Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Fickle Finger of Fate

The other day I clicked on The Unpage for the latest news from state and regional tournaments, and found this item:

"Tournament action was limited to just one location worldwide today, but we nonetheless passed a milestone of sorts. When Baden-Wuerttemberg Little League from Mannheim, Germany, defeated Kirovograd-Center from the Ukraine by a 3-0 score this afternoon at the EMEA Region tournament in Poland, the total number of games remaining through the Little League World Series championship game fell below 200. By the end of the day, there were just 196 games remaining in the 2006 international tournament.

"Think about that for a moment: we started with over 7,000 teams and have seen in excess of 15,000 games played. (We brought you results from 1,640 games in California alone this year -- 705 in the North and 935 in the South.) After little more than a month of non-stop action, 99 percent of the games have been played, and 99 percent of the leagues that looked toward South Williamsport as the tournament began have been eliminated. And the drama has only begun."

To me, that's what is most amazing about the long march to Williamsport. I can't think of any tournament that poses longer odds of making it to the championship round of play.

What that means is that lots of great teams get left behind. In regions like the West, Soutwest, and Southeast, some of the best youth baseball teams anywhere get knocked off -- while in regions like the Midwest and Great Lakes, lesser teams advance. It's just a fact of life. The Sunbelt regions are packed with teams that play baseball throughout the year on travel teams, off-season Cal Ripken teams, and more.

It's not just that good teams knock olff other good teams in the Sunbelt regions.

There's also this thing called luck.

Everyone knows that baseball games often get decided when one team gets the lucky breaks and another team doesn't. For some teams, injuries or illnesses come at the wrong time. For another, the luck of the draw comes with matchups in the tournament brackets. And of course, stuff happens on the field -- tough umpire calls, tricky bounces, bleeders getting through the infield, and on and on.

Turns out there's a growing academic literature on luck. Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in England has written a fascinating book on the topic called The Luck Factor. The book is more self help than academic analysis, detailing what steps people can take to enhance their chances for the bounce to go the right way.

When my local team from Hamden, Connecticut, lost in the championship game of the state tournament, the New Haven Register published one photo of a kid throwing down his glove in disgust and another photo of a pitcher crouched in dejection on the mound after an opposing player hit a home run. "It's very emotional to lose this," said Bill Rhone, Hamden's manager. "Especially [at] the end of their Little League career. It's a tough time."

True, true. But coach, you and your kids went pretty far. If you had advanced to the New England tournament in Briston, Conn., you would have had to thank your lucky stars for the many breaks you got along the way.

Now it's time not only to praise the talent and hard work that carried the Hamden all stars so far but also acknowledge the good luck that guided Handem and other teams all summer.

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