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On death and probability

Unexpected death is hard to deal with, but there is solace to be found in the numbers, too.

At the Boston Marathon.
At the Boston Marathon.

A few years ago, I was watching a Rays game when my mom called to tell me that the dog I grew up with had died. This wasn't entirely a shock, Zinger was an old dog, and had been one for quite some time. It's the natural way of things for dogs to die before their people. If the dog had a loving family and a good life, there's nothing to be broken up about.

I was broken up though, on account of the circumstances. My parents had gone on a camping trip to the Appalachians for a week, leaving a friend to come over each day to feed, water, and socialize the dog. Shortly after they left, Zinger took a turn for the worse and was no longer able to stand. After a few agonizing days of bad cell phone reception and spotty contact, my parents had gotten the message through that it was okay to have him put down.

And so, once they returned to civilization, my mom called to tell me that my dog had died alone, without any of his pack, in the place he feared most (the veterinarian's office). I was distraught. I was upset I hadn't been there; I was mad at my parents for going on vacation. As I stared blankly at my computer screen (streaming with the sound off, Detroit at The Trop, Scherzer vs. Garza), my mind ran through all of the times I had wronged him. The times I'd been too busy (with nothing worthwhile) to throw a ball around for a few minutes; the times I'd come home from school and then after a quick hello, gone to spend time with my girlfriend rather than with my dog; the fact that I went away to exciting new places (Pennsylvania, Tallahassee, New York) and never even thought of bringing him along. These sound petty, I know, but in every relationship of any length, there are a host of things the more perfect version of ourselves would do better.

As I thought, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," over and over to myself, I finally noticed something interesting. The seventh inning was ending, and Garza had not yet allowed a hit. Three strikeouts, a groundout, a routine flyout, and a somewhat un-routine Carl Crawford scamper and catch later, Garza completed the first, and to this day only, no-hitter in Rays history.

I'm not so superstitious as to fully believe that my dog caused the no-hitter. Garza often looked likely, and I actually had a bet with a friend that he would pitch one at some point in his career. Still, it didn't have to be then. Maybe, if Zinger had still been alive, Crawford doesn't quite read Miguel Cabrera's line drive right, and it bounces off the end of his glove. Zinger always was good at fetch. And while I'm not sure exactly what I believe, from that 27th out on, I knew I didn't need to apologize.

I was recently at a funeral for someone who died young, without warning, and for no particular reason other than bad luck. It was an unlikely death, although with the number of people in the world, it was bound to happen to someone. That's the way with probability. The universe is large, so while in almost every predictive bet it's correct to play the field, real, singular, unlikely things are occurring constantly. They're there for the noticing. Death is easy to spot, and sadly for her family and friends, and for the unfortunate few killed Boston Marathon bombings, we're all living in a sample size of one.

I'm a baseball statistician. Usually I write about the aggregate. I see something happen a few times and I try to define other instances like it, or to slice it in a different way that will enlarge the sample size. If I can't, then I tell people to ignore what happened; that it's meaningless. Occasionally someone writes an article in a relatively mainstream publication about how people like me are draining the love out of the game. Most of the time I think the author is a lazy (or overworked) hack who had to meet a deadline so he's gone trolling for easy clicks. But to everyone who writes such an article, if you really feel that way, I'm sorry. That is never my intent.

At the funeral, the grief-stricken father told the assembled mourners that he could feel the darkness closing in on him, but that he would press it back, and he charged every one of us to do the same in our own personal way—to press back the darkness. That's a noble goal, but a daunting philosophical starting place. Darkness is not all that surrounds us. Pick anything you see, and then try and run the odds on how likely it was to happen, right there, right then. If you are thorough enough in your analyses, the odds will be astronomical. We made a big deal about Game 162 because it was an improbability that mattered to many people, but there are miracles everywhere if we care to look. Find one that inspires you, and believe. Believe in statistics, believe in science, but when you find your miracle, believe in it with wild abandon, and don't let any statistician tell you otherwise.

And if you want your favorite baseball team to do well, remember to pet your dog.