Baseball is the national game in the United States, and like soccer (or football, to the non-Americans) in many parts of the world, for its fans it is something of a religion, immortalised in folklore, movies and novels. And a few months ago in September it all came to climax with the end of the regular season and the epic collapse of the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves out of the post-season playoffs.
For context, the Major League Baseball franchises compete in two leagues (American and National) geographically divided into three divisions. During the regular season, each team plays a total of 162 games with other teams in their league, organised into series, plus infrequent inter-league games. Division rankings are given by the proportion of games won, and the eight playoff places go to the winners of each division supplemented by the best runners-up in each division (the wildcards) that compete in knockout stages in post-season to win the League pennants. Each League winner, in the end, will face each other for the World Series - the pinnacle of the season.
Every game has a story to tell and a memory to share, reminding us why we love to follow the action on the pitch. The story of this season has been the monumental crash of the Boston Red Sox, the team which almost unanimously was considered by the punditry as the natural favourite to win their division and eventually the World Series. The Boston Herald even hailed them as the best team ever, on a par with the legendary New York Yankees lineup from 1927. After a decidedly slow start, for a while they lived up to these lofty expectations, coming into the final month of the season with a commanding lead of a game and half over the New York Yankees and nine games over the Tampa Bay Rays with 24 games to play. And then it all went spectacularly wrong, losing two-thirds of their remaining games (the Atlanta Braves suffered a similar fate). To put the collapse in perspective, the website coolstandings.com has a breakdown of the winning stats, together with a simulation of the chances of winning the division, getting a wildcard, and progressing to the playoffs (see here for methodology). Even with mounting losses the Red Sox had an extremely high chance of progressing. It maxed at 99.6 on September 3rd with 24 games to play, and consistently hovered around 90. Then the unlikely started to become, well, likely.
On the eve of the final game, with the Yankees certain of their champions berth, the Red Sox could have still got their wildcard. And they were on track to get it, leading the Baltimore Orioles 3-2 at the ninth inning with plenty of ammunition left. Still, with the the Orioles' pitchers in the unenviable position of having two outs, their opponents managed to come back 4-3 and win the game. They were now tied with the Rays, who were trailing the Yankees 0-7 in the eighth inning, and the most likely outcome would have been a one-game decider for the wildcard. But another comeback was in the offing: in the last four innings in St. Petersburg, the Rays managed to beat the Yankees in a great game with two home runs for a final score of 8-7. In an incredibly dramatic finish to the season, the Red Sox were out of the 2011 playoffs. Nate Silver on the New York Times has calculated the combined odds of the above sequence of events to be one in 278 million. These assume that each outcome is independent of the next one. But, in team sports, independence is often violated; shocks, fatigue and psychological factors make points streaks possible. Just ask the 2005 AC Milan football team who was celebrating a 3-0 lead at half time in the Champions League final against Liverpool, only to then concede 3 goals in the second half and the lose the match on penalties after extra time.
Moral of the story: unlike a card came, a sports game is the art of the possible, and making up every minute of the pitch, and even for a strong team, the difference between success and failure is just a series of bad plays which is difficult to model with a throw of fair dice.