"Statistics are the lifeblood of baseball. In no other sport are so many available and studied so assiduously by participants and fans. Much of the game's appeal, as a conversation piece, lies in the opportunity the fan gets to back up opinions and arguments with convincing figures, and it is entirely possible that more American boys have mastered long division by dealing with batting averages than in any other way." —Leonard KoppettThe World Cup final's 2014 television audience encompassed something on the order of one-seventh of the world population. In the United States, 19 of the 20 most-watched TV programs in history are Super Bowls; Sunday Night Football has claimed the title of highest-rated prime-time series four times in five years. These figures make clear that sports are a big deal to a lot of people.
On another note, this author would argue that the lifeblood of baseball—and indeed sports as a whole—has more to do with plasma, platelets and hemoglobin, because without those it's logistically challenging to live, let alone play a sport. But then this author has also been accused of being a literalist*.
"Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable." —Mark TwainWhen I was about six, my father introduced me to Strat-O-Matic Baseball. I still have the box he bought in 1991. "Manage players who pitch, hit and throw like they do in real life," it claims. If you're not familiar with Strat-O-Matic, it compresses a baseball field to four dice, several charts and a series of player cards.
Dad's been a baseball fan since around the time they introduced the designated hitter, sat in on a calculus class on his college visit and still has more fun managing a budget than most people I know. For him, Strat-O-Matic was kind of the perfect storm. Since 2000 or so, I've probably played it more than he has. Put another way, I like baseball and I like numbers.
But we don't play these games on paper for a reason: actual athletes are more fun to watch, they're harder to predict, and you can fit more people in Wrigley Field than you can at my kitchen table, to name three. Stats are pretty cool. Actual games are several orders of magnitude cooler.
As much as we'd love to bring the White Sox and Americans back to life to see what would happen if the 1901 American League pitted the best western team against the best eastern team for the pennant, the principals have been dead for decades, so that's less than plausible. In that case, the stats will have to suffice.
It is also fallacious, however, to assume that everything in the world of sport can be reduced to numbers. Much as we'd like to make the intangible tangible, it doesn't always work. The sacks upon sacks of figures and facts have stories behind them that beget rationale, conventional wisdom and instinct. (Does Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal, which stood as the NFL record for decades, become more impressive if you know that he was born without toes on his kicking foot?)
So while my intention is for UNSR to feature numbers, it also cannot live on numbers alone. The tangent is our friend, flanking figures with facts and anecdotes, to say nothing of conjecture, hypothesis and "what if?". I can't say "the more inane, the better" because that philosophy gave rise to the XFL, but if The Guardian can find a way to relate King Philip II of Macedonia to modern soccer, there don't appear to be many unbreachable barriers in that aspect of this journey either.
"Correct thinkers think that 'baseball trivia' is an oxymoron: nothing about baseball is trivial." —George F. WillA lot of the highest-visibility sports are professional, which makes a fair bit of sense because professional leagues comprise people who get paid to hone their craft on a full-time basis. But the vast majority of athletes aren't professional and never will be: sport is also something people do because they like it, because it's exercise, or because it's not what they do all day, to name three examples.
I spent too much of my time in college working sporting events and not enough of my time in class, because the latter lacked things like standings and scoring leaders ... which our intramural department, for some reason, had. That also meant I probably spent as much time watching intramural teams as varsity sides.
One of these groups got publicity, because they represented the school and were often on scholarship. The other one featured rivalries between people that knew each other off the court and around campus. The quality of play in the former was higher. But the difference came more from the latter pitting a guard with a Timex Ironman watch against a forward with a neon yellow sweatshirt—both verboten under intercollegiate rules^—than any sense that the game was so bad it could be unrecognizable.
For the fan, there were far more games of the latter group to be had, since the average intercollegiate team plays roughly half of its games away from home. And for the player, the competitive outlet of the latter fit into a busy class schedule more than the former could. So for those participants, their Game 7 often came on a Sunday night in a recreation facility.
That is to say that Un/Necessary Sports Research will spend a lot of time on professional sport, but "a lot" and "all" are not the same thing. When we decide it's time to talk about where you can watch 24 college basketball games in the same gym over a span of 62 hours or so, that's going to happen. The posts about intramural sports are not likely to be frequent, but if it's germane, that's going to happen too.
It's true that sport is not, usually, a life-or-death proposition, which goes double for some of the things we'll cover here. That's why I wanted to call this "Unnecessary Sports Research."
But sometimes it's important as a vehicle to accomplish something else in life. Sometimes it's the means you have to blow off steam and remind yourself that life exists outside the office. Sometimes it's Sometimes it's important as a diversion—because it's not a life-or-death proposition. And that's why I was tempted to call it "Necessary Sports Research."
To contact Un/Necessary Sports Research, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on Twitter at @UnNecSportsRsch.
* And not without reason.
^ A close reading of Article 1, Section 27 of the NCAA playing rules suggests that you could argue a wristwatch is legal, if the referee ruled it not dangerous to other players and appropriate for basketball, since the functional component of timekeeping seems to rule out classifying it as "jewelry." In a practical sense, you're not winning this argument in any meaningful game, but for the sake of a thought experiment, it seems to work. (See also: previous footnote.)