Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #21 — On Playing Each Game: “But that’s not supposed to happen!”

#21 — On Playing Each Game: “But that’s not supposed to happen!”

Statistics play an important role in baseball. Many fans and even some sportscasters enjoy tracking and quoting such measures as batting averages, runs batted in, earned run averages, won-lost percentages, and so on. This is all interesting information, and for many it makes the game more enjoyable. But for the players, coaches, managers, and front office staff, these simple statistics are not nearly enough. Much greater detail is needed to support what goes on in the dugouts and on the field as each manager and coaching staff tries to outthink or outguess the other. Every major league team has at least one full-time statistician to track the patterns and performance of their own players and those of other teams. The work of these specialists is so thorough that by mid-season they know what a particular opposing pitcher is likely to throw to their clean-up hitter in a late inning with a tie score, a two-strike count, and runners in scoring position. This kind of information helps managers and coaches make tactical decisions during a game, and baseball strategists have a maxim: always go with the percentage!

There is a long-held belief among players and coaches that over the course of a season, the breaks tend to even out. To be sure, they also know that nothing is guaranteed, that despite all their analysis, bad hops still happen, bad calls still get made, good players still have slumps, mediocre players still have hot streaks, and the weather is still uncertain. In other words, during any given game a lot can happen that cannot be predicted by statistics. Everyone who is part of baseball understands and accepts that uncertainty is part of the game, just as it is part of life. When it comes to life outside the ballpark, however, understanding and acceptance are not so common.

In my therapy practice I occasionally see people who simply refuse to acknowledge that the only certainty in their daily lives is the lack of certainty. Raised and ruled by the idea of “supposed to,” these people stubbornly resist the idea of adopting the attitude of a ballplayer. They just cannot conceive of dealing with life by giving it their best and taking their chances. Instead, they view life as a strictly black and white, right or wrong proposition, with rules for everyone to follow and assured outcomes for those who do and for those who do not. The mindset is reminiscent of the stereotypical perception of 1950s western movies in which the good guys wore white hats, the bad guys wore black hats, and in the end the good guys always came out ahead. Naturally, these people see themselves as the good guys, and they usually come to my office because in spite of doing everything they are supposed to do, they are not coming out ahead.

One of these was Chet, a late middle-aged man who had been diagnosed as clinically depressed, prescribed an antidepressant, and referred to me for therapy. While I understood the basis for this diagnosis, as I got to know him I found Chet frequently more angry and resentful than depressed. He had come from “a good family” and attended “good schools,” and he had done everything he was encouraged to do by his parents, his teachers, his friends’ parents, and every other influential adult in his life. He scrupulously followed a regimen of “clean living,” kept in shape and performed well in sports, while also maintaining honor grades in his studies. After college and graduate school, Chet married his high school girlfriend and went to work for a major accounting firm, where he performed steadily, if unspectacularly, in his job over the next 15 years. During that time, the couple had the expected two children, a boy and a girl, and Chet came to see himself as on his way to the success he had been raised to expect. He was unaware that gradually, imperceptibly things were shifting toward the unexpected.

In a surprise move, the firm where he worked was taken over by a larger one, and Chet found himself reporting to someone younger and less qualified than he. Soon there were internal power struggles, and Chet was drawn into a morass of organizational politics for which he was ill prepared. Unable to cope with the almost constantly shifting alliances and expectations, Chet was finally let go. Thoroughly bewildered, he spent over two years vainly trying to obtain another position. He received several offers, but none that matched what he felt he deserved to have. After all, he had followed the rules, done the work, and made the sacrifices, so where was his reward? It finally came in the form of a bank foreclosure and notice from his wife that she was leaving, taking the children, and filing for divorce. After several months of often bitter recriminations, Chet had finally succumbed to the depression that led him to my office. It took many months after that for him to acknowledge that perhaps life didn’t really owe him anything except the chance to go out and do his best every day and deal with what comes.

Too often we forget that life is like a baseball season, requiring all the same kinds of changes and adjustments and shifts in our thinking. And while we can follow the percentages and formulate strategies, we must also be prepared to set these aside and regroup when things don’t go our way. After all, during the course of a season, each game must be played in its turn, and it is not played on paper or with a computer; it is played on the field.

In the 1960 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the percentages clearly favored the Yankees. After all, they had won the Series seven times in the previous eleven years, including five of those years in a row. Still, the Pirates proved surprisingly competitive, and after six games the Series was tied. The seventh and final game was played at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The Pirates started quickly, scoring four runs in the first two innings, but then the Yankees answered, and going into the bottom of the eighth, the Pirates trailed 7 to 4. With a runner on first and Pirate fans hoping for a rally, outfielder Bill Virdon hit a routine ground ball to the Yankees’ sure-handed shortstop Tony Kubek for what looked like a certain double-play. But at the last moment the ball took a fiercely bad hop and hit Kubek in the throat, knocking him out of the game and preserving the rally. The Pirates scored five runs in the eighth, which the Yankees answered with two runs in the top of the ninth. Then in the bottom of the ninth, with the score tied 9 to 9 and a count of one ball and no strikes, Pirates’ second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit his historic home run over the left field wall to win the game and the Series for Pittsburgh.

The odds makers and statisticians could not have predicted that a seemingly routine ground ball and a bad hop would determine the outcome of a game, a series, and a season. Yet that’s the way it goes in baseball and in life; despite our plans and preparations, we are promised nothing except life itself and what we are able to make of it. If we can accept that reality, then we can free ourselves from the burden of expectations and continue to pursue what makes life meaningful for us. And we can also remember that no matter how things go today, even if plans fail and things seem unfair, tomorrow is a whole new ballgame.

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