How I Learned To Stop Crunching Numbers and Love the Game


[Ed. note: RMNB alum Neil Greenberg now writes for The Washington Post and ESPN Insider. He offers this special contribution.]

Baseball was my first love. I grew up as a Mets fan. I could hop on the subway and be at Shea Stadium in minutes. I’d watch every game in my bedroom on a small color TV with tinfoil on the antennae for better reception. At the stadium I would chant, “Give it a ride, Darryl! Give it a ride!” while the organ played, and I consumed my weight in pretzels before the fifth inning. I still can’t watch replays of Game 6 without tearing up when the ball gets by Buckner.

I joined a few fantasy baseball leagues. One of them had 16 teams and a $2,500 entry fee. Big money and lots of fun.

Then I found the 1987 Bill James Baseball Abstract at the bookstore and my life changed.

I learned that numbers could see the future. I learned about “new” statistics like baserunner errors, quality starts, total average, on base + slugging, and runs created. Then, in the 1988 version, James cited workload-related burnout as the reason the Abstract would stop. Yes, stop. No mas. So I went on a quest, searching on my bike every used bookstore I could find to buy the Abstracts from 1977-1986. Eventually, I had them all. Every Bill James Baseball Abstract was mine. And I truly knew baseball.

I knew the batting lineups of every team, including their averages, home run totals, and home and away splits. I knew every pitching rotation’s ERA and WHIP like you know the alphabet. I knew the numbers, but lost interest in the game itself.

So I drifted.

As hockey consumed more of my attention, I had an epiphany: why couldn’t I apply some of what I learned from baseball to hockey? So I did, right in this very space.

I wrote about how the Capitals wouldn’t be scoring as much after 2009-10 because they had a ton of puck luck that year. I wrote about how Ovechkin’s scoring would decline and his contract would be an albatross around this organization’s neck for years to come.

I wrote about what we could expect from Mathieu Perreault and Eric Fehr.

I moved on to other outlets and kept writing about the numbers. Always the numbers. Never the game. And then I realized: the numbers are wrong. #fancystats are a sham. A lifeforce-sucking, mood-dampening, hypocritical sham. Stats may fill column inches, but they will never tell you about a player’s heart. Ultimately, they just get in the way of what the sport really is.

You can’t boil this game down to 1s and 0s. It isn’t played on a spreadsheet. You can’t know for certain that Minnesota wouldn’t make the playoffs because they had too much puck luck. You can’t know that a strong puck-possession team like Los Angeles would upset Vancouver in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. You can’t know that Ovechkin likely won’t score 60 goals again. And you can’t discount how much wanting to beat the other team plays into wins and losses.

And that’s the hard lesson I have learned: this game is won or lost from the heart. Not by scoring goals or outshooting the competition. Not by acronyms or Excel formulas, but by wanting it more than the other guy.

I know that now. And with more time to watch the games I am going to be looking for that player that gives 110 percent at just the right time in order to put his team over the top.

Just like I did as a child.

Follow Neil Greenberg at @ngreenberg on Twitter and Fancystats on Facebook.

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  • hahahahahaha

  • this is gold.

  • dcv

    I hate April 1st.

  • Q

    Nice April Fool’s post.

  • HMA8


  • One day a year, Neil doesn’t poop storm clouds. Unfortunately, that day is April 1st.

  • Rhino40

    If this is an April Fool’s post in any other way than just the date, my hat’s off tho you Neil: you ‘got’ me!

  • Very well done…perfect for the day…sadly true for the season!

  • greenberg, you beautiful son of a bitch

  • Hockeynightincanada

    I pulled a great April Fools Prank today as well!

  • Pete

    Hahahaha, you gave it away with “love the game.”

    PS, get off my favorite Caps site and stay off, troll.

  • Eddie

    Even though this is clearly a joke, there is a bit of truth hidden deep beneath Neil’s layers of sarcasm. That’s how you get games like when Michael Jordan dominated in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals with 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and a block while he had a horrible case of the flu. Ovechkin’s infamous 4-goal broken nose game. Or Brett Favre throwing for almost 400 yards, 4 TDs and completed over 70% of his passes the day after his dad died. Hell, pretty much every game Tim Tebow started was basically driven by pure will power and heart.

    My point is, even though math can give you a very accurate predictions about what is going to happen in the future, in sports, you can’t ever rule out pure will, hardwork, and heart.

    And trust me, as an engineer, I understand the importance of math; I live by it, I love it. I just also realize that it isn’t an infallible predictor. There is no constant you can add in to any equation that can account for the human spirit. And that incalculable characteristic not only makes sports exciting, it’s part of what drives us to achieve what was thought to be impossible in general.

  • maveric101

    Yep. The game isn’t played by random number generators. When there’s a big upset, it’s not because the hockey gods rolled the dice and the underdogs got lucky.

    Statics are a good predictor, and a great tool for franchise management, but they don’t decide games.

    > “And that incalculable characteristic not only makes sports exciting, it’s part of what drives us to achieve what was thought to be impossible in general.”

    What statistic would have predicted the U.S. to win hockey gold in the 1980 olympics? None.