Cubs Win!

Everyone needs an MLB team, even if you only sporadically follow them. You need a team because you are occasionally asked who it is – like being asked your religion – and you can be judged by your answer. I chose the Cubs years ago, but much like a Catholic who only goes to Mass on Christmas and Easter, I tend to only closely follow them during the playoffs.

I’ve tried to get into the Texas Rangers for years, since they’re my actual local team. It’s just they’re not really locals, if I can remember them moving from Washington (“First in war, First in peace and Last in the American League.”) I’ve (fitfully) cheered on the Yankees, because they’re my wife’s home team – and my in-laws’ home team, as well. However, if I was ever asked who my favorite team was, I would say, ‘The Cubs!”

Now, part of this was because I was born on the north side of Chicago, so they are my birth team, even if I did move to Texas when I was two. Part was that they are one of the teams that everyone knows and has an opinion about, like the Yankees or the Red Sox, but they’re from the Midwest.

Also, with the debut of the web, you can have your local team be anywhere – you just have to follow them online. (I follow Australian baseball because I know one of the players.) With cable and satellite TV, you can watch them just as if they were local, too. It’s not like the olden times, when you had to find box scores in the back of the sports section.

So, I am a Cubs fan.

There was a part of me drawn to the Sisyphus story, struggling to get the rock to the verge of the mountaintop, and then having it roll back down. Again and again and again.

There was a part of me drawn to the tradition – not just the “lovable losers”, but the observation that the fans and most of the organization respected and remembered that the team’s last championship was before the NFL even started. They had retired players who were recognized wherever they went. They had Harry Caray, even if he did start with the White Sox. The current team didn’t think the team started with them – they knew the team started in 1876 and they were a part of a long chain.

Then, there was a part of me that just likes being in pain. For many, I’m pretty sure that was the joy of being a Cubs fan – you knew that something was going to go horribly wrong at the worst possible moment, and it would be an even more original catastrophe than the last time. It would be more catastrophic than whatever happened at the office that day, so you would feel better about your job once in a while.

Seriously, what other team has blamed a goat attending a game (and being ejected) for a championship drought? What other team had a fan that brought a goat to a game?

I have attended one game at Wrigley – which is half of the Cubs games I have seen in person.

I saw one Cubs game in Miami that was technically a Marlins game, but I was with a guy from Chicago and two Brits who were just contrarians, so we cheered the Cubs. Loudly. The Cubs won, so we had the stands pretty much to ourselves by the end of the game. Technically, since it was a Marlins game, we had the stands pretty much to ourselves for most of the game. The two Brits were complaining that baseball games weren’t long enough to build a good buzz like a three-day cricket match. On the taxi ride home, one of the Brits asked the cab driver how the game ended “since we had left early.” The cab driver then bitched about the crappy Marlins all the way to our hotel. It was pretty funny, actually.

When I saw the game at Wrigley, I was in Chicago to teach a technical workshop, and my wife had gone along. We were looking for something to do, and then we realized it was baseball season – and by some miracle, the Cubs were in town.

We were having dinner at Harry Caray’s steakhouse the night before we went to the game and everyone was talking about Sammy Sosa’s corked bat (“It was for batting practice. Really.”) We even got interviewed about it. We had tickets for the game the next night, and it was everything I assumed it would be – and the Cubs lost.

The day before, the day the bat was found, the Cubs had won. So, I remember mentioning in the workshop the next morning that we were going to see the Cubs that night and that I was excited to finally see a game at Wrigley.

One of my students just sighed. I asked him what was wrong (I assumed he was a White Sox fan.) I said that the Cubs had won the night before, they were in first place in the division, everything seemed great – with the small exception of the corked bat, which I assumed would blow over. (Sosa got an eight-game suspension, I think.)

My student said he was a Cubs fan, as well. This confused me. Then, he said, “Don’t get too excited about the Cubs. They will break your heart. They always break your heart.”

I thought that was a bit harsh. I didn’t realize it was a mantra.

The Cubs won their division by one game that year. They lost in the NLCS. Broken heart.

I watched the Bartman game on TV because it was a playoff game. Five outs from the World Series. This was the year! Then, some random fan grabs a foul ball, and the team collapses. I remember feeling the doom envelop the stadium – you could feel the air whoosh out of there – and I was watching on TV. It was a new and horrible way to fail.

Broken heart.

I knew they were doing pretty well this year. I knew they had Theo. The next thing I knew, they were in the playoffs. It was time to start paying attention.

So, this year, we watched the playoffs and the World Series with anticipation and a bit of trepidation. My wife had decided she was cheering for the Cubs, as well, which added another layer of stress for me – she is much worse at recovering from a sports broken heart than I am. I’m used to it – I have the Cubs for baseball and Jerry Jones owns the Cowboys. (I’ve pretty much given up football at this point.)

So, while I had a feeling after game 6 that 2016 was finally the year, I was a bit concerned that this could be the most elaborate way to break the fans’ hearts ever conceived. I really wanted to believe after game 5, but I just couldn’t bring myself to that point yet.

I watched game 7 with excitement. No matter what happened, I stayed positive. I’m not quite sure how, because as Cleveland came charging back, I began to hear my student’s voice in my head – “They’ll always break your heart.” I had to tune him out because I was also really concerned my wife was going to start having chest pains, and we would need to call 911. So, I was spending more time tuning her out.

When the rain delay was over, I felt a sudden calm. I’m not sure why – I supposed my psychic self knew there had been a team meeting, and that’s when the team decided to win.

Blown saves. Extra innings. Rain delay. Two runs in the tenth. Give up one run in the bottom of the tenth. The pitcher with the blown save gets the win. Wow.

The final out was sweet – a basic play, executed perfectly. 8-7 Cubs. Final. Cubs win the Series, 4-3. All the way back from death’s doorstep just a few days ago. A team that had to win three in a row, and did.

The Cubs will always break your heart. Until the night they don’t. That’s a very special night.

Another season

It has been a long, long time since I posted here. Since I didn’t have anything to say, I didn’t force it – even though that is contrary to most of the bloggers in the universe.

The AirHogs are in the next phase of “let’s destroy the team” – the owners have decided to co-locate the team between Grand Prairie and Amarillo. So, now they are the Texas AirHogs.

This is quite possibly the stupidest move in the history of organized sports, other than just giving up and having a traveling (no-home) team. A team with two home fields that are 354 miles apart. WTF?

Reminder to the owners and league: Texas is not New Jersey. You can’t just drive across it in an hour. If Southwest flies between the cities, only crazy people are going to drive it. 

We gave up our season tickets last year, because we just didn’t have the time any longer. I was back in the office across town, and by the time I got home, I just couldn’t face another half-hour on the highways to get to the game.

Now, I’m back home-officed, and half the time they’re playing away games, and half of the home games are in Amarillo. I thought driving to Grand Prairie was bad. I wonder if this year’s season tickets package includes a hotel room in the other city. Maybe you can just ride on the team bus.

Why not just kill the team and get it over with?

To fill the gap in home games, the Great Southwest Collegiate League was invented. It’s a wooden-bat, college-level league for college players around the State. Their games are played in whatever stadium the AirHogs are not in that day.

I may go to a couple of their games. They seem to have two games per day, since they don’t have access to the stadium for a full season.

The AirHogs have done almost everything they can to kill fan support. I guess having someone show up in Grand Prairie with a sign “Tonight’s Home Game is in Amarillo” is the final step in the plan.

The real cost of being a Minor Leaguer: A look inside Todd Van Steensel’s bank account

the minors….

MiLB.com's PROSPECTive Blog

By Ashley Marshall/MiLB.com

tvs

The 2015 season is quickly becoming the year of the ransom note, but don’t expect to hold Todd Van Steensel hostage.

The Cleveland Indians made headlines earlier this month when its bullpen kept Brandon Moss’ 100th home run ball hostage. Later, the Indians’ starters presented a list of expensive demands to Francisco Lindor to recover the ball from his first big league hit.

Something similar is unlikely to ever happen in the Florida State League, where Australian right-hander Van Steensel is plying his trade.

It’s been well documented that Minor Leaguers don’t make too much money, and Van Steensel is a perfect example of just how paycheck-to-paycheck some Minor Leaguers live.

I reached out to Van Steensel, the closer for Class A Advanced Fort Myers, in Spring Training to see if he would be willing to itemize his expenses throughout the 2015 season. With the first half…

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Super Bowl Summary

Who knows? For the first time in history, I didn’t watch it. The cheaters Patriots won, apparently on a really stupid play call. If the play would have worked, it would have been a brilliant play call. So it goes.

This is the first Super Bowl in ages where I didn’t watch any of it on TV. I didn’t see the game, I didn’t see the commercials, I didn’t see Katy Perry. I did clean four or five hours worth of shows off the DVR with the Spousal Unit and the PsychoPuppies.

I don’t feel unfulfilled.

One of my friends complained that the US wastes an incredible amount of time on the game, and then confessed he would watch. That’s when I decided I didn’t really care. I don’t have any ties to the Seahawks and I hate the Patriots, so why waste the time?

I have a feeling it’s people like me that cause advertisers to leak their commercials on the Internet before the game.

To all those who are hung-over this morning, drunk with victory or defeat, did your lives actually change?Did the fact forty-five guys you don’t know ran into another forty-five guys over four or five hours really make you feel that much better today? How many people heard, “Hey, the Patriots won! Everybody gets a bonus!” (Other than the team.)

We waste a lot of time on sports. Sometimes, I choose not to waste time on sports, and I don’t feel I’ve missed that much. Yesterday was one of those times.

Now, can we start counting down to Spring Training?

Stuttgart, 2000

For those who would like to see if I’ve gotten crankier over the years (that would be affirmative), here’s some notes I found from a trip to Stuttgart in September of 2000. This was not my first trip, since I was staying in the wrong city (and knew it), but I was going over every few months for a couple of years. Some of this is dated (the furnace was replaced, Rose is gone, and missed), but I probably still have a lot of the same opinions. I wish I could remember the hotel’s name – I remember I had dinner from the vending machine most evenings. 

Stuttgart – September 30, 2000

I’m back from Germany. I really don’t like surviving for a week in a country that doesn’t speak English, even though I knew going into this week, that was going to be a challenge. (Aside: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Tri-lingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.)

All the bloody hotels in Stuttgart were booked, so I ended up in Boeblingen (which I can’t spell correctly here, since you need one of those umlautty things over the “o”), in a nice little place in the middle of an industrial park. Oh, joy. A twin bed, no room service, no restaurant, and three channels of English on the cable: CNN (“blah, blah, blah”), UK SkyNews (“blah, blah, blah” with a British accent) and SkySports (24-hour Olympic coverage.) So, I watched the Olympics.

I’ve always been rather prejudiced against the Olympics, especially the summer games – most of the events seem pretty pointless (if you can’t do dire bodily harm to yourself, is it really a sport?), and everyone knows that all those “amateurs” aren’t. Still, it beats watching “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” or “Married… With Children” dubbed into German (but not by much.)

Some of the highlights:

Diving: It takes a UK announcer to say what others only think – there was one of the women’s entrants and when she first walked to the platform, I thought “She’s a bit heavy for this.” My Politically Correct genes then kicked in, and said “A) Who am I to talk? and B) How hard is bloody diving?” Then, the announcer mentioned that she really was too heavy to be diving and really should lose some weight to get her scores up. Amazing.

Synchronized diving: What co-dependent idiot came up with this concept? One anorexic body flipping into a pool isn’t enough? Now, I need two of them?? If one synchronized swimmer drowns, do they all have to?

Diving: Here’s the only reason I can watch diving (besides the ever-present nipple scans during the women’s event) – I am always hoping against hope one of the divers who is hopelessly behind in the last round will climb to the platform, run off screaming “CANNONBAAAAAALLLLLL!” and drench the judges’ table. Is that too much to ask? Sure, the degree of difficulty isn’t much, but how can you screw up a cannonball?

Race walking: One of the race walkers was thrown out of the race. Disqualified as she approached the finish line. For jogging. I never thought I would see the day that jogging was going too fast. But really, now. Race walking? Can’t you just make the bit of extra effort and run?

Gymnastics: “I’m dancing to the music. Now, I’m going to stop for no reason, run across the mat and throw myself into the air. Now, I’m dancing again.”

Coxless rowing: Shouldn’t that be women only? Eunuchs, perhaps?

I think the high point of the week was seeing Yanina Korolchik win the women’s shot put. First, she was the most decent looking of the bunch(she reminded me of Ms. Lewinsky for some reason (did the President offer to give her the medal?)) Second, she beat the Russian. By a lot. That was pretty funny.

You know, that’s one of the major problems with the Olympics today. With the end of the Cold War, there aren’t any bad guys anymore. When Team USA beat the Russians in hockey in 1984, that was a defining moment. When you beat the Russians now, you just feel sorry for them. The Olympics need the bloodlust returned. Sports needs bad guys.

How do you make the French runners perform better? Park a Panzer tank at the starting line.

Oh, yes. While I was gone, Rose blew up the furnace in the house (“It’s not my fault!”). We’re now in day three of the installation, and the inspector should be here next week, so we can turn it on. I need a pint. (At least the soda machine in the hotel had beer in it.)

Super Bowl vs World Series

This is an ode to four hours of my life I will never get back.

The Super Bowl is one game, winner-take-all. Sure, it’s at the very end of the season, and the two teams have survived the rest of the playoffs, but it’s still only one game, so it’s sudden-death. So, occasionally, you get one team that appears to be completely unprepared and they get massacred. The 2014 Super Bowl was over about 12 seconds in – if you’re in the championship game, and you can’t get the center and the quarterback on the same page at the beginning of the first play, you’re gonna lose. This means a lot of people just tune out – what’s the point in watching? Once one team has a certain margin with a certain amount of time left, the game is pretty much over.  It isn’t over ’till it’s over, but sometimes it is.

Now, consider the World Series, whether or not you consider the “World” part a valid claim. You start your ace pitcher in Game 1. He strides confidently to the mound, and promptly gets shelled. Nothing works. He’s walking people, he’s giving up hits. Runs are coming in. You pull him in the third inning. Embarrassing. Fatal? Not by a long shot. Either your offense rallies, your relievers stop the bleeding, or you just write off the game, and start planning for the next night, when you have another pitcher to send to the mound. It isn’t over ’till it’s over, and you have to lose four games to really lose. Sure, you can get swept, but at least you don’t lose hope 3/4ths of the way through the game. In baseball, you can always win in the ninth. Or the tenth. Or the sixteenth. No matter how many runs they score, you’re going to get your chance to swing for the fences.

Which do you prefer?

If you’re a sports widow, I’m sure you prefer the Super Bowl, since there is only four hours of screaming and gnashing of teeth. Well, maybe only four hours. Of course, the pre-game was another four hours. 

If you were cheering for the Broncos yesterday, which do you prefer?

Super Bowl. Meh.

The Super Bowl is this afternoon – actually, this evening, so it can bleed into prime time. It’s our annual “once in a lifetime” event. A lifetime event that 30/32nds of the universe don’t really care about, because their team isn’t playing. So, why is everyone so whipped up? (Besides the ones who actually went to Vegas or online and have money riding on the outcome.)

The pre-game show is four hours long. The game itself is four hours long. This shows immediately that something is amiss. A football game is one hour in length. So, you expand that by 300% just because it’s on TV? The weekly NFL games are three hours long on TV, but this one is an hour longer. What takes that extra hour? Hmm. Perhaps the commercials are the reason to watch the Super Bowl. Why does it take four hours of pre-game to set the stage? There are only two teams. Are you going to do a biography of each player? Does it really take four hours to remind people who the team with the most points wins?

I don’t get it.

I admit, if I start watching, I will get dragged into it, because there’s just something about watching competition – it’s the same reason people (including me) watch chefs try to make something edible from a mystery basket. But at the same time, it’s a bit silly. One game. For everything. Until next year.

Maybe instead of the pre-game “banter” and “reporting”, they should just re-run last year’s Super Bowl, since nobody remembers who played in it. (Quick! Who won last year? Was it the team in your city? Did you lose money on one of them?) You know who remembers last year? 2/32nds of the universe. And half of them are still pissed.

Enjoy the game. Or the commercials.

Baseball Analytics

These are some notes to myself on a baseball presentation I’m doing in a couple of weeks. Actually, I’ve been doing it pretty much constantly since last summer, just to different groups at work. I’m just trying to capture my thought process and the issues I’ve seen while developing a baseball analytical model that finds the factors most critical in a home team victory. As always, comments are welcome.

I had to relearn some basic statistics for a work assignment on Analytics – which is statistics on steroids, so I thought, what better subject than baseball? There’s tons of data available, there are statistics galore, and there are all sorts of things you can try to predict.

There are two issues that I’ve now come across while building a lab exercise based on game results – the results tend to make baseball people say, “Well, duh!” and more frighteningly, not all people understand baseball. WTF?

The “Well, duh!” part is actually a good thing – it means the statistical results may actually be correct, or at least believable in the baseball universe (this is called domain knowledge when you’re doing analytics.) Domain Knowledge is what allows you to know that if you’re trying to predict the home team’s score, using the home team’s RBI totals is probably cheating – since the numbers are the same.

That’s where the second problem comes in – not everyone knows what an RBI is. WTF? People know Honey Boo-Boo’s waist size and they don’t know how runs batted in are counted or what they mean?

So, now I have a presentation coming up and I expected to have to explain how the basic statistical model works, which is giving me enough heartburn. I’m using IBM SPSS Modeler (a really fun toy if it’s from work or a really sophisticated analytics platform if you’re trying to get your boss to buy it) to build a model based on MLB games from 2000-2012. (That’s a lot of games – I think there are over 24,000 records in the dataset. However, most analytics models would have more records than that.) The model looks at the factors that influence a home victory – which basically means the home team’s score is greater than the visiting team’s. (Well, duh!)

This is a major advantage of baseball – there are no ties, unless you have an idiot commissioner and the managers run out of pitchers. In the real universe, somebody is going to win. So, you can predict (try to predict) victories.

The other advantage is that baseball is a logical game of progression – you’re not going to have an interception, for example, and you can’t run out the clock. You have a specific number of batters receiving a specific number of pitches. The total number of pitches may vary, but three strikes and you’re out (this is the origin of that phrase, in case you really don’t know baseball.)

So, I will have to go over the basics of linear regression – trying to predict one value based on one or more other values, and then go over the baseball terms to explain why they are important. Oh, and explain SPSS Modeler to an audience that has never seen it.

I really didn’t think I would have to cover all that.

It’s interesting – in the three or four years I’ve had AirHogs tickets, I’ve learned a lot about baseball, but I always knew the basics, so I assumed everyone did. My dad took me to one Rangers game that I can remember (David Clyde was pitching), and I actually never played – I played softball in a corporate league in my thirties (I was a pitcher), but I still knew the basics. Now, we have a generation that doesn’t necessarily know. Oops.

For the record, given the games from 2000-2012 (thank you, www.retrosheet.org), the most important factors in predicting a home victory are:

  • The number of hits by the visiting team
  • The number of hits by the home team
  • The number of visitors’ walks
  • The number of home walks
  • and some other factors (errors, home runs) which have much less impact

The interesting part about this exercise to me has been realizing how important domain knowledge really is. If you don’t know much about baseball, you won’t look at the factors and think, “Wow, pitching is pretty important.” Now,  to baseball people, that’s obvious, but to a fan who is used to someone swinging for the fences, it may not be obvious that the visitors are swinging for the fences, as well – and stopping them is an important part of the game.

If you watch the movie Moneyball,  it begins with the “epic struggle” between the statistics nerd and the old school “just have a feelin’ about him” scouts. However, I think they are basically very similar – the statistics tend to prove what old school baseball people take as gospel (except for the dating the hot chick theory)  – they just don’t know why they know it. Also, the statistics and analytics may prove that some of the gospel is wrong – which is the premise of Moneyball in the first place.

Now, if you don’t care about baseball, then none of this is very meaningful, because the results are just gibberish. However, these lessons apply to business as well – if you are running a business and making decisions based on hunches – analytics can show whether the hunches are correct or not.  Maybe you’re right – in which case, you know your business well. If you’re not, either you’re in the wrong business, or you need to do research before making decisions, and not just guess.

In fact, from a modeling standpoint, building a model to look at baseball is not much different from building a model to check credit scores to approve credit card applications. The only issue that changes is the domain knowledge and the actual data.

The reason I picked baseball in the first place was because almost all of the analytical models I had seen built were for mobile phone churn (customers leaving for other carriers) or banking – what happens if you’re not in either of those industries? So, I assumed baseball was a universal industry that people would have some idea about. That may have been an incorrect assumption – but I’d rather explain baseball to a crowd of people than the mobile phone industry.

Reverse Auction

Maybe ticket prices should be based on a sliding scale, based on the number of pitches thrown. If you have a good pitcher on a good night, you pay less, since you spend less time at the ballpark. If he gets shelled, it costs you more. Attendance would eventually be based on the starting pitcher, and there would be more incentive to have a quality pitching staff.