It’s More Than A Game

Baseball was the first thing to make me understand what love was.

From the time I can remember, baseball has been so much more than just “my favorite sport” — it’s been my life’s biggest passion. When I was a little kid, I didn’t have imaginary friends, I had imaginary teammates who were all the members of the St. Louis Cardinals (and the Blues). When I was in elementary and middle school, I would spend hours at a time staring at baseball cards in my bedroom for no reason other than comparing player stats. In college, it has become even more than all of that, after I decided a little over a year ago to start pursuing a job in analytics for an MLB baseball team.

Baseball has been in my life longer than any friend, my love for numbers, or really any memory I can think of. There’s no single reason why I love it, there’s a million. But I’ll only talk about a few of them.

Baseball Heaven

My friends like to give me trouble about how much I talk about my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Sure, it’s got some flaws — like every city — but it’s home. While I haven’t lived there all of my life (moving around when I was younger and leaving for college in Rochester, NY), the Lou has always been my home.

St. Louis, first and foremost, is a sports city. Those of us that live there grow up caring about a few sports teams: Mizzou Tigers football and basketball, soccer, and, most importantly, the Blues and the Cardinals.

Something I’m incredibly impressed and elated by is how the Cardinals and Blues have come together for the city since the Rams packed up and left for Los Angeles. The two teams are constantly supporting each other on social media and the players are always at home games for the other team, and it always seems like anytime one of the teams has something going on, the other does something to make for a really cool story. Two main examples of this come to mind:

  • A few weeks ago, the Blues were hosting the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the Western Conference Final. A win would clinch the series for the Blues. Not too long before the start of the Cards game, it was called off due to a Tornado Warning in addition to the thunderstorm already overhead. Nearly every Cardinals player proceeded to go to the Blues game together to watch the Blues win the game and the series.
  • On January 19, 2013, I went to the Blues’ home opener for the 2012-13 season — the one that was shortened due to a lockout at the beginning of the year. The game was against their long-time bitter rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, and this would be the final season the two teams were in the same conference (and the same division). The crowd was absolutely electric, and it was even crazier than normal because it was also the debut of highly-touted prospect Vladimir Tarasenko. Sometime during the game, it was announced that baseball-legend, and lifetime-Cardinal Stan Musial had passed away. The stadium went from deafeningly loud to the quietest gathering of 20,000 people I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember if it was on social media or on the video board in the arena, but I remember seeing the quote “The ERA in heaven is about to go way up.” The crowd’s silence didn’t last as the game went on. When all was said and done, it was a dazzling start to the season. The young Tarasenko netted two goals, including the team’s first of the year. It was after the game, on the way to the parking garage, when everyone in attendance started to realize, almost simultaneously, one thing: the final score of the game was 6-0. On the night when the most iconic athlete in St. Louis sports history passed away, the Blues beat one of their fiercest rivals with the number of goals equaling the number he wore on his back for 22 years in Cardinal red.

I couldn’t have found a better time to talk about how much people care about our sports in St. Louis. Last week, after 52 years of gut-wrenching, heart-breaking hockey, our beloved Blues finally captured their first Stanley Cup Championship. The team returned home from the craziest of fairy-tale seasons to a parade down Market Street where there were so many people, there still isn’t an official count. The only number that’s been announced is “over one million”…..St. Louis has a population of 300k in the city and 2.8 million in the metro area. We took the loss of the Rams hard, but we bounced back to support the two teams that stayed. So many people wanted to watch Game 7 of the Cup Finals at the Enterprise Center (Blues’ home arena) that they had to open Busch Stadium for another 15,000+ to watch the game on the big screen — oh, and the game was in Boston.

If that’s any sort of indication of the city’s passion for hockey, you can double it for the Cardinals. The players on the team are idols to us as kids. We grow up on stories of Cardinals greats like Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Ozzie Smith from our parents and grandparents. Luckily for me, I grew up in one of the greatest times to be a Cardinals fan.

Throughout my life, I’ve watched a brand of Cardinals baseball that has been a symbol of sustained success, and it’s left a generation of young Cardinals fans somewhat spoiled. Since 2000, only the Yankees have more wins, the Cardinals have finished with the best record in baseball four times, and brought home two very memorable World Series titles. In that same time, the Cardinals are third in ERA, sixth in runs scored, fourth in wRC+, and fourth in total fWAR (first in position player fWAR).

I’ve watched pitchers like Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright compete for Cy Young Awards year after year with their devastating curveballs. When the ninth inning rolled around in Busch Stadium II, I remember everyone in the crowd go to their feet as Jason Isringhausen walked to the mound for yet another shutdown save.

Having played most of my baseball career as a catcher, third-baseman, and center fielder, I watched and mimicked players like Yadier Molina, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds my entire life. I learned how to see the game and know more about the strategy than anyone else from Molina. I learned about leadership from Rolen. And I learned everything from Edmonds.

Edmonds was the player I tried hardest to emulate on the diamond. First and foremost, he was a lefty power-hitter, just like I was. I watched YouTube videos of him hitting just to see exactly what he did at every moment of a pitch. He wasn’t the fastest guy in the world, but he made up for it with other-worldly diving catches — which, when copied in practice, got both a “great job” and a “never do that again” from my coaches.

I watched one of the most remarkable comeback careers in baseball history when Rick Ankiel returned to the Cardinals in 2007 as an outfielder after forgetting how to throw a strike in the playoffs after his superb rookie season. When he came back, the fans treated him like nothing had ever happened.

And then there was Albert. In case you missed it last weekend, Albert Pujols made his first return to St. Louis since leaving the team as a Free Agent after their 2011 World Series title. A lot of Cards fans were hurt and ridiculed him, and while I never held bad feelings toward him, it did hurt to see my childhood hero leave. To a kid from St. Louis, Pujols wasn’t just a baseball player — he was The Machine, the three-time MVP, the cornerstone of the city’s identity, a God. Even after he left, I celebrated each and every accolade he’s accomplished from 600 home runs, to 3000 hits, to 2000 RBI.

This last weekend was a perfect representation of what the Cardinals and baseball mean to St. Louis. Despite him leaving, and despite every one of his biggest career milestones coming in LA, each time he stepped to the plate resulted in a mad house of Redbird fans on their feet and screaming. When he hit that home run, I couldn’t help but smile to see just one more home run from him in Busch Stadium. But the best part of the weekend was simply watching him and Yadi reunite — that was one of those moments where baseball is bigger than just a game.

Baseball Is More Than A Game

Baseball, seemingly more than any other sport, has so many moments that make you realize how much the game really means to people. Moments like Jared Lorenzen’s first career home run, Dee Gordon’s lead-off blast the first game after Jose Fernandez’s passing, Game Six of the 2011 World Series, and even my first home run.

I remember nearly every detail of the final three innings of Game Six of the 2011 World Series. I was only seven when the Cardinals won in 2006, so 2011 was the first time I was really experiencing a World Series run as a baseball fan. I missed the first part of the game, but came home around the start of the seventh to watch it with my family.

Watching the Cardinals fall to their final strike twice over the course of two innings was absolutely brutal, but the team was never really done. David Freese’s ninth-inning, two-run triple to tie the game brought the team back to life, only to have it ripped away by a Josh Hamilton home run the next inning off of Jason Motte, who’d been untouchable all year. Then Lance Berkman, who I hated when he played for the Astros, singles home the tying run in the tenth when the Cardinals faced their final strike again. Finally, the Cards were able to hold the Rangers offense in the 11th to set up David Freese’s iconic walk-off blast. Anytime I think about that game, I still get goosebumps thinking about Joe Buck’s call: “And we will see you tomorrow night.”

But, to me, baseball has always been about family. Yes, I was part of some really good teams who became close, but I mean my actual family. More than anyone, my parents always gave me every opportunity in whatever sports I was playing, and the best part of playing baseball was always my dad being the coach.

My dad always made sure to treat me like every one of my other teammates so no one felt like he was just doing it to make me the center of the team. I never was the center of the team; I wasn’t that good. As a coach, he was at every game and every practice, but he would’ve been there anyway. He wasn’t afraid to tell me what I was good at and what I wasn’t, so I knew what I needed to work on. He has never once tried to tell me that I was good at something that I wasn’t because he believes knowing your strengths and weaknesses makes you better at everything you do.

The last season I played baseball was after my freshman year of high school. It was also the last time my dad coached one of my teams. That was probably the best season of baseball I ever played — I was hitting everything pitched to me and I was playing solid defense at third-base.

We played a tournament toward the end of the season that was supposed to be some of our toughest competition of the year. In the second game of the tournament, I hit a high-inside fastball harder than anything I’d ever hit. As I sprinted down the first baseline, I found the ball coming back to the ground and kept running because it looked short of the wall. Finally, the ball bounced off the top of the fence and into the grass behind for my first and only home run I’d ever hit over the wall. My heart was racing so fast, and I was in such disbelief, I couldn’t remember how to slow down around the bases and sprinted the whole way. When I finally got back to the dugout, my dad didn’t say anything. He just gave me a hug then handed me the ball, which one of my teammates sprinted to grab.

The Elegant Part of Baseball

Math has always been my best subject in school, and I was always one of those weird kids who enjoyed it. It’s why I went to college and chose a major in engineering. It’s why I want to work in analytics when I graduate next May. It’s why I love baseball.

Baseball is probably the most quantifiable of the major sports. The reason is because the game can be broken down to a series of one-on-one matchups: pitcher versus hitter, hitter versus fielder, and fielder versus runner. It makes developing mathematical formulas and descriptions of players far easier and much more elegant than other sports where you have any where from ten to twenty-two moving parts, any of which could dramatically effect the outcome of a single play.

I’m the kid that stared at baseball cards for hours instead of cleaning my room. I’m the guy who pulls up a player’s stats anytime it comes up in conversation. The two most visited sites on my internet history are baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com. My mom always joked when I was younger that I would wind up working in statistical analysis in baseball — little did she realize how accurate that statement would be.

Something I’ve struggled with my whole life is ADHD. In school, I would never pay attention and do pretty much anything other than listen to the lectures. The one thing that I never needed my medicine to stay focused on was baseball. Since coming to college, baseball has grown from my favorite sport to being the thing I’m truly passionate about. It annoys my friends and family to no end, but it’s often the only thing I want to talk about. I don’t really use social media to keep up with old friends, but I scroll trough twitter everyday looking at a barrage of tweets that are 80% baseball, and the rest is music, other sports, and memes.

I’ve always had a habit of starting random projects that I get cool ideas for, but rarely ever actually finish them. They never have to do with school, they’re just ideas that I come up with because I’m curious to see what happens. The last article I wrote was exactly that — except I finished it.

A little over two months ago, I was talking to my mom on the phone about my youngest brother’s baseball team, and she was telling me about the app that they use to keep track of both scheduling as well as stats for all the kids when she mentioned something about RBI. I’ve always had a problem with people using RBI to compare players because not all RBI are created equal, and not every player gets as many chances for RBI as others. As I was explaining this, it clicked in my head that there’s not really any advanced metrics used today that actually attempts to fix that. So I gave it a shot.

The result of that conversation was me deciding to create a new statistic. As an engineer and programmer, I was planning on using my programming skills to do all the calculations, but I didn’t know the computer language needed well enough to be able to trust I didn’t make a mistake in the code. The alternative solution was to manually plug all the numbers into a spreadsheet. For two months, I spent my free time scrolling through pages on Baseball Reference to gather all the numbers I needed to prove that my theory on aRBI+ was correct.

The idea of creating a new statistic for baseball was never something I had even considered a possibility. Growing up, I didn’t know about Bill James or sabermetrics. Once I started researching and learning about analytics, I thought everything to be done was already done. But, as I found out, there’s still work to be done in baseball. While we have so many ways to evaluate players, we continue to look for more ways to see the game. The thought that, despite the massive progress we’ve seen over the last decade, we still may only be scraping the top of the ice berg of statistical analysis makes me anxious with anticipation. It inspires me to continue trying to see the game in a new light. It reminds me of why I fell in love with the game in the first place.

Baseball was my first love. It’s always been more than a part of my life, it’s part of my identity. It’s rooted in the heart of the city I call home. It’s given me a relationship with my dad that I wouldn’t trade for the world. It’s the thing that I think about in the back of my mind all day during school and work. If things go the way I hope, it will be what I do for a living for the rest of my life.

Baseball is a kid’s game. It’s an escape from whatever is going on that you don’t want to deal with. It’s watching a 18-inning marathon against the Mets at 12:30 AM because it’s summer, and what better is there to do? It’s watching the Sandlot the second you wake up on July 4th every year.

A baseball diamond is a place without politics. It’s a place where bitter rivals come together over horrible tragedy. It’s where legends are forged, stories are told, and memories are made.

Baseball teaches us to be patient, strong, and precise. It teaches us to move on from our mistakes and learn. It teaches us to treasure our successes, but to continue succeeding and not rest on our laurels.

“You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”
– Earl Weaver

Featured Photo: flickr.com

Mick Callahan

Hi, I'm Mick Callahan. I'm a native of St. Louis, MO, and a lifelong Cardinals fan. Most of the time, I'm a software engineer, which has left me to be one of the resident Stat Nerds here at Diamond Digest. If you need an example, check out my aRBI+ article.

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