We are a superstitious lot, we sports fans. If sitting facing east works on the day the Jets finally beat the Patriots in the playoffs, we better sit that way against the Steelers. Your Trail Blazers come from 20 down to beat the Lakers, better wear the same socks for when Kobe and crew come to the Rose Garden next time. After all, what usually makes the fans fanatics are those little peccadilloes that we never think make the difference in winning and losing...but why tempt fate right? Sports as we know is a game of repetition as a means to success, and all those tried and truisms for success on the court or the ice or the pitch have to be factually correct don't they? "Respect the streak," "Keep doing what you are doing," "Act, don't think too much," are very much the reasons why athletes are successful, and why we as fans follow and believe so passionately in our guys or girls or our teams or clubs.
But what if all those superstitions, all those repetitive hours, all those truisms (or at least most) that we built up in sport were not exactly true. What if the hottest hitter or the best shooter didn't stand any better of a chance as to get on first the next time up, or of making the next shot, than he did before. Would it make games less fun, would we regale in the streak any less, or would we still marvel at the hottest of hitters or best of goal scorers? What if...
Many of those facts that lead to legend are explored in Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played And Games Are Won, by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, two childhood friends who probably spent way too much time staring at box scores and watching losing streaks end or continue, but probably not too much more time than most young Americans who love the games we play. These guys just took the time to ask the questions as to why...and found some interesting answers. Truth be told, Wertheim, a Penn grad and senior writer for Sports Illustrated, is one of a generation of solid story tellers. In addition for all his work for SI, he has penned very entertaining works on topics ranging from tennis to Mixed Martial Arts and pool hustling, each time taking us inside a world of athletes we rarely knew that well. Moskowitz on the other hand provides the empirical view of the passionate sports fan from his background as a behavior economist at The University of Chicago.
Together the two look at everything from hitting and shooting streaks to why officials make or don't make calls in particular games, and try to explode or at least explore, most every "myth" the fan associates with sport. Ice the kicker? No need. Home field advantage? Not as important from a physical standpoint as from a psychological one. Get the ball to the hot shooter? His shots get more risky with each one he or she makes. Defense wins? Well...yes, the authors prove that one does indeed hold water. But not as much water as one would think. If you are an official, be prepared for some of the harshest of news...no matter how hard you try, the calls or lack of calls, always seem to be slanted to the situation, and even the best of refs or umps in any sport can be effected more by the circumstances around them, or what is supposed to happen, than they ever could care to admit.
So in the end what does Scorecasting do for those in the stands who love watching the games? Does it make us throw up our hands and shout at the moon or drive us off to watch more interminable hours of reality shows or American Idol? Do we thumb our noses at the research and stay with what we think or know to be true in our hearts as opposed to our heads? Does it make us any less passionate about the games we watch and those who play them? Hopefully not.
Stephen Dubner's work Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell's Blink didn't make people change all their beliefs or diffuse their passions, they provided pause for thought as to why things are, just like any good research work should. They give the reader a chance to answer a question about why things are why they are, should they choose to ask the question. Also like Scorecasting, they provide good conversation, whether it is at a barstool or in a lecture hall.
Whether all this debunking is needed by the average fan is probably open for debate. Many times the superstitions of fans are as much about NOT knowing the facts than they are about consuming every piece of data. That unknown is really what makes sports fun. Then there is also the great unknown of the human factor...the belief that no matter what the odds say, that DiMaggio can hit in number 52, or maybe Kobe can someday get his 100 and join Wilt in the stratosphere. That's really why we spend the money and go to the games, and what sets the live event at any price apart from other forms of entertainment. You never know.
In the end, Scorecasting is a good read, one that provokes debate and answers some questions, whether you believe the conclusions or not. It is not heavy handed in its thought and pokes fun at just enough personalities to make it more a narrative than a text book.
Who knows? A Knicks fan may read it moments before the orange and blue clinch a playoff spot. Then the superstition would be to keep reading it every year or every series, until that myth is debunked. Or maybe, just maybe, someone puts the book on a Cubs fans required reading for 2011, and the myth of the Bartman ball and other issues that have plagued Wrigley for over 100 years go by the boards. It would certainly take Scorecasting to mythic proportions, if only for the superstition. Logical? No. Fun to feed the passion of the fanatical. Definitely. That after all, is why we root, right? Not for the facts of what are, but for the myths of what can be.
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