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Just One Afternoon in the Sun, and It's All Downhill from There

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 4, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 4, 2015 |

I wish that I could still love baseball, that slow summer dance of a game that I fell for on the crackle of AM radio as a child.

There are statistics in all sports, but they never work on as pure a level as they do in baseball. Part of it is simply that statistics work better the larger a sample size you have. And there are ten times as many baseball games per season as there are football games. But more, statistics also rely on data points being comparable. On them being independent of each other and yet still equal. Unlike other sports, with their complexity of real time action, and each player’s role being both slightly different and interdependent, every baseball player (at least within the rough categories of pitchers and non-pitchers) is comparable. A home run is a home run, without the ambiguity of divying up half-sacks or assists. There’s no garbage time in baseball, in which the losing quarterback racks up better stats than the winning one just because the score isn’t close.

And the gorgeous thing about large-n data is that you find the deep outliers scattered way out in the tails of the distributions.

Imagine for a moment reaching the big leagues after a lifetime of striving for that point. You might ride the bench for months, but imagine that first time that the coach crooks a finger at you and tosses you into the game. Imagine the rush of excitement, the sheer ecstasy of knowing that all the years were finally coming to a head. You walk to the plate, trying to stride brashly so they don’t see your knees shaking. The pitcher is a blur, an indistinct face that you can’t make out even though you see with perfect clarity that first major league fastball launched towards you. And then in one perfect moment, in that very first swing, the ball cracks off of the bat and over all the heads of the outfielders. In that one perfect moment, you would know exactly why you were put on this earth. You’d feel like you were at the very beginning of your destiny.

Now imagine it was also the last day. What if that afternoon in the sun was the only one you ever got?

Discounting three players who are still playing, there are 19 players in major league history who only hit one home run in their career and did so on their first at-bat. Six of them did it on the very first pitch.

“We just don’t recognize life’s most significant moments while they’re happening. Back then I thought, “Well, there’ll be other days.” I didn’t realize that that was the only day.”

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.