An ode to Birds, base­ball

We so love our team and the sport be­cause their chal­lenges re­flect our own

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Kati Hill Kati Hill (Kati_Hill@hks.har­vard.edu; Twitter: @kati_hill97) is a Maryland na­tive and a com­man­der in the U.S. Navy. She is cur­rently study­ing at Har­vard Univer­sity’s Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment as a na­tional se­cu­rity fel­low. The thoughts exp

Base­ball is a game of met­rics and mea­sures. A quick In­ter­net search will give you Ty Cobb’s ca­reer bat­ting av­er­age (.366), Cy Young’s earned run av­er­age (2.63) and the num­ber of home runs Frank Robinson hit in his ca­reer (586). Ev­ery mo­ment of ev­ery sea­son is measured and an­a­lyzed, captured for pos­ter­ity. We’ve been col­lect­ing base­ball data for so long that we can pre­dict, with some cer­tainty, the out­come of a sea­son be­fore it even starts. Based on the num­bers, there was no rea­son to think that the 2016 sea­son would end with the Ori­oles in con­tention for any­thing other than a mid­dle-of-the-pack fin­ish. So why even watch, or more im­por­tantly, why be­lieve?

Like ev­ery Birds fan this sea­son, I knew the odds. Be­fore a pitch was thrown in the 2016 sea­son, the saber­met­rics web­site Fan­graphs ran the Ori­oles’ sched­ule thou­sands of times and con­cluded that we had just a 4.5 per­cent chance of win­ning the Amer­i­can League East, the low­est prob­a­bil­ity of any team in the di­vi­sion. Back in April, any ra­tio­nal Birds fan would have started mak­ing other plans for Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber, bet­ting that by then their beloved O’s would be well out of con­tention.

In­stead, I was glued to the TV. A part of me be­lieved that if only I were faith­ful, this time would be dif­fer­ent. Our boys were in the win col­umn af­ter Open­ing Day against the Twins. Mother’s Day saw six home runs at the Yard. There were seven W’s in a row in May. Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and Jonathan Schoop were hit­ting. There were walk-offs in ex­tra in­nings, Ubaldo Jimenez giv­ing the O’s its first com­plete game in two years, and home runs — so many home runs. It was an im­prob­a­ble, joy­ful sea­son, with the Ori­oles lead­ing the AL East from May to Au­gust.

As the weather started to cool, the in­evitable and heart­break­ing “re­gres­sion to­ward the mean” started crop­ping up on sports pages and blogs, as first the Blue Jays and then the Red Sox got hot just as the play­offs loomed. For those who don’t bow to the gods of statis­tics, re­gres­sion to­ward the mean ba­si­cally amounts to “it all evens out even­tu­ally.” Over the course of 162 games, the Ori­oles were sim­ply un­likely to over­come their ag­gre­gate statis­tics against more tal­ented, bet­ter-re­sourced teams. It’s just math­e­mat­ics.

The amaz­ing thing about base­ball, though, is that it isn’t just about that stats. De­spite what the num­bers tell us, a sea­son is made up of 162 games of nine in­nings and in­fi­nite emo­tions. To the home­town fan, our pitcher is the shep­herd David, hurl­ing a stone to­ward Go­liath armed with a bat in­stead of a sword. When an overea­ger slug­ger flails at an out­side pitch, he suf­fers from Achilles’ fa­tal weak­ness. Night af­ter night, pitcher and bat­ter are pro­tag­o­nist and an­tag­o­nist, two sides of a strug­gle be­tween dark­ness and light (yes, I’m talk­ing about games where we play the Yan­kees). To swing or not to swing? Whether it is no­bler in the mind’s eye to throw a slider or a curve, that is the ques­tion, played out thou­sands of times in a sea­son.

We watch base­ball for the same rea­son we go to the movies — to see our­selves re­flected. The boys of sum­mer get up ev­ery morn­ing and go to the ball­park ev­ery day. Ev­ery at-bat is a chal­lenge, ev­ery field po­si­tion a choice. Like us, some­times they choose well and turn the per­fect dou­ble play. Other times, they choose poorly and go down with­out swing­ing the bat. We­have to be­lieve in them, the way we be­lieve in our­selves. We have to be­lieve that in the ag­gre­gate, we choose cor­rectly.

As Walt Whit­man sup­pos­edly said, base­ball is a game that helps us “re­pair our losses.” Our team is our sur­ro­gate for our fears, our ap­a­thy and our self-doubt. Their tri­umphs are our tri­umphs, and their fail­ures ... well, those are ours as well. Some base­ball players will strike out more times in a sea­son than they will make con­tact. But they still go to the plate, know­ing that the odds are against them. When they defy the odds, we cel­e­brate the pos­si­bil­ity that we too can de­feat the Fates, if we only have faith.

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

The Ori­oles’ Manny Machado cel­e­brates back-to-back solo home runs with Chris Davis against the Hous­ton Astros at Ori­ole Park at Cam­den Yards in Au­gust. This was a sea­son of home runs, high hopes and ul­ti­mate de­feat.

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