’ve now been surrounded by thousands of people for over an hour and even forced to interact with some of them, and yet the only person I’ve actually spoken to is M____. This feels significant. The reason it feels significant is because M____ and I also have a full row of strangers surrounding us, and we have not even attempted to talk to them, nor they us, and there seems to be a kind of silent mutual agreement between us all that we aren’t here to make friends with each other. This is a relief—I do not want to be their friend, and I feel strongly that they don’t want to be mine. They’d probably be able to sniff out my impostor status from a mile away, so at only a few feet, the stench must be overpowering. Besides, I just don’t feel like we’d have anything in common.

But we do have at least one similarity: we all decided to attend this particular Red Sox game. Their reasoning for attending might be vastly different from mine, but maybe it’s not—the point is, I have no clue what their reasoning is, because I can’t get up the courage to start a conversation. I wouldn’t even know what to say. Maybe something like, “Why are you here?” But that’s the kind of question that seems to foretell its own answer and would likely only succeed at pissing them off.

If it seems like I’m making a lot of assumptions here, it’s because I am. I guess that’s another way that I’m different from the others here—while I’m happy to let my brain run wild with hypotheticals, they’re focused on what’s in front of them. For the people in the row ahead of me, “what’s in front of them” (or beside them, more accurately) are five other Red Sox fans whom they’ve never met before and might not ever speak to again but with whom they’re still perfectly content striking up temporary, fleeting friendships. I’ve never had a single fleeting thing in my life.

These insights all occur during the seventh inning, while Cincinnati scores a run that brings the score to 4-0, and I observe with mild detachment that the existential dread exhibited by my fellow game attendees mirrors my own,[12] but I don’t dwell on that similarity. Instead, I come up with more ways in which we differ. One obvious one is that these people, as evidenced by the widespread distress the Cincinnati lead is causing, are very invested in Boston winning. I, despite my red-and-navy V-neck advertising the Red Sox, do not particularly care. If pressed, I may even express a slight, negligible, deep-seated preference for the Reds, if only because their victory would be a lot more interesting from a journalistic analysis perspective. I briefly muse on whether this makes me some kind of low-level professional-sports psychopath.

Another difference is that baseball fans seem genuinely energized by crowds, while I am drained by them. Whenever teams switch, the stadium’s giant screen plays zoomed-in live-cam footage of audience members, and the camera victims all react the same way—first, they have the oblivious expressions of those who are unaware they’re being filmed; next, one of them looks up at the screen and then briefly down again and then back up with the intensity of a dawning realization before hurriedly nudging the other implicated parties so that they can all whoop and wave. At one instance, the camera pans to a chubby kid of around ten, who is doing a kind of rotating-fists-plus-belly-roll dance move and maintains his cool even after noticing he’s on the big screen. He receives a great collective laugh from the stadium, which I’m sure does wonders for his ego.[13]

At 8:44 p.m., I participate in a “wave.”[14] This is a successful one—it travels around the entire stadium three times, and by the third, I’m wondering whether I’ve been trapped in a perma-wave reminiscent of the Nixonian seventies’ descriptions of perma-trips, but it mercifully fizzles out after a particularly solid bat by Boston. Some people in the booth next to us try and fail to start their own wave and are subjected to light ridicule by some of the meaner fans.

At 8:58, Boston brings in a new pitcher, the left-handed Joely Rodríguez, whose introduction is a hype-inciting promo video in which he does the sign of the cross. The switch-out does seem to be a Hail Mary of sorts. Tack on an Our Father and it’ll be like I’m right back in Catholic elementary school.

The religious nature of Rodríguez’s video does raise some questions about the religious nature of baseball spectatorship in general, however. While this game is not quite like any other experience I’ve had, my most comparable point of reference is probably Catholic Mass.[15] The ritual aspect, the way everybody knows exactly what to do and when, the familiarity and predictability, the collective spirit that is greater than the sum of its parts…I could go on. In short, sports fandom is essentially secular church. If you don’t believe me, try insulting your closest male relative’s favorite team and watch as his face assumes the violated expression of a devout Christian forced to attend an occult-themed strip club.[16] A similar argument could be made for concerts—any gathering with likeminded people for the purpose of observing and occasionally participating in a spectacle falls into the category I have in mind (which, to avoid clunkiness, I’m going to refer to as Crowded Spectacle from now on).

On the level of Crowded Spectatorship, it’s easy for me to connect with sports fans—I’ve been to many such events and even enjoyed some of them. However, I still can’t help but point out that there’s one obvious difference between sports matches and other Crowded Spectacles: competition. If you’re devoutly religious and attend a church service, you’re almost definitely going to come away feeling closer to your own personal conception of God, save for some acute spiritual crisis. If you see your favorite band in concert, you’re pretty much banking on having a great time, or else you’re asking for a refund. At a sports match, there’s no such guarantee. The looming possibility that you’ll have an awful time is what makes it exciting to fans. Enduring the depressing depths of watching your team get trounced only makes their eventual comeback (if it happens) feel more earned. This is not a feeling I can relate to. To me, it’s a bit like buying concert tickets and not knowing whether they’re for Radiohead or Imagine Dragons, or attending Mass and being told that today’s reading will come from the Book of Satan.

But despite the unpredictability of live professional baseball being the whole fun of it, baseball cataloguers crunch serious numbers keeping careful record of teams’ wins and losses and players’ individual profiles, helping to ensure that game outcomes are, in theory, incredibly predictable. And yet, their predictions still aren’t perfect. For example, the Red Sox should be winning tonight, but after a grand slam in the seventh inning that brings the score up to 8-0 Cincinnati, that result is looking increasingly less likely, and spectators are beginning to react the way you might expect Radiohead fans who have unexpectedly found themselves at an Imagine Dragons concert to react. I fear that petty crimes of passion may soon be afoot in Fenway.

At 9:26 p.m., it’s time for us all to sing an off-tune rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a longstanding baseball tradition, according to M____. The screen displays tonight’s accompanist: an older man crouched over an electric piano that’s dialed to a kind of eerie Depeche-Modeish preset. The man has the posture of someone who has spent decades playing organs at church services. The audience stands for the song, and I nearly place my right hand over my heart, likely because I’ve subconsciously noted the commonalities between various spectator singing rituals. I sing like the best of them. I might be an impostor, but if you saw me now, you’d never know it. I even experience one moment of brief elation—a sliver of what I assume sports fans must feel for entire games[17]—followed by an intense wave of internal backlash for allowing myself to feel it. I’ve done nothing to earn it.

And then I ask myself why my contentment needs to feel “earned.” Is this the true difference between them and me?[18] And isn’t there a kind of sick solipsism implicit in my whole endeavor? For the past three hours, I’ve been operating under the assumption that I possess some unalterable deficiency instead of simply admitting that I actively and deliberately position myself against an amorphous social mass whom I have no real desire to get to know, that I make willful and calculated efforts to poison potentially worthwhile experiences by doing things like bringing notepads to organized sports events on which to make lists of all the reasons I don’t enjoy organized sports. I, in short, am addicted to isolation. And my addiction has only grown more insatiable over the past few years, during which I’ve had an actual excuse for not forging transient yet meaningful connections with others or even maintaining the long-term connections I already had. Maybe I don’t just dislike unpredictability but actually fear it. Maybe I’ll never properly join polite society for the same reason I’ll never enjoy a baseball game—it’s impossible to know what will happen. Social participation is an experiment wherein others are dependent variables swirling around in a giant interactive communal soup, bumping into each other and affecting each other and changing the trajectory of each other’s lives in ways that can never be foreseen or statistically measured. The same unpredictability that’s invigorating for some is, to me, a nightmare scenario reminiscent of the one happening in Fenway Park right now as thousands of Red Sox fans grapple with the reality that the Red Sox are going to lose a baseball game they should, by all estimates, be winning.

But they’ll get over it. They’ll live. Maybe I will too.



[1] There seems to be an all-caps theme. What probably happened here is that one stand decided to put their product names in all caps to make a statement, and then the others felt like if they didn’t follow suit, they were making an implicit counter-statement about their own offerings not being exciting or vibrant or tasty enough to warrant full capitalization.

[2] It took a while for me to adjust to the confusion—“the Reds,” to me, sounds like an abbreviation of “Red Sox.” I’d like to hereby propose that all Major League Baseball teams form a kind of UNish tribunal to compare names and ensure no two mascots are too similar.

[3] For example, did you know that in baseball, something called a “square” is used for determining how strikes are counted? M____ describes the “square” as such: “Imagine like the prime area where the bat will hit the ball, right? Which is like right in front of the catcher. It’s invisible. It doesn’t physically exist. You just have to know where it is. If it’s out of the square and you don’t swing, then you get a ‘ball.’ At four ‘balls,’ you get to walk for free to the next base. But if it’s out of the square and you do swing, you’ll get a strike.”

[4] And perhaps it does—there’s certainly a degree of upper body strength necessary, or at the very least, there’s a real talent to not letting excruciating bicep pain show on one’s face.

[5] It’s difficult to fully gauge the complex relationship concessions sellers have with sports fans. Before purchasing refreshments, fans tend to complain that the offerings are too expensive, probably as a kind of preemptive penance for the poor (albeit small-scale) financial decision they’re about to make. People who aren’t interested in buying seem apathetic—like they don’t even notice the sellers—or mildly annoyed. Early in the game, I witness a passive-aggressive exchange that occurs between one seltzer seller (a plump, East-Coast-cheery guy with a wrist tattoo displaying the years 2007, 2013, and 2018*) and the newly formed friend group of fans in the row in front of me, during which the fans hesitantly ask to purchase some seltzer, and the seller tells them he’ll “be right back. Five minutes,” and the guy in front of me and slightly off to the right, who is virtually physically indistinguishable from the seller minus the absent wrist tattoo, says, “I bet he’ll be right back” in that way people do when they’re sort of challenging someone to not live up to his promise, and the seller apparently hears this, because when he returns, he says, “Sorry. It took seven minutes.” The buyers and seller seem to be on all right terms by the end of it, though, because the purchase still takes place, and the seller thanks the buyers graciously, and I’m left wondering what exactly the point of all that was.

*Later research informed me that these are the years the Sox won the World Series, and I can’t help but note that the next number in the sequence should mathematically be 2022.

[6] At 8:24 p.m., M____ identified a song as Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” quipping, “How much money does Daft Punk make from baseball games?” A bit later, the stadium blasted “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO, which a decade ago was ubiquitous to the point of tedium. In other words, my initial sense of the music selections’ early-2010s-high-school-dance vibe was pretty much spot on.

[7] who I must admit brought me a small amount of left-handed pride when he scored a double homerun in the ninth inning and was in large part responsible for Boston taking the game to a tight 9-8 Reds lead at the last minute, making Boston’s loss feel, if not quite triumphant, at least a bit less pathetic than it otherwise would have

[8] I later looked up the official statistic, and the left-handedness rate for professional baseball players is somewhere between 25 and 40 percent, which is not quite half but is a noticeable jump from the 10-percent rate of the general population and probably explains why lefties seem so startlingly ubiquitous here.

[9] By the third inning or so, the catching thing seemed so practiced and frankly creepy that I began wondering how many baseball functions are dependent on catches’ success—for example, does a dropped pitch by the home plate catcher count as a strike? (I looked this one up later, and it turns out that there’s an “uncaught third strike” rule with so many caveats and conditionals that it requires an entire Wikipedia page, and the rabbit hole runs deeper than I’m willing to delve in this essay. Nonetheless, if I were to ask anyone in the stadium about the rule, I have no doubt I’d receive a confident and accurate answer.* Point being, baseball is complicated, and baseball fans are perfectly willing to invest intellectual energy into understanding the nuances of something that matters to them.

*And that’s just basic, entry-level stuff—I haven’t even gone into how many baseball fans dutifully retain hundreds of statistical datapoints: their teams’ batting averages, seasonal hit and run (these verbs here being independent from one another) numbers, batting averages against right-handed pitchers (because apparently the lefties throw off the data by a statistically significant amount), etc. It’s not unlike my own childhood penchant for memorizing entire Star Wars visual dictionaries, complete with details on the size, speed, and make of ships that only appear for one shot in the entire saga, as well as comprehensive profiles of prequel characters who mostly just sit in the corner and nod contemplatively during official Jedi gatherings.

[10] This latter exhortation tends to happen when a bat looks like it will land fair, only to barely whirl out of bounds at the last possible moment.

[11] The decibel level is mostly a compensatory thing—they need to be heard over everyone else who is also talking loudly (“loudly” is an understatement; the default voice register here seems to be kind of a measured yell). Still, I wish it were somehow possible to break the feedback loop and lower the overall volume of the stadium by collective agreement—as it stands, this feels like a scenario in which raucousness can only ever intensify, and I can feel an inkling of a headache developing.

[12] Just for fun, here are a couple statements I overheard as Boston’s situation began to look more dire:

“There he goes to second” (uttered with resigned observation while a Cincinnati player whose name I didn’t quite catch did exactly that).

“This is worse than watching the races. This is terrible” (thus confirming one of my suspicions about fandom-overlap in the sports-viewing world).

[13] In a later “dance-off” (aka, the ritual of showing fans onscreen while 2010s club music blares), the camera targets this same kid, who does a bit of a worse job hiding his excitement this time, and if that wasn’t cruel enough, it comes back to him a third time, and by now he must be thinking what are the chances? and has a face-clasping, HomeAloneish, seratonic meltdown right there on camera. This earns him more laughter from the crowd, as well as a fancy red “Dance-Off Champion” badge, which asserts itself across the bottom of the screen. If the game can be said to have any true MVP, it’s probably this kid.

[14] in which people stand up and sit down and then the people on their immediate left stand up and sit down, creating a visual effect too self-explanatory to name again, with active participants often throwing up their arms and cheering, for maximum impact

[15] whose hive mind I also never felt fully present in, it’s worth noting

[16] As we headed out for the night, M____ and I came up with a hushed but delightfully evil and for safety reasons purely theoretical variation on the Penis Game of our youth, in which one person whispers, “Go Cincinnati” and the other repeats it slightly louder, ad infinitum or ad- someone either fails to say the phrase at a higher volume than its last utterance or gets beat up by angry baseball fans.

[17] It is, of course, worth noting that the catalyst for my fleeting good spirits is the dramatically ironic dread with which the crowd sings the lines, “Let’s root, root, root for the home team/If they don’t win, it’s a shame.”

[18] But, like I said earlier, they also have this need. They earn joy by watching their team do well, whereas I earn it by….Well, the jury’s still out, I guess.

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