Stat Chat #0: My Field of Dreams

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News

My baseball career ended before I even reached high school. A skiing accident left me with a crack at the base of my spine four days after my 14th birthday. At my ripe old age, I was faced with a difficult decision: try to resurrect my mediocre career by starting from scratch with a lengthy rehab process, or give up on my childhood dream and change course. After a few months of grappling with my body, reaching for skills that once felt natural, I chose the latter. Despite doing it all the time on the ski slope, this was the first time in my off-mountain life that I would have to swerve and change course. But it would be far from the last. 

Even though I gave up playing baseball at the dawn of my youth, I wanted to stay in the game somehow, and not just as a fan. I had read Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” just a few months prior to my injury; yes, the movie was based on it, although if you ask me, the movie had a little too much footage of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) working out. Yet, I watched amazed as the cunning analyst and his assistant juggled numbers and strategies like mad circus performers until the tacticians themselves hit a figurative home run or struck out, and when they struck out, Beane’s rage showed me just how active things could get on the management side of the game. I had been drawn into the world of sports statistics, and for me, there was no going back. In retrospect, my fascination was nothing new; I had begun playing fantasy baseball at the age of nine, composing my team of real-life players and based on their real-life stats, earning points over other fans. I became commissioner of my own fantasy league a year later, and a year after that I started spending all of my free time playing Out of the Park Baseball, a managerial sim game. What had been building up slowly suddenly became clear to me: I wanted to be a baseball front office executive, the next Billy Beane.

While I loved experiencing baseball from this new angle, I missed the feeling of my heart thumping and adrenaline coursing through my veins. My first steps on the treadmill post-injury, which came as soon I was cleared by the doctor, were difficult, but I broke into a wide grin as I assumed my familiar gait. So, I continued to pursue the sport that came back to me easiest: running. I also felt an affinity for the sport—that feeling of literal escape that comes from running miles on end, alone with your thoughts and the consistent movements. Without fail, each step would begin with a touch of the outside of my foot on the hard earth. And every time my foot rolled inward, I would prepare to spring back up and repeat the process with my other foot. Confined to the couch, slumped over for weeks on end, I had longed for the rhythm and freedom that would return upon being cleared to run again. 

But the injury bug, a tireless mosquito, bit again. Throughout high school, I accumulated a laundry list of tendonitises, sprains, muscle tears and other complications resulting from my ski accident. After each injury and subsequent recovery, I made it back to running, and running made it back to me. The repetitive motions were just so natural, unlike the complicated movements associated with a pitcher’s windup or a batter’s swing. 

Each time I entered rehab, however, I turned to baseball. I would pick up Moneyball again, trying out the principles it outlined in fantasy baseball or Out of the Park Baseball. After re-injuring my back in the spring of 2016, I began reading FanGraphs, a website devoted to the statistical analysis of baseball, religiously. When I heard that the writers would be getting together for a meet-and-greet near my New York City home that same spring, I decided I had to meet them. I bought my tickets and set off to talk baseball with those who did just that for a living. They encouraged me to keep up with my passion. My favorite writer there was Jeff Sullivan, now an analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays. I especially loved when he would do deep analytical dives focused on one player—for all of my know-how, I never knew just how much information was available on each and every major leaguer until I read Jeff’s pieces. He encouraged me to start writing, so I began my first foray into these analytical depths, modeling my craft after his, and here I am today!

But before I made it to the Misc, my writing began with a few articles I submitted to FanGraph’s community blog. That summer, I attended a program at Wharton devoted to the study of sports statistics (named after Moneyball, in fact). There, I reconnected with an old friend, and we decided to start a blog called “Core 4,” named after my favorite group of Yankees. “The Core Four” was composed of Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte. All came up through the Yankees’ minor league system, debuted in 1995, and propelled the Yankees to four championships in five years from 1996 to 2000. Our blog would focus on the “core four” sports in the analytics community—baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. I would be at the helm of the baseball section. My running and writing coexisted in peace for a while; I had my best cross country season with personal records in the 5K and three-mile that fall as the blog enjoyed some moderate success.

By January, however, I had torn both of my hamstrings and the blog had begun fizzling out as we got busy with life and college applications. The torn hamstrings would prove to be the nail in the coffin for my running career; the next fall, after cross country season my senior year, I decided to call it quits. For a while, a pipe-dream of becoming a professional runner had overtaken my childhood dream of being a baseball star or even an executive. But it was time to swerve again. I felt more confident making the decision this time, having gotten into college early and with no more professional athlete aspirations—I was free to work out at my leisure, with no deadlines. My body thanked me for this, and I felt better than I had in years…until I got to college.

That’s when the hand injuries started, and didn’t stop. The latest occured six months ago, when I tore some cartilage in my wrist. Without the use of my hands, I couldn’t properly take care of my back, and it began flaring up again. I was faced with another break from working out, even leisurely.

I turned my attention back to baseball and began writing (or typing on my ergonomic, hand-injury-friendly keyboard) here at the Misc this January. I broadened my scope to look into other sports as well, but baseball was and is where my true passion lies. So, understandably, when I got an email from the baseball coach here at Vassar, I was ecstatic. He had seen an article I wrote, and wanted my input on some analysis he was doing! We met before spring break, and I may or may not have broken into a dance as soon as I left the building. This was the closest I had ever come to achieving any one of my dreams.

Not to mention, as I was looking into research opportunities for this summer, one in particular caught my eye: it was one of Vassar’s Ford Scholar projects, and its purpose was to examine competitive balance in minor league baseball. I knew I had to apply, and I got the job!

And then it happened. Disaster struck, not just for me, but for everyone. I was shocked; I had to read President Bradley’s email announcing the initial move to online classes several times before I internalized the gravity of the situation, which began to feel like a huge weight on my shoulders. Rage welled up inside of me imagining all of my dreams deferred yet again. “How could you let me get so close,” I pleaded with the universe, staring out the window at the barren, disease-stricken streets of my city, “only to push me away again?” I felt especially helpless in the face of a crisis so much bigger than me.

A crisis so much bigger than me. After the immediate shock wore off, I was better able to understand the meaning of those words. While they made me feel helpless, they also meant that this time, it wasn’t just my life on hold, like when I had an injury and my teammates could continue to run. Everyone, everywhere, had been (and continues to be) affected by the virus. Suddenly, I felt a strong sense of solidarity with my fellow humans, and the suspension of my dreams began to feel much less permanent than when the injury bug bit, and bit, and bit. While my fragile body will be with me my whole life, this virus will not. I’m only a sophomore; I have two years left to work with the baseball team. My Ford project will forge on remotely. I won’t have to start over from scratch like I had to with rehab.

Our plans may be on hold, and we have every right to grieve over them; it’s healthy, in fact. But the whole world is on hold. When everything is up and running again, many of our plans and opportunities will be there waiting, right where they were before. On hold does not mean over. 

This is a big swerve, but life is full of swerves; it’s just a matter of getting back onto the track.

2 Comments

  1. Producer of the Moneyball movie here. What a terrific, inspiring piece. I’m so glad I got to see it! I look forward to following both your sports and your writing careers and wish you the best of health. P.s. I agree with your critique of the film!

    • Ms. Horovitz,

      Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words! Despite my critique, which I’m glad you agree with, I absolutely loved the movie–it’s a great story that needed to be shared with a wider audience, and it is so cool that you were the one who put it all in motion. Thanks again!

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