Keeping the Game in Your Head: David Ortiz

I’m not a huge baseball fan, but I did grow up in the suburbs of Boston and so like the Red Sox. Over the weekend I saw a story in the Times about David Ortiz, who went from being a fabulous home run hitter to someone who couldn’t really connect with the ball and so lost his place at the top of the Red Sox batting order. Baseball is now loaded with information, as anyone who has followed the career of Nate Silver will be aware of. (Silver established his reputation as a baseball statistician but then went on to predict congressional and presidential elections at fivethirtyeight.com.) Apparently Ortiz was drawn into the game of studying his own performance “by the numbers,” and eventually it got to his game. Only when he decided to play for the “fun” of it did his hitting power return. As a story about a player’s encounter with statistics, this one has four parts: talented hitter does well; talented hitter attempts to improve performance with statistics (reported in the Times here); talented hitter suffers from overthinking his game; talented hitter learns to play the game again by forgetting about the numbers.

Perhaps this story is useful for thinking about the nature of statistically assisted reading. I’m not saying that using statistics to explore textual patterns drains the joy out of reading: it doesn’t, because the statistical re-description of texts is not reading in the sense that you or I would practice it. But I have had interesting experiences reading texts after I have learned something about the underlying linguistic patterns that they express. For example, when I learned that Shakespeare’s late plays contain a linguistic structure in the form of “, which” [comma, which] that distinguished them from all other Shakespeare plays, I really started to pay attention to these in my reading. I wouldn’t say that this detracted from my ability to read the text; rather it drew my attention to something else that was going on. But I also noticed that it was nearly impossible to pay attention to the linguistic patterns and to experience the meaning of that pattern at the same time. That is, I could either notice linguistic features of a play (presence of pronouns, concrete nouns, verbs in past tense, etc.) and ask why they were being used in a particular scene, or I could float along with the spoken line, feeling different ideas or emotions eddy and build as the speaker developed an image or theme. But I couldn’t do both.

Why should there be this “Ortiz effect” in reading? Is there some kind of fundamental scarcity of attention that forbids one’s reading as a (statistically assisted) linguist and as “any reader whatever” at the same time? I’m interested in this division, but skeptical of the idea — advanced in the article about Ortiz’ return to greatness — that you can forget what you know and “just do it.” The Times article says that Ortiz became a better hitter when he learned simply to “play…as if he were a boy.” But reading is never this simple: you can’t completely forget what you know, even if you learned it through the apparently foreign procedures of statistical analysis. Perhaps you can read “as if” you didn’t know it, and then re-engage that knowledge to examine how the linguistic patterns produce the effects you’ve just experienced? My point here is that readers who are assisted by statistics must simultaneously be both versions of Ortiz described in the different articles: both the hitter and the thinker. It would be a mistake to think that “natural” reading is accomplished in a state of child-like absorption in the game, since even children are brimming with strategies and inferences. I am glad to know certain things about Shakespeare that I couldn’t have known without the assistance of statistics — like the fact that the Histories are full of concrete description and a lack of first and second person pronouns. This doesn’t interfere with my game (I hope), but shows me that the game can be played on another, as yet unknown, verbal plane.

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