Friday, July 21, 2006

What If? Who Cares?

I admit it, I watched NESN's What If..., a fictionalized account of how game 7 of the 2003 ALCS would have turned out if Grady Little had taken out A Certain Former Red Sox Pitcher Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken after said pitcher gave up a run to the Yankees in the eighth inning. I wasn't planning to watch it because I don't believe in crying over spilled milk, and besides, I'd take the World Championship of 2004 over a single game/series against the Yankees any day of the week. But when I got home from work and automatically flipped on NESN, there was a game on, and before I realized it wasn't one of those "Red Sox Classics", I was sucked in.

For those of you who haven't seen or heard much about this absurd production, what NESN did is hire a computer baseball operation to simulate the remainder of game 7 from the point at which Grady went to the mound in the eighth, but with the presumption that he goes to the bullpen at that point. The computer takes over from there, including simulating the choice of relief pitchers. (Edit: I was mistaken; the simulation began with Grady going to Alan Embree.) Read here for details about the process and an overview of how those 100 simulations turned out.

The bottom line is that the most likely outcome (41%) was a 5-3 Red Sox win. In another 41% of the sims, the Red Sox won by a different score. That's 82 of 100 sims that yielded a Red Sox win, which indicates pretty strongly (though obviously not certainly) that if Grady had taken out P***o before Hideki Matsui came to bat, the Sox would have won. I don't know many fans who would be surprised by those probabilities.

What did surprise me was that in the production based on the simulation process, Scott Williamson never pitched. The save went to Mike Timlin, but not until he had walked two batters in the ninth inning. Williamson had been rock solid throughout the playoffs that year; it wasn't for nothing that the mantra on everyone's lips was, "Embree and Timlin in the eighth, Williamson in the ninth."

But ultimately, SO WHAT? Should it bother any of us that the most likely scenario turned out to be what we've always known it would have been? Should we salivate over the prospect of a dramatic seventh game win over our arch-rivals? Should we ache for what might have been? My answers are: no, no, and no.

Think about it. There is no guarantee that if we had gone to the 2003 World Series, we would have won. The Marlins cooked the Yankees pretty well; there's nothing to say they wouldn't have done the same thing to the Sox. But more importantly, a league championship might have changed the dynamic of the team for the worse. Grady might never have been fired, Curt Schilling might never have been acquired, and the 2004 incarnation of the Boston Red Sox (both on and off the field) might not have been so driven to right the wrong that was 2003. What we might have ended up with is another 1986, 1975, 1967, or 1946—a pennant but no World Series trophy, and even worse than that, years before we got another chance.

I now see 2003 the way I see pregnancy and labor—something long, difficult, and ultimately painful, but with a really great outcome. I know with certainty what happened after Grady's game 7 brain fart, and it was the best experience in my life as a sports fan so far.

Would I trade that certainty, that thrill, that year-long high, for the mere hope of having it one year earlier? No way. So I don't care about "what ifs". And I believe that if you think about it, you'll find that you don't either.


Beazer said...

I convinced myself I wasn't going to watch it...and then I did anyway (from the point where Embree came in...I couldn't watch the beginning of that game...knowing the real outcome was much too painful).

The Williamson non-move surprised me as did my reaction to their winning it. I wanted them to lose. I don't know why. I think I agree that if they won it would have altered things for me terribly in 2004 - and I wouldn't change the 2004 experience for ANYTHING.

Michael Leggett said...

I have written my own, smart alecky take on this "What If" called "What TF If" & the things they failed to cover:

Let's suppose that a computer advised FOX to have an announcerless Game 7;

How would the ratings be affected by no Joe or Tim?

Brenken said...

The ratings would go much higher with no Joe or Tim. Some people wouldn't have to use their mute button and listen to the radio.