September 18, 2016
One of the weird things about being a parent is that your kids will do things that will confuse you. I’m not talking about the things that confuse you and make you mad, like emptying an entire bottle of soap into the bathtub. Or things that confuse you and make you laugh, like a nonsense song or an accidentally urbane joke. No, they’ll do things that seem like weird glitches, odd actions that make you wonder when the next Child Patch is coming out to clean up the bugs. It’s these confusing moments that most occupy my reflections as a parent, and none more than the incessantly repeated action.
Parents are now nodding their head, but for non-parents, here’s what I mean. My daughter, Tilly, has started to get really invested in hide-and-seek. Not weird on its face, I know, but Tilly’s version of hide-and-seek is a little strange. She’ll hide in plain sight and loudly tell you to look around the room for her. Once you “find” her, she’ll usually jump out and yell and then hop back into her hiding place and ask you to find her again. Finding her this time means repeating your previous actions exactly, even up to the words you say before she jumps out. I know this sounds farfetched, but I have the phrase “I always check the modem when I can’t find someone” indelibly marked in my memory as proof.
Okay I hear you: my daughter likes to play a weird version of hide-and-seek and has quirky 2-year-old behavior. So—you’re asking—what? What could this possibly have to do with baseball or anything that would interest anyone outside of the most doting grandparent? Well, it’s in the explanation of why she does it that we find our hook. Apparently, repeated games—these sort of maddeningly scripted, exactly replicated games—are common in the development of toddlers, a sort of cognitive checkpoint in human growth.
Now, despite what you may have heard, I am not a brain scientist, so grains of salt all around. But as far as I can tell, the cognitive purpose of this repeated game is a sort of super charged version of object permanence. Object permanence is the funny trait we have as humans wherein we know that an apple does not disappear just because someone tucks it under the table. Or, in the case of infants, that mom or dad doesn’t disappear entirely when they put up their hands and say “peekaboo!” Believe it or not, this insight is actually something learned, not innate, and it’s something that has different levels of complexity. Object permanence, I’m suggesting, isn’t just about knowing that material objects have permanence, but also that social ones do as well.
So when Tilly plays hide-and-seek, she’s repeating the performance in an experimental effort to see how permanently the game exists in the world, testing its repetitive tension: Can I reproduce the exact conditions, and if so for how long? Put this way, I think you might be able to see how baseball comes into the picture, as the game is primarily focused on an extreme attempt to repeat the conditions of play: Every at bat has a fairly limited set of outcomes, even in a per-pitch basis. And especially when we get into recognizable pitches and situational pitching, we come to expect particular outcomes. Left-handers roll over on well-placed changeups; guys being pitched in the zone will usually swing over a wipeout slider; leaving a breaking ball up is a good way to get it crushed. For as weird and mercurial a game as baseball is, these scenarios proliferate in which we already know what should happen, and we expect that outcome to repeat itself.
So when it doesn’t, when a batter misses a fat meatball and hits it just foul or someone lays off the impossible slider to get a rally-starting walk, we get angry or thrilled depending on our particular rooting situation. These are the unexpected moments in baseball, and by their very nature, they’re of course interesting and evoke emotion—they’re special and usually memorable because they change games that really matter to a particular set of teams. But they’re also special because, within the fabric of baseball’s own object permanence, they aren’t ever meant to happen. We know that sliders are strikeout pitches, that hitters hit bad pitches, and that changeups are a quick out for lefties because if we didn’t know that, baseball itself would be a totally random proposition, an unchartable mish mash of outcomes that would frustrate even the most committed fan. So long as we know, know, that, say, Aroldis Chapman is meant to strike out the side, then we can contextualize how unlikely it is when that doesn’t happen.
This need to have expected outcomes explains the stats boom in a way, as we learn to more and more quantify what should happen in each discrete at-bat. What should happen if this pitcher faces righties, for instance. How should we understand the odds of this light-hitting shortstop getting the winning run home. Intellectually, we know that each at-bat is its own separate moment, that larger probabilities and trends go out the window in that small of a sample, but we need the framework of those statistics, even of just the old security blankets of batting average and win-loss, to give us some sort of structure. A sense that what we’re watching exists in a logical system that can be expected to repeat more often than not.
What this need for comfortable reassurance of systematicity might mean is that we expect a game like baseball to reinforce our hopes about life. How often, after a traumatic and seemingly senseless natural or political tragedy do we turn to sports as a salve, not least of all because sports have a set of discernable rules and expected outcomes that we can turn to to reassure ourselves that the world still has the higher level object permanence we concoct as children? On the other hand, we might need the comfort because it tells us the game is as we’ve always encountered it, unchanged and familiar. We find the boring and quotidian elements of the game to reassure us that, yes, baseball remains baseball, and the game is mostly aligned to our expectations.
In the end, perhaps my daughter’s peace in her repeated game of hide-and-seek and my shock when someone turns around on a Warthen slider and knocks a ball the other way have little to do with each other outside of the type of emotional responses we have. But I think that in the smaller versions of ourselves, we can see many clues to the deeply layered and ideologically coded responses and expectations we have of the adult world. Sports on their face entertain us and make us forget, for however long, the uglier parts of contemporary life. But the reason they do this is because they present a predictable, usually repeated edifice in the face of a totally random and unfair world. We thrive on the “Any Given Series” narrative because it gives games some sense of tension, but in the end, I think we actually take much more from the expected hierarchies and outcomes of the game than we’d care to admit.