THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why the American Genius for Math Vanished

Why can't little Tiffany learn to program? What happened to the American genius for math? I've been wondering about this for a long time, but suddenly I saw the cause during the World Series last night.

Imagine a computer that runs on chewing tobacco. Shouldn't be that hard -- just picture your basic Major League Baseball manager, leaning on the dugout rail. He looks worried. Then he spits. That one.

Now, if you could look inside the heads of the two guys running the contenders in the World Series this week, you'd see a 3D array of numbers flying by. With every pitch, with every attempted steal, with every out, an entire universe of numbers inside the manager's head is re-computed.

I had taken a hiatus from baseball for quite a while, but with two California teams in the playoffs my wife and I decided to get into the spirit. Although the Dodgers and the Angels have gone by the wayside, we're completely hooked.

And having not watched television coverage of baseball for quite awhile, I suddenly realized why American's math scores have gone in the toilet for the last ten years. Baseball is a game of numbers, of billions of statistics of the most arcane kinds which record everything that's ever happened in professional baseball going back more than 100 years. The statistical history of baseball may be the single greatest resource of meaningful numbers on the planet, including the human genome. And probably a lot more important.

When I was a kid, and when Nate Silver (statistics genius) and Michael Lewis (Moneyball--basically about how understanding the numbers in baseball is more important than wads of cash for name players) were kids, everyone knew the batting averages of every player on the home team. We knew slugging percentages, on base percentages. We understood the implications of having a switch hitter deep in the lineup.

We knew that the catcher ran the defense -- that only he knew what pitch he was signaling the pitcher to throw next, and that the catcher knew what the odds were a particular batter was going to pull or flare that pitch. We understood that the catcher's job included subtle shifts of the outfield and infield almost all the time.

Raising my kids under the kind tutelage of Vin Scully, the dean of all baseball announcers, they learned that baseball was a deep game of complex strategies. The battle between pitcher and batter was just the simplest surface of what was actually going on. When Scully was calling a game, the video director would follow Scully's cues. So if the real duel was about the shortstop sneaking up behind the runner at second for a pickoff play, the camera would constantly check back at second, because that's where, according to Scully, that particular runner, point two six five percent of the time against lefties, could be picked off. Now, none of my guys has yet won a Nobel for science, but with that kind of rich, hands-on training, they could have easily won it if they had really wanted it.

Now to the current absolutely barren "coverage" of the playoffs and World Series. The video direction, and the announcers, cover the pitcher, pitch placement, and almost nothing else. We almost never see where the infield is set, and never where the outfielders are playing. What we do get is lots of shots of players spitting -- the result of a long lens raking through the dugout, magnifying the effect, so half the time us TV viewers can't tell if it's raining or just a vast downpour of spit.

And what about that rich field of high definition screen real estate? So much space, so little information. We get a little box that shows the runners on base and the count on the batter, but nowhere do we get the batter's NAME (unbelievable, actually) their average during the season, their average during the playoffs, or any of the dozens of bits and pieces that are running through the manager's mind as he decides what to do next, pitch by pitch, out by out.

Baseball strategy really is something of a computer that runs on a chaw of tobacco. But with the current coverage that has dumbed the game down to only its most surface components, all little Tiffany gets to see, is the spit. Meanwhile, her innate genius for numbers is being cruelly starved.