I Am Trying to Break Your Eyes: A Lengthy Meditation on Baseball and the Science of Happiness

Note #1: A request. At the end of this piece, in the section called “Towards a Linear Weights of Joy,” I ask for actual substantive input on some questions about which I am a) curious and b) uncertain of how to answer myself. If possible, please limit your comments to the questions at hand. Having said that, I understand that some of you aren’t particularly fond of my contributions and take some pleasure in saying so. I would be remiss to rob you of said pleasure. For you, I invite you to email your complaints to ccistulli@yahoo.com.

Note #2: Much of the science here is of the “armchair” variety. Anyone with a more expert understanding of neurology is invited to correct the wild assertions which follow.

Note #3: This crap is long. If you only read one part, read the last section, entitled “Towards a Linear Weights of Joy.”

Father of Us All Bill James writes the following in a blurb to a recent-ish release from ACTA Sports called Diamond Presence:

There are two things that one can never say often enough: one, that the game exists only to be enjoyed; and two, that there is no limit to the number of ways that it can be enjoyed. Diamond Presence shines a light upon these two truths.

First, a quick note on the source. I recognize that the literary genre known as The Blurb does not always promote integrity in its author. It’s designed to sell books and thus can fall prey to what is frequently referred to as “the Evils of Capitalism.” However, I believe for two reasons that James means what he says here. For one, he’s Bill James, and Bill James is not in the habit of making empty claims, regardless of the context. For two, James makes very similar statements in a number of the Abstracts, which texts are not in front of me here, but which I have read separately and in digested form in Scott Gray’s The Mind of Bill James. Always the sentiment from James is similar: “I have only ever used stats as a tool to further my enjoyment of the game.” In other words, James never makes the stats an end in themselves, but only as a means to the his enjoyment.

Furthermore, because he’s Bill James and more or less the progenitor of the statistical revolution in baseball, his words carry a weight that no one else’s really do. I believe that what James is doing in this blurb is what he has made it his business to do over the last 30 years: to make explicit an idea we might spend most of our time understanding only implicitly, perhaps precisely because it’s so simple a concept. Baseball exists to be enjoyed: no one would deny that claim, and yet I’m not sure we spend enough time considering it explicitly.

Let’s begin by considering the uses of the present interweb site. Ultimately, as a FanGraphs reader, my concern isn’t ever with the site’s excellent player analysis or sweet use of Pitch f/x technology, per se. Those things are great, yes, but ultimately, the reason I point my internet browser this way — the reason anyone would — is because I find it pleasing in some way. Restated: I’m interested in reading FanGraphs, in particular, and statistical analysis about baseball, generally, only insofar as it adds to my enjoyment of baseball and my overall happiness.

Which it does. But the question, which I haven’t seen answered expressly — or even asked, necessarily — is: How?

And furthermore: Are we doing the best job of enjoying baseball as possible? Are we being efficient with our time spent watching baseball?

On Happiness, the Study of It

To begin to answer such questions, it probably helps to have something like a working knowledge of the science of happiness. The tradition of said science goes back to Epicurus, who advocated that we make a study of our pleasures. While the adjective “Epicurean” is now frequently used to suggest something like “person or thing dedicated to sensual pleasure,” Epicurus advocated nothing of the sort, viewing happiness instead as the complete absence of pain — and, in particular, the absence of anxiety. His four-part cure for anxiety, known as the tetrapharmakos and found in the first four maxims of his Principal Doctrines, goes as follows:

Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure

Beyond that, Epicurus identifies two types of pleasure, the understanding and correct use of which he views as central to the good life. The first is the sort we receive from wine and sex (or anything else that R. Kelly talks about in Ignition Remix). These are pleasant but also fleeting and unable to affect our happiness in any profound way. The second is what Epicurus refers to in the Greek as ataraxia and upon which he meditates extensively in his extent works. Ataraxia is the sort of tranquility one receives from living well, and Epicurus made his life a study of it. He lived very simply, among close friends and adherents, and ate barley cakes almost exclusively*.

*Which, if you’ve had a barley cake recently, you’ll know that it’s responsible for very little sensual pleasure and hardly ever shows up in R. Kelly songs.

In recent years, thanks to contributions from the fields neurology and psychology (particularly that branch referred to as “positive psychology”), the understanding of human happiness and its causes has become considerably more robust.

Positive psychologist Martin Seligman makes a distinction not unlike Epicurus’s between different sorts of happiness. He separates sensations from tranquil feelings (ataraxia) with the terms pleasure and gratification, upon which concepts he expounds in his book Authentic Happiness (some of the examples from which I concede are regrettable and seem to be directed at a very specific sort of 45-year-old woman):

In ordinary English, we do not distinguish between the gratifications and the pleasures. This is truly a shame, because it muddles together two different classes of the best things in life, and it deceives us into thinking they can each be head in the same way. We casually say that we like caviar, a back rub, or the sound of rain on a tin roof (all pleasures) as well as saying that we like playing volleyball, reading Dylan Thomas, and helping the homeless (all gratifications). “Like” is the operative confusion. The word’s primary meaning in all these cases is that we choose to do these things over many other possibilities. Because we use the same word, we are inclined to look around for the same source of liking, and we slip into saying, “Caviar gives me pleasure” and “Dylan Thomas give me pleasure,” as if the same positive emotion existed underneath both as the basis of our choosing.

When I press people about the existence of that underlying positive emotion, I find one underneath the pleasures: great food, a back rub, perfume, or a hot shower all produce the raw feels of pleasure… In contrast, when I press people about the positive emotion of pleasure we allegedly feel when serving coffee to the homeless, or reading Andrew Barrett, or playing bridge or rock climbing, it is quite elusive. Some people can find a discrete emotion (“curling up on the couch with the book made me feel cozy all over”), but most cannot. It is the total absorption, the suspension of consciousness, and the flow that the gratifications produce that defines liking these activities — not the presence of pleasure. Total immersion, in fact, blocks consciousness, and emotions are completely absent.

The neurology of happiness poses difficulties for a scientific layperson such as myself, although if I’ve gathered anything from certain works by Richard Layard, Daniel Gilbert, and this clearly infallible website*, it seems as though there are two neurotransmitters (that is, chemicals which are responsible for helping neurons communicate with each other) that are of chief importance to our happiness and which correspond roughly to the division which both Epicurus and Seligman have made. In this case, we have the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for short term pleasure and feelings of euphoria or excitement (the pleasures). We receive doses of it naturally for as part of our own internal reward system, a way our bodies have of reinforcing certain behavior. One effect of drugs like cocaine and ecstasy is either to stimulate production, or inhibit the reuptake, of dopamine, thus allowing for an abundance of it to flood the brain. Excess levels of dopamine are often associated with schizophrenia. Parkinson’s patients possess a lack of it (i.e. a dopamine)**.

*I can only presume that the alternate spellings of “serotonin” are designed to keep the reader on his toes.
**Radio Lab features an interesting exploration of this.

The other of the important neurotransmitters is serotonin, which corresponds roughly to that feeling of well-being, of “absorption” about which Seligman speaks with regard to gratification. A lack of serotonin — either from lack of production or from too-quick decay — is a primary culprit in both depression and anxiety. Serotonin production is predicated on genetic disposition, formative life events, and day-to-day behavior.

Baseball Analysis as Gratification

During the fall of 2001, while living in Missoula, MT, I began experiencing some symptoms of generalized anxiety: occasional tightness or pain in the chest and limbs, invasive thoughts about death and illness*, and just a general uneasy feeling or “jumpiness.” It didn’t come as surprise, really: for an Italian person, I’d always looked and acted an awful lot like Woody Allen. Anyway, those symptoms persisted off and on into the next spring, at which time I developed a considerably less pleasant one (i.e. symptom): for long periods of time, and with no warning, I was unable to breathe involuntarily. That is, I was forced to breathe — inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale — consciously. It got to such a point that, were I to stop thinking about breathing, I would stop actually breathing. Needless to say, that type of thing will put a damper on the old social life.

*As in, I was positively convinced, at different points, that I suffered from any the following conditions: lupus, HIV, scurvy, large wrist, hairy eyeball, etc.

After that, and in this particular order, I (a) freaked out a whole bunch, (b) went to the doctor, and (c) got myself a prescription to Paxil, a class of drug known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). The main function of an SSRI is to slow the decay of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, so that it hangs around long enough to provide those benefits described above.

But medication alone is not a sufficient treatment. Behavior plays a major role, too. And just as Seligman discusses above with regard to gratifications, it is essential to find activities in which one can feel wholly immersed. After some idle experiments with yoga and animal husbandry*, it became clear what those activities would be: watching, listening to, and reading about sport. Baseball, in particular.

*Together, at the same time. Disgusting.

My path to FanGraphs is probably very similar to the reader’s. At first, I followed only my hometown team. Then I played fantasy baseball. Then I read certain seminal texts in/about sabermetrics: Moneyball, BP’s Mind Game, some Baseball Prospectuses (Prospecti?), Tom Tango’s The Book, some of the old Abstracts. Then I started reading Baseball Reference for fun. Et cetera, et cetera.

The fact is that there is so much to know about baseball — more than we ever could know, probably — that, so long as one is not overwhelmed by what he doesn’t know, than he can make baseball research and analysis a full-time pursuit.

I think this is more or less the answer to that first question up above: How does reading FanGraphs add to enjoyment of the game and overall happiness? The answer is something like: by constantly reinforcing this feeling of immersion, of absorption. Again, on account of I’m not a scientist, I can’t say how exactly it affects the brain, but my guess is that it has positive affects on serotonin levels and thus feelings of well-being.

Baseball Spectatorship and Pleasure

But what about the short term pleasures of baseball? The bursts of joy, in which the spectator receives those doses of dopamine? Beyond the sorts of gratification we receive merely from knowing about baseball, what can happen while watching a game that has caused so many to dote on over the sport with such vigor?

It’s often said that the triple is “the most exciting play in the game.” Maybe that’s true. I mean, it’s pretty exciting, but I’m not sure it’s the reason I watch. Plus, it doesn’t happen often enough for it to be a reliable occurrence. Walk-off home runs? Those are pretty great, too. Again, though, I can be perfectly satisfied without one happening. The “cat and mouse” relationship between pitcher and batter? Sure, that’s probably also part of it.

I think there are some pleasures, too, that are less well eulogized but still pretty significant. The question is: What are they?

It’s a topic about which I’ve wondered idly rather often, but something Rob Neyer wrote about recently helped me to think about it in a different way.

Last week, in a post about Carlos Carrasco’s first major league start, Neyer began his entry by stating, “Well, I know which game I’m watching tonight.” Clearly, it was the anticipation of Carrasco’s start that appealed to Neyer. I felt the same way. Who knew what was going to happen, but here was a prospect about to make his debut.

It got me thinking: the anticipation of excellence or excitement is often a significant factor in my decision to watch a particular game. Of course, a spectacular event is nice when it occurs, but I’ve gotten to the point now where my brain anticipates those pleasures before they occur. I’m not unlike Pavlov’s dog, except instead of a ringing bell, it’s the baseball game that causes me to salivate. The dopamine is released before anything great happens at all.

It’s this fact which has always led me to question the logic of Wallace Stevens’ claim in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

In the enjoyment of baseball, I’m not sure the beauty is either the inflections or the innuendoes. Rather, much of the beauty is in the anticipation of what might happen next.

Let’s consider what all those events might be.

Towards a Linear Weights of Joy

How do we choose which game to watch on any given night? Are we as scientific/efficient about it as possible, as far as maximizing our pleasure goes?

I’ll guess that the answer to the second question is, in short, “No.” It’s surprising to me that, if we take for granted James’s assertion at the beginning of this post — that the game exists to be enjoyed — it’s surprising that there is so little analysis of the joy we derive from certain baseball events, especially as compared to the wealth of performance analysis.

Of course, we understand inutuitively what we enjoy about the game: the anticipation of Carlos Carrasco’s debut, the depth and fade of Tim Lincecum‘s change-up*, the length of Mark Reynolds‘s home runs. But before Bill James & Co began looking more closely at baseball, there was also a general intuitive understanding about what won baseball games. Sure, certain metrics were overvalued, but it was mostly clear which players were good and bad.

*Which, actually now that I look at it on Pitch f/x, isn’t nearly as crazy as I thought. Horizontal movement is only – 3.2 inches versus league average of – 6.3 in. Vertical movement is 3.8 in versus league average of 4.9. Still, as David Allen has noted, it’s a crazy good pitch.

At this point, I think we’re in a relative dark ages in terms of understanding our enjoyment of the game. Again, I understand intuitively that I’m more attracted to certain pitching match-ups or lineups than others, but ideally there’d be a number — a probability of certain events occurring — which could serve as a guide to my decision-making process.

Perhaps it’s naive of me to think so, but I wonder if we could produce something like a linear weight of baseball-related pleasures. Like actual linear weights, this would give us a sense of the platonic “joy value” of any baseball event. Nor by “baseball event” would we have to consider only those which the actual linear weights covers — discrete events such as singles, home runs, strikeouts, etc — but really anything that could potentially bring joy to a spectator: the vertical movement of a fastball, the True Distance of a home run, even the joy of anticipation associated with a rookie’s debut. There’d be a number that could predict the relative entertainment value of a game, which could predict how many moments of pleasure I might derive from said game.

While opinion certainly differs on the pleasures a baseball event could bring, I think there’s also enough agreement that it wouldn’t be a vain pursuit. Consider: would you rather watch Brian Moehler pitch or Charlie Haeger? If your answer is Moehler and you’re not a) related to him, or b) Brian Moehler himself, then you’re a giant liar.

So here are two questions with which I’d like to leave you, and which I invite you to answer below.

1. What do you watch for in games? Why do you tune in or show up to the game? What events/aspects do you consider the most exciting in baseball? Consider anything that gives you pleasure, from the arc of a curveball to a hitter’s approach to a guy with awesome facial hair.

2. What are the relative worths of the events/aspects you chose? Rank them maybe. Or suggest how the crap one might weigh them so’s to approach something like this linear weights of joy.

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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

75 Responses to “I Am Trying to Break Your Eyes: A Lengthy Meditation on Baseball and the Science of Happiness”

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  1. The Nicker says:

    What you’re asking is basically impossible to discern. Baseball is, in a way, turn-based, which makes it susceptible (or perhaps, conducive if you view susceptible negatively) to parsing everything that everyone does and then amalgamating it into trends.

    Even if you could rank things (grand slam>triple>home run>double) rather easily, it’d be very difficult to categorize and weigh these instances against each other (9th inning>1st inning, but wait, what if it’s a blowout in the ninth inning?) in any particular way. Plus, how much more satisfying is that two out single after a 10 pitch at bat, how do you calculate that. What if the 10 pitch at bat is against Jason Grilli as opposed to Neftali Feliz?

    Of course, you delve straight into the pleasures of a single great pitch, which in itself creates even more problems. My point is, trying to compare points of pleasure, even in a game as neatly and categorically divided as baseball, is bound to make you insane. A hit is worth TB*((Pitch movement*MPH)*Pitch#inatbat)*clutch quotient*game number*gamesbackinwildcard/FIPofpitcher8WHIPthatgame . . . .

    This is just ridiculous. You could spend your whole life doing this and getting nowhere. You should hand you story over to that loser with the 200 IQ so he can puzzle through this instead of his interconnected universe theory.

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  2. Sandy Kazmir says:

    1) These are awful intimate questions, Carson. With that in mind I don’t want to dig too deep and invite over-analysis. Shooting from the hip: the opportunity to see something I’ve never seen before, the chance to have no idea what is going to happen, to be completely sold that a pitcher is throwing a low and away fastball only to throw that looping curve you alluded to. My brain likes to think it knows what is going to happen, but baseball gives it a couple hours to shut off and evaluate what happens, not what will happen.

    2) I don’t want to differentiate them. I enjoy them all.

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  3. Kong says:

    “and yet I’m not sure we spend enough time considering it explicitly.”

    After reading this, I think we have a better understanding of why some stones are best left unturned. Brutal.

    Also, what did Wilco ever do to you deserve this?

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  4. Travis L says:

    One thing I love — a run of dominance within a pitching outing. 1-3 innings, usually, but when a pitcher just toys with a lineup for a few innings, getting 2-3K / IP, that’s when baseball is at its best for me.

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  5. Jacob says:

    OMG…..please make it stop.

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  6. je says:

    Swings. I love watching swings. They are like snowflakes or fingerprints in that they are all different, even if its just a minor change. As cliche as it is you look at Griffey and just stare in amazement. Even 10 years and 30 pounds later, when he connects it is a sight to behold. I guess as a baseball player, and hitter, nothing feels as good as when you put a great swing on a ball. I’ve had a few homeruns where its felt so good I wanted to just stand at home plate for 10 minutes so I could just think about it haha.

    I’m from LA and a huge dodgers fan, so whenever one of the young players like Ethier or Kemp put a great swing on a ball(and it happens pretty often) I just get a great feeling in me. When you drive that ball in a gap and you’re approaching second and the centerfielder is just picking the ball up and all youre thinking is I’m taking 3rd and he can’t stop me..man theres nothing like it.

    I just bought the MLBtv thing for my iPhone and I swear to god I might fail my classes because I’ll just be sitting there watching hitting highlights on my phone. Thats baseball though, when you love it it really grabs you and doesn’t let go.

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  7. JDSussman says:

    The beauty of baseball (for me) is the suspense between each pitch.

    That said, this was a waste of 3,003 words. The other 5 could have summed it up.

    “What do you like about baseball?”

    The second question is really ridiculous as is your first note.

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  8. Ed D. says:

    1. a) Seeing dominant hitters/pitchers hit/pitch, especially against each other in high-leverage situations. b) Pitcher deliveries as art. c) Fielding plays involving tags. d) How batting stances uncoil into swings (and just as fun: the discipline and control involved in checking said swings less than halfway through). e) Umpires that I can hear through the TV. f) The first pitch of any baseball ‘denomination’ (e.g., career, season, game, plate appearance). g) Knowing the base/out run expectancy matrix well enough to play ‘what if?’ during live games. n) I could go on and on …
    2. As fun as junk formulas can be, I think that every baseball fan has his/her own “linear weights of joy.” I’d suggest creating/publishing your own rather than making an amalgam of everyone else’s.

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  9. scott says:

    The hate game & the pizza race.

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  10. Geoffrey says:

    2) This is not so much linear weights of joy as economics, in particular utility. To actually put all the events one person loves in baseball into some sort of utility function would take a ridiculous amount of time. To then try to achieve some sort of be-all end-all utility function for watching baseball would be beyond insane and also (at least in my opinion) pointless.

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    • Carson Cistulli says:

      I see your point. A “be-all end-all” would be insane were one to consider the endless number of events that might possibly appeal to an audience (or even one person). That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to consider all events in order to improve upon the status quo, which is merely to eyeball it. I think to isolate the events which offered the highest marginal utility and to consider just them would still represent a marked achievement. If that makes it a junk stat, so be it. If we’re not using our intellect to further our own happiness, then it’s entirely useless.

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      • Geoffrey says:

        On second thoughts, I can see a reason in figuring some sort of utility function. It would be so owners could maximize revenue/profits from building a team that people would like to watch. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a smaller market team run by a profit obsessed owner (Marlins perhaps?) actually tried to put something like this into action.

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  11. je says:

    Also, on the fielding end, glove flips. I love the glove. Whenever there is a gb behind the 2nd base bag and you have a chance for one of those plays where the 2b fields it but knows he can’t make a throw so he glove flips it to the SS who barehands it and guns it to 1st. Magical..

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  12. arsenal says:

    what a pointless exercise in intellectual masturbation. i stopped reading at about the 4th paragraph and i’m sure many others did, too. for the love of god, get a life!

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    • RAY QUINONES says:

      What a good example of American anti-intellectualism! Curious? Passionate? For the love of God (and the US and Sarah Palin and the troops), get a life! Let’s get pig-ignorant up in here!

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  13. ducat2 says:

    Is it marmoreal calm or ataraxia, or perhaps the tetrapharmakos panacea you allude to that lures one to baseball? Your daedal use of neurological descriptive, especially at the biochemical level (dopamine and serotonin), however, only compounds the abstract pleasure-gratification quandary. Is it gratification or pleasure to be able to determine some vague, distant futurity of a game, or the empyreal, holus-bolus satisfaction derived from a ripsnorter of a walk-off home run?
    Carson, in no way do I intend to offer animadversions to your treatise. Yet, I fear a jacquerie from our wonderful FanGraphs’ readers because of your enjoyment of baseball through your highfalutin lens of linear weights of joy.
    As a fellow Portlander, I empathize. Send me an e-mail and I’ll buy you a beer. Maybe we can enjoy a game together.

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  14. PhD Brian says:

    This is far more philosophical and thought provoking than the typical FanGraph reader wants. But not me, I found your paper interesting and somewhat scholarly. I am an Academic so I care about these pursuits and would gladly read more. I suggest you delve more into the new studies of happiness and economics were some of the best work is being done on happiness today. As for me, I love great pitching and great defense on TV where it is easier to see. But prefer great hitting in the stadium because of the fan reaction. I also like seeing things that never happen very often like a triple play or Adam Dunn catching the baseball. But mostly (and why I watch tons of baseball on tv) I like it when a pitcher just makes great hitters look clueless (on TV you can see their faces). Oh and nothing beats watching a last minute Yankee or red Sox loss to some small market team with a starting pitcher making the minimum. Schadenfreude!

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  15. Dave B. Wagner says:

    This was interesting — not exactly ground-breaking, but certainly not a waste of time either.

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  16. Futant462 says:

    Alot of people say this would be impossible. Sure, getting it perfect is impossible, getting a first order approach shouldn’t be that hard.

    Seeing players who are both 3+ standard deviations above the mean in terms of productivity (wOBA, FIP, whatever you choose) would be a good indicator of how exciting a single matchup SHOULD be.

    Strikeouts are exciting, homeruns are exiting, steals are exciting, amazing defense is exciting. Certain players excel at these things differently, it can be quantified, imprecisely at least. Assign a weight to it, look at the lineups for each game, there should be some way to come up with an expected excitement variable.

    Also, assuming a neutrally interesting matchup, the leverage index would be a good place to start. Watching 2 ridiculous studs in a high lev situation? priceless.

    Relevance of game. 2 great players facing off in late october? not that exciting. Game 7 of the WS bottom 9 down 4-5 with bases juiced? whoa!

    Hall of fame bound 38 year old vets vs. uber-hyped next best thing prospects… ya thats pretty cool too.

    this lacks some of the subtle intellectual masturbatory joys, but I’m a bit of an adrenaline junky, so thats what gets me going.

    iterate ad abusrdium

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  17. Luke says:

    1) I love guys who wear high socks, pitchers’ duels, and homerun robbing catches.

    2) I am your biggest fan, Carson, but I think you’re trying to objectify something that is inherently and necessarily subjective.

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  18. the Kardinal says:

    Great stuff.
    I find the hypocrisy of negative comments hilarious.

    Sabrematicians constantly pat themselves, and others, on the back for thinking outside the box and coming up with new ways to analyze the game.

    This author pushes the envelope even further, and he receives scorn from the same people.

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  19. Alaskan says:

    A couple thoughts:
    I wonder if the negative comments come from folks who don’t care for reading. That is, reading as an end in and of itself, rather than merely a means. I imagine that those readers would value efficiency of expression, as JDSussman and arsenal’s comments would suggest. Anyway, I like the slightly meandering nature of your work, Carson – it feels like a Saturday afternoon when I read it. There’s a decadence to it. You take the time to flesh out an idea, to travel a long ways down a path, and take a few short steps down side-paths along the way. You seem quite confident in what you’re doing, but I’d still like to say, “don’t change what you’re doing for anyone else”. At the very least, there is value in its uniqueness.

    When I enjoy baseball, I find, it always ends in a story I can tell my wife. My wife does not particularly care for baseball, but she’s always willing to listen to a story. There are a hundred different stories in every baseball game: an at-bat, a single player’s performance, a half-inning, etc. Few of these, however, are remarkable to me, and even fewer would be interesting to my wife. The happiness to be had in anticipation is centered around these stories, and whether they will or won’t be realized – whether I have a story worth telling to my wife, or not.

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    • SmallBall says:

      Mother of Mayhem. What an awesome post.

      I never thought of it, but that is exactly a joy I get from the game.

      I will also add that of very few select stories I choose to tell, some still are not received as well as I had hoped. Which makes me want to hone that skill even more.

      And Carson, love it.

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    • arsenal says:

      alaskan, it’s not that. fwiw, i’m an ivy lge grad and i enjoy reading. i simply dont find eggheaded navel-gazing to be interesting. the intellectual or pseudo-intellectual references in the article came off as self-indulgent to me. it’s sort of like how if you’re a great drummer, you don’t prove it by going nuts and playing ridiculous fills all the time.

      if you like baseball, you like baseball, you don’t have to overanalyze it to death. linear weights of happiness… get a grip, the very act of commodifying and quantifying units of happiness detracts from the happiness derived from the experience in question. it’s such a typically american thing to want to measure what makes you happy and then buy/gather as many of those as possible. it completely misses the point.

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      • Dave B. Wagner says:

        I’m not sure if you’re being intentionally ironic here, but your arguments in the second paragraph are exactly those used by “traditionalists” against the pursuit of baseball statistics in general.

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      • Divakar says:

        Let me get this straight: it’s okay to quantify production in baseball (that’s what we statheads do, right?)… but it’s NOT okay to quantify the enjoyment factor?

        Or is not okay to quantify anything (subjective or objective) because it takes away from the enjoyment of the game? I don’t think that’s arsenal’s point, so I’ll go with the first bit:

        While I appreciate the difference between subjective and objective valuation (the difference is enormous), I think both have their place in the analytical realm.

        In my view, Ivy League or not, arsenal seems to have missed the point: if you find quantifying happiness detracts from your enjoyment of baseball, don’t do it. No one is asking you to ruin your baseball experience. I can promise you that many of my friends find my statistical indulgence (wOBA, O-Swing%, UZR etc) quite horrifying, and claim that it ruins THEIR enjoyment of the game. Should that make the BPs and Fangraphs of the world go away? Of course not.

        If your argument is “but these stats help build better teams, people are dumb for hating on them” – I would argue that it’s only an uneven playing field that allows these stats to help teams win. It’s an inefficiency of evaluation that allows teams to exploit statistical knowledge – not the stats themselves. Now that we all “get it” about OBP, try stealing the next David Ortiz or Carlos Pena…

        The same will apply to advanced metrics in time, and while this process certainly provides insight into the game of baseball, it is by no means a universally appealing phenomenon. I think many people are disheartened, as they were by the OBP revolution, with the advances in defensive metrics… That doesn’t mean we should stop pursuing these developments.

        So, as far as subjective analysis, I am intrigued. I don’t know what is possible here, and I doubt it will help win championships (fantasy or real). But if Arsenal’s point is to be taken seriously, then I will fully admit that I find this stuff enjoyable, and it in no way detracts from my enjoyment of the game overall.

        The deeper issue is this: does objective analysis increase your enjoyment of the game? For me, it certainly does, but this increase is clearly a subjective phenomenon. I would assume this to be true for arsenal, as well as most readers of this site (although many seem obsessed with generating a better fantasy team, not enjoying baseball).

        Carson’s post asks us to determine whether we care to analyze our subjective valuation of the game…

        In fact, I’ve noticed that Pitch F/X data actually improves my SUBJECTIVE enjoyment of the game – I can understand what I’m seeing better, and I get even more excited when Mike Wuertz sets up his nasty slider, or a seemingly unhittable pitch gets hit.

        At a purely subjective level, I still wonder why watching Daisuke Matsuzaka is fun for me. I can’t figure it out. He’s a great example of an “enjoyment step function”: many people CANNOT STAND HIM, but some are fascinated. I’m in the latter group, and those of who enjoy him share little with the detractors except our objective agreement that he nibbles and walks too many guys. So, why is it that we differ so greatly in our subjective enjoyment? And what does it say about why I enjoy baseball?

        It’s easy to say “that’s just who you are” or something. But if modern economics and psychology have taught us anything, it’s simply not that simple.

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      • JDSussman says:

        I agree with Aresenal. To me, it was more about him hearing himself ramble than presenting a concept.

        I do love to read. I also like clear and concise messages (or arguments). This just wasn’t that.

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  20. Jeff says:

    the number one thing that would release MASSIVE amounts of dopamine in me would be Perfect Games / No hitters…. If by a player on my team even better.

    I am a Tigers fan and when Verlander finished his no-no in 2007 and I saw Leyland running onto the field like a little boy, I was overcome with emotion, which i am sure was a flood of dopamine….

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    • Jeff says:

      No-No’s probably give me the most pleasure because, like some comments have pointed out, they dont happen often… Verlanders no hitter was better than Magg’s walkoff to clinch the AL pennant in 2006…

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      • Matt says:

        Just listening to Mark Buehrle finish his perfect game on the radio gave me chills I hadn’t felt since watching the 05 series.

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  21. Ken Arneson says:

    This is the first time since retiring from baseball blogging that I wish I still had a blog, just to respond to this post. The “Why do we watch?” question is something I’ve tried to discuss on Catfish Stew for years, and it’s a pretty lonely question. Most sabermetrically inclined blog readers are zeroed in on studying the “How do we win?” question, and aren’t much interested in moving beyond that. I’m glad to finally find someone else genuinely interested in the issue.

    I categorically reject the idea that this subject is unknowable. Any system with non-random inputs and outputs can be reverse engineered. It’s just that reverse engineering the human brain is a very complex process.

    I don’t think you can get to a specific understanding of the “why we watch baseball” question until we get a more general understanding of the “why we like anything” question. I’ve been following the new science of neuroesthetics pretty much since its inception, and progress is slow. Without a breakthrough of some sort, it will be a l-o-o-o-ng slog ahead to get there.

    I’ve got my theories about how to do that, but they’re way too long to spell out in this blog comment. Email me if you want me to point out some of my old blog entries on the subject. Otherwise…just keep probing the issue; I’m interested.

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  22. jpd says:

    I really don’t get the negative comments. I mean, its like people here really are the stereotype nerds in their mom’s basement who would rather play a strat-o-matic game of baseball than watch one. I mean, jeez. was anything he said wrong? look, Cistulli isn’t gonna bring much in the way of qualitative info into the articles that he writes, but he is easily the best writer on this site. not the best anylist, but the best actual writer. he’s going to write some interesting stuff, and he’s not gonna say anything that we know is stupid, like Tex for MVP, or how adam dunn needs to strike out less. There is nothing wrong with actually reading something instead of just looking at a couple of pretty colors that show the release points of different pitches. (not that there is anything wrong with that either)

    my favorite things in baseball are
    Clayton Kershaw’s curve
    Cole hamels change up
    anyone who looks bad swinging at a knuckleball
    Chase Utley

    I just think that they are the coolest things in baseball right now. by far my favorite things. mostly chase utley though.

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  23. jpd says:

    oh, and what the phillies jsut did to John Lannan was pretty sweet as well.

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    • ducat2 says:

      Way to blow it man. I thought those pretty colors were multiple Rohrshach tests, FanGraph’s subliminal way to psychoanalyze its readers, the prerequisite to comprehending the Cistulli collection. Only now do I find out they are a pitcher’s release point. Was I truly misguided to believe I could understand Cistulli’s writings? Bummer. Once a non-intellectual, always a non-intellectual.
      Thanks jpd for setting me straight.

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  24. DavidA says:

    Carson, great article. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Epicurean philosophy, Wallace Stevens, and musical styling of Wilco (the band) so intricately linked before :) Not to mention the baseball.

    I have to take issue with the Brian Moehler jab though. I have him on my fantasy team so I do actually pay attention to his starts. (Yes it’s a very deep, NL-only league, and yes, he has been worth positive value this year, at least for the weeks I’ve had him in my lineup.) So I can honestly say that I’d rather watch him pitch than Charlie Haeger.

    This brings me to another point, actually. I find that a lot of enjoyment I get from watching baseball stems directly from my involvement in fantasy leagues. Love/enjoyment of the game initially brought me to fantasy, but fantasy (and wanting to excel at it) has really heightened my interest in and appreciation for the game overall. So much so that I’m following Brian Moehler’s starts, for example.

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  25. WallyBall says:

    I am not an academic, but I thought that this was an interesting and thought provoking article. It really got me to think about why I like baseball. I think that this may be too generic for where you were going, but here goes.
    1. The strategy of the game, in all its forms. Well struck balls, especially where you can hear a sharp crack off the bat, even on TV. Good power pitching, especially rising fastballs for strike 3. Good defense of almost any kind, but especially a double play off a rocket with several runners on. Knowing the different skills of a player, especially a prospect, and predicting how they will do in certain situations and then watching to see if you were right.
    2. Whenever any of those things happen for my team. And since I am a Nats fan, I have been dopamine and serotonin deprived (and it sucked what the phillies just did to John lannan).

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  26. VidaB says:

    Carson, I might be in the minority here, but I share your view that analyzing what makes baseball enjoyable is both possible and worth doing. Still, I have qualms about the way you come at the question. You write:

    “I think to isolate the events which offered the highest marginal utility and to consider just them would still represent a marked achievement.”

    If events are truly isolated, then it seems like you’ll only capture one aspect of the game that makes it enjoyable to watch, the one that doesn’t depend on their context: display of expert skill. Big league double plays are like that for me. A pitcher with a hammer curve. A batter who can foul off pitches at will. I enjoy those sort of things regardless of context. Those could be rank-ordered, I guess.

    But it’s the events in context — that’s where the real action is, no? Imagine trying to analyze what makes listening to music enjoyable by trying “to isolate the notes which offered the highest marginal utility.”

    One type of event-in-context, not a big deal to me, but someone mentioned it, is the fun of the unexpected, e.g. lead off hitter goes yard the first pitch of the game. Sort of like a good joke or a movie with a surprise ending. That’s good, but only works the first time you see it.

    But most important is this: the build-up of tension within a game, shifts that build more tension, then a resolution of it. The resolution is more intense when it’s something sudden and unexpected, like Buckner’s error against the Mets. But it’s even better when it involves a display of masterful skill, like Jordan’s jumper to beat the Jazz. That kind of thing holds up well to repeated viewings.

    I’m not saying that context can’t be quantified, but I am suggesting that not until that is done will we have a “marked achievement”.

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  27. Mike W says:

    This was such a great article that I felt inclined to honor your request.

    My favorite thing to see is a pitcher hit a home run.
    I love walk-off home-runs and great pitcher-batter duels.
    I watch Little League for the excitement a player feels when they do well.
    And if anyone here ever watched Rickey Henderson play, I like baseball for that as well.

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  28. David says:

    The most exciting play in baseball to me is the bang bang play at home. Watching a RF with a cannon throw a one hopper from near the warning track and then the catcher having to cover the plate, catch the ball, apply the tag and hang on for dear life is pure excitement.

    I would guess that if a person knew there would be a bench clearing brawl in a certain game that the likelihood of his watching the game would increase by a substantial number. Regardless of your take, when discussing which games viewers would rather watch it would be impossible to ignore the value of a Ryan v. Ventura moment. When I type in Nolan Ryan into Google the autocomplete order is #1 “Nolan Ryan stats” and #2 “Nolan Ryan fight.”

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  29. lr says:

    To me, it’s about time.

    The “big plays” that come to mind–home runs, triples, double plays, stolen bases–happen in a flash. The game, itself, is slow-paced, taking nearly three hours, occuring nearly every day, 162 times a year. More than any other sport, baseball both creates a reliable, pleasure-inducing rhythm, and interrupts the same rhythm (without breaking it) with bursts of energy.

    There is reliability and there is suspense. There is predictability and there is surprise. There is serotonin and dopamine.

    You mentioned Lincecum’s change-up. To go with that example, I’m suggesting that the enjoyment of baseball has something to do with the both/and tension of appreciating Lincecum’s delivery for one beautifully thrown pitch, watching him put together an at-bat, an inning, a game, a season, and a career. Watching Lincecum pitch a complete game is more enjoyable than watching a highlight reel of the same game.

    To me, it’s that combination of short-term/long-term that makes baseball so enjoyable.

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  30. Big Oil says:


    I’ve read the majority of your articles and found this one to be the most enjoyable. A break from the mostly black-and-white statistical analysis that this site offers on a daily basis, I think, is exactly what the other authors were going for when they commissioned these columns. Although I don’t like many of the asterisk/asides (I forget the writer who employs said device), I got a pretty good laugh out of the Ignition comment.

    Like others have suggested, there are simply too many situations during a given baseball game that give me pleasure. For example: last night, watching the Yankees-Rays on MLB, the familiar voice of Bob Costas — from baseball broadcasts during my elementary school years — set the scene just like I remembered him doing during the early to mid 90’s. Longo was up to bat, having had a pretty good night against Burnett. Quickly down 2-0, Burnett paints two heaters on the outside corner for strikes, which Longo spits on. Sitting 2-2, the camera pans in to Longo’s eyes, and a certain determination is manifested in them, completely convincing me he was thinking one thing only: “when he puts another fastball on the corner, I’m swinging, and I’m going the other way.” But Burnett then out-thinks him; he promptly drops a filthy slider that starts on the outer half, Longo offers, misses as the pitch ends on the chalk of the left-handed batters box, and strikes out. That, I said to myself, was awesome.

    So perhaps for me the elements of predictability — in the form of talented execution — makes the game great. Not to state the obvious, but anyone who has played baseball will tell you that it is not easy. This makes Pujols, Lincecum, Grienkie, Hanley, and others otherworldly to me. FanGraphs has answered a very important question: why are these guys great? The regurgitation of material on Baseball Tonight can’t hold FanGraphs’ jock when it comes to analysis of information. I think the commenter who likened it to a story hit the nail on the head. A season itself represents far more than an anthology could ever cover. As a fan, I enjoy picking out pieces as I go, knowing that something, some event, is always waiting there to impress me.

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  31. big baby says:

    i like seeing my enemies crushed before me. i love going through mlb.tv playbacks and listening to the calls of the other team’s announcers after my team does something awesome and hearing the dejection in their voices. i love seeing a younger player do something awesome that makes you think they’re starting to get it.

    as a met fan, you can tell that i get very little pleasure from baseball.

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    • James says:

      Yes. I love watching teams blow out the White Sox on WGN and listening to Ken Harrelson cry on air.

      White Sox fans – do you hate this guy as much as fans of every other team do? He must be one of the worst commentators of all time. HE GONE!

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    • Vode says:


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  32. Stratus says:

    While they have valid opinions, too many early commenters didn’t understand the idea behind this post.

    I think what I enjoy the most is run scoring and run prevention. That’s not quite as general as enjoying winning a game, but certainly not as specific as a particular pitch or hit or play type.

    As far as run prevention, I most enjoy great defensive plays, whether that’s a diving catch, an amazing throw, or a heads up play to tag a runner going somewhere. In any sports that I’ve played I’ve enjoyed defense the most because it’s fun to shut down the efforts of the opposing team, and I like to run so watching an outfielder track down a ball is a thing of beauty to me. Also on this side of things, I like strikeouts (and swinging strikes in general). There is nothing that makes a hitter’s efforts look more futile than a swing and a miss. Wonderful.

    I enjoy run scoring so very much. Not only does it raise our chances to win, but it also helps relieve that anticipation or a batter being on base. I’m a big Mariners fan so perhaps this is contributing to my desire to see runs scored. It seems we have players on base far too often with not payoff.

    As for an overall ranking system, it would be hard to make a general system. Perhaps there are some sweeping tendencies among most people for what is the most exciting part of a game, but it seems to me to be very subjective.

    For me, I would say my top enjoyment comes from here:

    sweet defensive play>scoring a run>swinging strike

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  33. Jeff K says:

    I learned something from this: If you take a long time to say nothing, some people will love you.

    This writing was not academic, nor philosophical. Writing must have logic to have either of those to, and logic didn’t make the final draft. However, it was entertaining. Keep it coming.

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  34. Jeff K says:

    *Writing must have logic to be either of those two*

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  35. Josh U says:

    One of my favorite things about baseball is taking a nap during an afternoon Cubs game.

    As for linear weights, well, they’re only one way of modelling, but there are others. I think baseball video games and baseball movies model the enjoyment of baseball is some pretty accurate ways.

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  36. James says:

    Watching a pitching prospect you’ve followed for years put it all together and throw a gem.

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  37. Tim says:

    I failed at reading all the comments, and I’m sure someone has mentioned, if not, at least, pondered this thought already…

    The idea of utility in economics reflects pretty well what I think you are getting at. As many people point out, there are so many factors that could go into something like this that it seems almost impossible. Yet, in many industries, people try to predict the behavior of the market, or, more specfically, of individual consumers, acting rationally and irrationally, that make up a market.

    I could imagine some advanced algorithim that could be applied to players that may attempt to predict the utility of a given player to a given market of consumers. If a team could look at different players and more precisely way their “entertainment” value it might have some resounding effects on baseball – maybe for the better. Those values would probably closely follow what we already know to be good and bad players though. And if they didn’t, would that value surpass the value of championships (possibly won by better, less interesting players)?

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    • Divakar says:

      +1 on the utility function angle.

      To me, this is the main point in these comments: Does it matter if a utility function has any economic value in baseball?

      Personally, I don’t think it does… I think the posters who are hating on Carson don’t even understand why they hate. I’m guessing they share the view that baseball analysis is *only* meant to help win games.

      Winning is certainly a *part* of the reason I care about analysis. Maybe for some people, it’s the only reason… For me, the other side of analysis is that I want understand the game better because it increases my enjoyment of the game.

      To that end, utility functions are interesting enough to pursue further.

      Granted, I doubt this will get you a job in the front office of a baseball team, but crazier things have happened.

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  38. Dave B. Wagner says:

    Anyway, my most enjoyable baseball moment was Kenny Rogers’ win over the Yankees in the 2006 ALDS. For me, that was the ultimate “baseball as story” experience. That game had it all (especially since I saw it in person): the feeling of being part of an extraordinary experience + surprise + satisfaction of defeating Yankees/city of New York + inferiority complex of the city of Detroit + seeing an excellent pitching performance, etc etc.

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  39. Mike Fast says:

    Great post, Carson! Loved it–it was interesting and thought-provoking.

    I think most of my enjoyment of baseball comes as part of a larger narrative and would have to be analyzed in that context. E.g., it’s not just a no-hitter, it’s a no-hitter by a guy that came back from cancer. It’s not just an improbable Game 4 ALCS collapse, it’s an epic collapse in a battle of rivals going back to the sale of Babe Ruth. Baseball is a story–the greatest, longest-running theatrical play ever. It has heroes and villains, comedy and tragedy.

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  40. Vode says:

    Major League Baseball owners and players have been addressing the economics of joy for over a hundred years now by:

    -tightening up the baseball (goodbye dead-ball era)
    -lowering the mound
    -adding the DH
    -tightening up the baseball again
    -passively promoting PED abuse a means of success at the major league level
    -creating smaller ballparks
    – The annual Century 21 Home Run Derby on ESPN sponsored by Century 21. Did I mention Century 21 is involved?

    They figure flying baseballs = increased dopamine and seratonin. Apparently they’re onto something.

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  41. julien says:

    defense. pedro martinez v. roger clemens. greg maddux.

    thinking along with the pitcher. the immense amount of strategy in the game that goes unrecognized by spectators and even most players. strategy known to david eckstein, and barry bonds. it’s the thing that allows mediocre talents to succeed and even thrive (not scrappiness, or hustle).

    scrappiness and hustle.

    the heartbreak of seeing a kid with tools fail because he just can’t take a pitch.

    pure talent.

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  42. RedClaw says:


    What a wonderfully fun article. It has a lot more depth than it looks like at first, too, and it’s just hilarious.

    I don’t think things can be broken down like you describe – linear weights of joy – other than on a mostly individual basis… But it’s a hilarious title.

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  43. bobo says:

    Do you get paid by the word? Are there really a bunch of monkeys sitting around typing this garbage?
    please pass the bananas.

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    • Spike Owen says:

      I agree! And I love how you both call Cistulli out as a chimp and secretly disclose that you too are a monkey. The bananas, you write, is to be passed to you, not anyone else.

      And there’s also a lovely use of ambiguity. When you ask if monkeys sit around and type this garbage, you refer to Cistulli, but also yourself. Good use of those opposable thumbs, Bobo. I’ll follow your future comments with interest!

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      • Will says:

        very good breakdown of this comment. I would have never of noticed it. It was so subtle .And to Bobo, Bravo my friend. One of the more enjoyable comments I’ve read in some time. I too will look forward to the next bobo the monkey with glee.

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  44. Ted says:

    Quite an interesting article, and I think it gets at the core of the experience, ie. what is it that we enjoy? One issue might be that each person has a particular linear weights of joy system, given their personal experiences, childhood memories, and in your case the manner in which baseball helped you through anxiety. Your weights are likely to be very different from someone’s who has not used the game to advance past such difficulty. In the end, the more viable model might be to create a template for the linear weights of joy that each individual could fill in with their unique preferences.

    My linear weights are below. I personally derive a great deal of pleasure from particular player styles and individual events:

    1) individual player styles, like Lance Berkman’s and Ichiro’s at bats. My initial weight would be to ask how many times one of these marquee players with distinctive styles was going to bat. The corollary would be situational, like Berkman batting with the bases loaded, which could also combine my 1) with 2):

    2) the competitiveness of the game. A blowout versus a nail-biter, and how many tight situations arise in a given game.

    3) I think there could be some contextual factor for the games, like time of year (for me, odd as it might sound, Spring Training games are some of my favorite and would be heavily weighted), the chance for historical feats (I was at Biggio’s 3,000th hit game, and it was the greatest game of my life. Pure joy).

    I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it at that.

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  45. Nate says:

    I’m going to be lame and cliche and say that I enjoy everything about baseball.

    The seemingly endless stream of variables throughout the game make it possible to enjoy the minutiae – dopamine activators like Rick Ankiel’s socks (or moustache) – while simultaneously enjoying a serotonin uptake as Brian Fuentes struggles his way to another save (though this could also just be the cortisol depleting).

    The great thing about baseball is that everyone could have different answers to this question and they’d all be right.

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  46. Laza Morgan says:

    Alexandra Burke’s new track Start Without You is extremely addictive! The single definitely deserved to hit #1 on the singles charts and I wish Alexandra releases her second album soon! I want to hear Laza Morgan’s new album, too.

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  47. eric says:

    I think the post above me is spam …

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  48. Not You says:

    This was great. Yes I am 3 years late to the party.

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