Friday, September 30, 2011

Improbabilities of Baseball and Faith

In one of the most exciting and improbable nights of baseball this season -or any season- the Boston Red Sox lost their bid to gain a spot in the American League playoffs and the Tampa Bay Rays gained a spot. On the last day of the season the Sox lost a game to the Orioles they had to win and the Rays won a game with the Yankees they had to win. In that season ending game the Rays were down 7-0 after 7 innings and had managed to scratch out only two hits and the Sox were ahead after 7, 3-2, heading into a long rain delay. With a combined four innings left to play it looked like the Sox would at very least end the day tied with the Rays (if they lost to the Orioles and the Rays lost to the Yankees) and have to play a play-in game with the Rays the next day.

What happened next was improbable ( note: I am depending on an article by Nate Silver in the NY Times for these statistics). In the ninth inning of the Sox - Orioles game when the Orioles had two outs and nobody on and were losing 3-2, the odds were 95.3 % in favor of the Sox winning. The batter was down to his last strike and Jon Papelbon, one of the premier closers in the game, was on the mound for the Sox. 95. 3% seems too low. The Rays chances of pulling out a win against the Yankees when they started the 8th inning down 7 runs were down to 0.3%. That's 300 to 1 against them winning. In the ninth inning after they had scored 6 runs but were still down to their last out their chances were only 4.2% of winning. Plus, the Rays pinch hitter had two strikes on him and he was hitting .108 on the season - and he had only one hit in his last 45 at bats! But, he hit a home run to tie the game. Then Evan Longoria hit another homer in the 12th inning for the improbable win.

More improbabilities: the Sox began September with a 97.7% chance of making the playoffs. When you put all these improbabilities together there was one chance in 278 million of all these events coming together as they did.

[If Bud Selig has his way and expands the wild cards to two teams this great night of baseball would never have happened - both the Sox and the Rays would have been guaranteed a playoff spot. Don't do it, Bud!

Theologically, I got to thinking about the Improbabilities of Faith. What were the chances of anyone escaping the Great Flood? Or, of Jonah surviving in the Belly of the Great Fish? Or, of Pharaoh letting his slave labor force go? Or, of the Virgin Birth? Or, the Incarnation? Or, the Resurrection?

Most ballplayers on the winning teams said that the reason they won was something like the grittiness of their ballplayers, or the never give up attitude of their team or the confidence they had to believe they would win no matter what. Had the other teams won their players would have said the same kinds of things. That's what ballplayers say at times like that. No one says we were just lucky but luck played a big part in their wins, too. Papelbon doesn't locate, or hangs a curveball or a split doesn't split. Carl Crawford doesn't get to the ball that fell in for the single that won the game. It's the last game of the season for the Yankees and they don't have to win so they bring in Scott Proctor to close out the game instead of Mariano Rivera. Lucky, the Rays don't have to face Rivera in the ninth inning!

Luck changes the odds. Theologically, we call it grace. Grace changes the odds for us. So Jonah is saved, and Mary says yes and Jesus is born, and the grave is empty on Easter morning. And what are the odds of you and I believing, and repenting and having our sins forgiven and receiving the gift of eternal life. Not as good as the Sox losing or the Rays winning. But grace trumps the odds.