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Opening Day 2016

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | March 31, 2016

Opening Day 2016 is coming up this Sunday. And thus an opportunity for me to pursue an issue I addressed in 2014’s Opening Day post, on how baseball remains America’s true pastime.

Real sports excitement and engagement rests in large part on the uncertainty of the outcome. This is why the drama of sports exceeds that of the scripted arts like theater, movies, and novels. Overwhelmingly, art scripts end predictably: heroes defeat villains, true love conquers all, innocent babes are saved, and so on.

Sports stories, which also have moral plots and subplots, are unscripted and unpredictable and thus more engaging and exciting. And baseball is more so than the other leading American sports.

NY Giants team

NY Giants’ last-minute heroics win the 1951 pennant.

Chances

A season is a drama; each game is a drama. (In baseball, many an at-bat, even in a lopsided game, is high drama.) The more well-matched two sports teams, the more unpredictable the winner, and the greater the drama. In baseball, any given game is more of a toss-up than in the other sports. The whole season is more unpredictable.

The chart below shows the range between the winningest and losingest teams in the three major sports’ previous seasons. For football, the range was between winning 75 percent of the games (the Patriots, Broncos, and Bengals) to 19 percent at the bottom (the Titans and Browns).

In basketball, the range was yet wider, from 82 percent wins (Warriors!!!) to only 20 percent wins (‘Wolves). But, in baseball, the 2015 range was much narrower–from 62 percent (Cardinals) to 39 percent (Phillies).

Sports percentages

This means that, in baseball, there is greater dramatic suspense on any given day. Moreover, baseball has a noticeably smaller home-field or -court advantage than the other two sports (see here and here), again adding to the tension of every game.

Similarly, who ends up in the playoffs at the end of the season and who wins those playoffs is considerably less predictable. (Who can forget the Miracle Mets, who went from nearly worst in 1968 to first in 1969 and then beat the fearsome Orioles 4-1 games in the World Series?)

Sports, even for spectators, is narrative art – an engaging and often romantic art. Can the aging veteran rise up one last time to grasp victory? Will the virtuous hero defeat the villainy opponent? Might guts and determination overcome size and experience? Can the career minor-leaguer finally make it to the Show? Do nice guys finish last – or first?

And baseball is the best.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.

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