Losing is useful. But how useful?
Can you put a number on it? On a scale of 1-10, is it worth a 10? Or a 1? Somewhere in between?
Bottom line: what is losing worth? I found myself asking this as the 2012 Cardinals season came to a desultory end in the pouring rain on a dreary night, Oct. 22, in San Francisco. Final score: Giants 9, Redbirds 0. The good guys had once been up three games to one in the series, and it seemed as though a repeat trip to the World Series was certain.
And yet, somewhere inside of me (this is hard to admit), I worried what effect a repeat trip to the World Series might have on my son.
The year prior, my then 7-year-old son watched as the 2011 Cardinals went on a sometimes extraordinary run to their 11th World Series title. It was a season filled with final-game miracles and last-pitch heroics. There were resurgent veterans such as Lance Berkman squeezing timely, gritty at-bats from ligament-damaged legs. There was the star, Albert Pujols, arguably the best hitter in the game throughout the first decade of the 21st century, and then there was the transfixing story of David Freese, a player who learned to hit, pitch and catch mere miles from Busch Stadium, home to the Cardinals.
As I wrote in these pages a year ago, following that season with my son — each morning starting with a quick look at the box scores — proved unimaginably fun and drew me back to the game of baseball.
This year, the Cardinals pushed forward again — breaking the hearts of Braves’ fans by winning a one-game Wild Card playoff game before entering the Washington Nationals home stadium and recording a dramatic come-from-behind victory.
In the National League Championship Series against the Giants, the Cards seized control of the series before seemingly substituting broom handles for bats the last three games of the series and quietly exiting, their star hitters all finishing with sub-.200 batting averages.
They lost, and it’s easy to understand why. Among other issues, if the meat of the order can’t produce — for close to 25 straight innings — it makes it difficult to win. But in this age of sabermetrics, when we seem to be able to put an integer to almost every conceivable scenario, shouldn’t we be able to put a number on the value of losing?
After all, it’s fine to know in my heart that losing is a useful lesson because life is unfair and we need to know how to overcome obstacles. But what if that’s, you know, wrong? What if my gut feeling is as wrong as the baseball scouts in the book-turned-film “Moneyball”? They never had access to the many billions of bytes of new data and therefore could simply not understand the true market value of a batter with a relatively paltry batting average but a relatively decent on-base percentage.
My concern was that my son might grow up thinking that going to the World Series happened every year; and he therefore would place less value on going to the World Series any year. I believe he should learn to be humble because life will, sorry to extend the metaphor, dish up some curveballs.
But that’s also a little unsatisfying. I also believe in new data, big data. I believe we can, at minimum, approximate a number value for losing, and that this value may indeed include many other mitigating variables — fundamental things such as access to good coaching and good equipment; but also, more esoteric factors such as determination and willpower.
Is losing useful? I don’t know. My gut tells me a little losing has more value than a lot of losing. At first, we might assign it a 10; but if it persists, its value precipitously drops.
Winning the 2011 World Series was a perfect 10. But losing the 2012 NLCS? What’s that worth? For the Cardinals, I’m not sure. I think we’ll have to wait until 2013 to find out (and watch the winter meetings).
But for my son, let’s give it a 6 and try to explain how not to make a habit of it.