Michael Arace commentary: Let’s not play numbers game; root for Argentina

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Two days ago, Adam Jardy, our Crew beat writer, presented a story about how well our local Major League Soccer team is playing. The opening paragraph of the midseason report:

Each month, Major League Soccer sends its teams statistical data that is not made available to the public. According to Crew coach Gregg Berhalter, the most recent report shows his team leading in per-game averages for passes attempted, successful passes and forward passes, and second in crosses attempted.

Awesome, right?

The Crew has one win in its past 14 games but sits tied with New York for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference at 20 points — an average of 1.18 per game. That puts the Crew on pace for 40 points, its lowest total since 2007, when it finished with 37 points in a 30-game season.

Great job with the crosses, though.

Numbers have infiltrated every corner of professional sport, including the pond out back. Yes, even hockey is being picked apart by eggheads. Our Blue Jackets beat writer, Aaron Portzline, has a story upcoming on the subject.

Numbers can help us understand and better enjoy the games we love. Baseball fans have always known it. Sabermetrics, as a discipline, has been around for decades. It ultimately begat Moneyball, a worthwhile book that was made into a worthwhile movie. It teaches that Brad Pitt can build a good team on a tight budget if he pays more attention to on-base percentage and, like, defense.

Moneyball was published 11 years ago, and in the time since, we have been introduced to Edward Snowden. Our knowledge of big data has expanded. It is much bigger than we had ever realized, and it is thus in sports, as well.

There is a company that uses Israeli missile-defense technology to collect data on soccer games. The World Cup has been wired with cameras and broken down by computers. U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley was deemed “the hardest-working player” in the group stage because he covered more miles in three games — 23.6 — than any other player in the tournament.

That is great. But what was he doing turning the ball over to Eder, at midfield, in stoppage time, against Portugal? Egads, man, that should have been three points for the Americans, instead of one.

Rock singer Bob Seger, who feels like a number, put his finger on a certain angst derived from feeling crunched, devalued and dehumanized by modernity. Look at a lonely figure in an Edward Hopper painting, listen to John Coltrane fiddling around with Cherokee, read Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest and sense the thrum of the life’s big engine, getting louder all the time, overwhelming flesh and blood. It is actually one of the themes of Moneyball.

Everything is measured, broken down, dissected and analyzed, especially in the world of sport. A part of me is worried. I wonder if we have lost our capacity to simply enjoy what we see on the courts and fields in front of us now that statistician Nate Silver works for ESPN.

I worry that our capacity to celebrate our humanity through sport is being compromised to one degree or another. I think other people have this sense, as well. I received a raft of email after a recent column about kids playing Whiffle Ball and using only a scoreboard.

So, today, I am rooting hard for Argentina and star Lionel Messi to defeat Germany and win the World Cup. I am pulling for the Argentines because, heading into the tournament, I picked them to win. I am also pulling for the Argentines because the Germans are the big-data champions of the world, and their victories feel more a product of cold calculation than kinetic beauty.

The Germans are collecting massive amounts of data and processing it with software created by a behemoth computer company to gain a competitive advantage. Their Ivan Drago operations center triangulated their game plan for Brazil game, and they upped the score as if it were Australian Rules Football.

Come on, little Lionel, show them the meaning of art.

Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.

marace@dispatch.com

@MichaelArace1

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