Math Geek Mom: Wait ‘til Next Year!

Important odds.

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November 3, 2016

The binomial probability distribution, which I teach in my Statistics class, explores the probability of a given number of “successes” in a certain number of trials of an experiment in which each trial has the same probability of leading to a success. When I teach this, I usually begin with a probability of success set at ½, since it is the easiest probability for students to imagine, only later expanding to cases where the probability is something other than ½. I find that it is easiest to imagine drawing a red card from a deck of cards, or flipping a coin to see if it lands as “heads” or “tails” before exploring what happens when the probability of a success is equal to ¼ or even 2/5. I found myself thinking of this recently when my favorite “statistics geek” web page of “five thirty eight” listed the probability of Cleveland or Chicago winning the World Series as “a coin toss.”

The arrival of Cleveland into the World Series almost took the city by surprise. We were still celebrating from the basketball championship held this summer, and the first game of the World Series was scheduled on the same night as the recognition of our basketball team, at which the players were conferred diamond championship rings (for a hefty fee, you can buy a replica in a local jewelry store) and a championship banner was hung. Word is that downtown parking spots that night were going for \$100 for the evening.

The theme for the basketball team had been “All In” while the baseball team used “#Rally Together” instead and the idea that Cleveland would not win did not seem to enter the minds of many of the fans. Watching parties sprang up around the town, with the largest being those at the baseball stadium, where capacity crowds gathered to watch the games in Chicago and cheer on their team (and drink beer.) By the time they returned to play the last two games, many began to speak as if a victory was assured, sooner or later. In the back of my mind, I remembered Cleveland traveling to take on Golden State last summer, with exactly the same proportion of wins. Uh-oh.

And then the unthinkable happened. Although back in its home stadium, there was no victory in the first of the last two games. It would need to go on to the 7th game, certainly not what the city had been expecting. I remember saying that I was glad that the games were back in our time zone, since that meant that they would not go on into the very late (or early) hours. However, that was not the case with the 7th game. Losing at first, Cleveland tied the game in the eighth inning. Close to midnight, I was not watching it at that point, but screams and honking from the neighborhood watch parties alerted me to the fact that something had happened. It was not long until my daughter rushed into my room to fill me in on the details. There would be ten innings, with the extra inning delayed because of rain.

The folks at five thirty eight, which focuses on political statistical predictions (it is named after the 538 votes in the Electoral College) had this sports prediction almost exactly right. I can’t imagine two teams better matched for a series of games than were these two “underdog” teams, both longing for a victory after too many years. How else could you explain needing to go into overtime on the 7th game, other than that each of the teams entered with a 50% chance of winning?

When the game finally ended after midnight, the Chicago Cubs had won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. While I would have liked to celebrate with Cleveland for a second time in 2016, I could not help but be secretly happy when other long-suffering professional sports fans got to enjoy the feeling we had this past June.

And as for Cleveland? We are back to saying what has become our city’s favorite refrain, so popular that I even saw it on a license plate recently. Just wait ‘til “NXT YR.”

Congratulations to Cleveland, Ohio on a fabulous season of baseball! We’ll be back here next year!

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