Jewish World Review August 5, 2003 / 7 Menachem-Av 5763

Paul Greenberg

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BoSox win — but can science beat art? | BOSTON The hegira has begun on the T. From all over the city, the fans drift downtown to Fenway Park as if pulled by the force of gravity, drawn by unkillable hope. They have a hopelessly expectant look, like aficionados of "Macbeth" who dream that, just this once, there'll be a happy ending. Or maybe, like me, they're seeking the catharsis of tragedy.

Entering Gate E, you're patted down the all-American, post-9/11 way, and then you're through the turnstile, under the stadium and up the shadowy ramp to Section 31. And suddenly there it is, laid out before you in all its bright, asymmetric historic glory. Green and glowing, old and hallowed. You take a deep breath. America has more than one kind of holy ground. That first look is always the same. How describe the feeling? To borrow an image from a New England poet named Emily, it's the exultation of an inland soul at the first glimpse of sea.

High above the third-base line, the Green Monster rises sharp out of near left field like the eruption of a jagged prehistoric peak out of level green prairie. While on the other side of the field, right field extends approximately forever. It's a ballpark made for Ted Williams and the lesser gods who played their part in the tragedy that is the history of the Boston Red Sox, World Champions 1918 and never since.

Things are going to be different this year. The numbers say so. And this year the Red Sox have hired the Numbers Man himself as a consultant - Bill James, who edits, authors and originated the "Baseball Abstract," the new bible of the old game. The secret is right there in the stats, just as in the Great Pyramid theory back in the '20s. To elude their fate, all the Sox have to do is puzzle it out. It's the new, gnostic baseball.

This new William James, like an earlier American philosopher by the same name, is out to sweep away dusty folklore and demystify faith. At last baseball will be subjected, to quote Bill James, to "the same kind of intellectual rigor and discipline that is routinely applied, by scientists great and poor, to trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe, of society, of the human mind, or the price of burlap in Des Moines."

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The dark ages are lifting at last; a Newtonian revolution is under way in baseball. By the numbers. We are witnessing the birth of a whole new astronomy. Or at least a whole new astrology.

Bill James has already undermined one legend after another. He loves walks. The key to winning, he explains, isn't a high batting average but getting on base. And never making an out. That's why he hates sacrifice bunts.

The Gospel according to James says to use relief pitchers early. Unfortunately, the Boston bullpen - known locally as The Committee - has not come through for baseball's guru. Brute, untutored reality keeps tripping up his probability theories.

The ballplayers must not have studied the "Baseball Abstract;" they aren't playing their assigned parts. Like actors who haven't learned their lines, they are reduced to ad-libbing. I wonder: Why play the game at all when the numbers have already been worked out?

High above centerfield, Old Glory floats unperturbed by numerical fashions, still unchanged at 50 stars. Dutifully I doff my newly acquired Red Sox ball cap and place it over my heart for the national anthem. But the way celebrities sing it at ballparks these days, you can scarcely recognize it. Then I realize it's the Canadian anthem. Of course. Never mind.

After all that, the game itself is an exercise in anticlimax. Pedro Martinez is pitching for the Sox at his magnificent best, and Nomar Garciaparra is playing the same way. (A homer and a double for four runs batted in.)

It is 9-0 going into the top of the ninth, and the crowd begins to depart early, not waiting for the Blue Jays to score their four futile runs to make the final score 9-4. The fans leave Fenway satisfied but wishing, as always when the Red Sox are on their game, that it could have been the Damn Yankees.

Can this be the year it happens? Can science supplant art, and turn tragedy into celebration, midnight into noonday? Some of us unregenerate mystics who root for the Red Sox (or for anybody but the Yankees) have our doubts. We suspect it's not the numbers that make the game, but the game that makes the numbers.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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