DUBLIN - Over the last few years, a worrying percentage of Ireland’s high school seniors has failed the basic math section of the two-week-long set of college entrance exams known as the Leaving Certificate, and only a small number are bothering to test their proficiency at higher-level math.
Business leaders and technology gurus here have sounded alarm bells. How is Ireland going to shape a smart economy and pull out of recession, they wonder, if the best and brightest are shying away from math?
In the United States, a similar trend has developed, with American teens located at mid-table and slipping in the most recent international math surveys.
I’m no expert, but as the 100th Opening Day at Fenway Park approaches Friday, I have a suggestion. If you want to start kids on the road to mathematical know-how, there’s no better place to begin than the baseball diamond.
Yes, baseball is a game with an almost limitless resource for statistics and calculations. You’d expect nothing less from a sport that has been played professionally for nearly 150 years and that today boasts a 162-game schedule spread over six months.
I can offer personal testimony to the numerical allure of baseball. Back in 1967, I was an eager 8-year-old Red Sox fan. In fact, I still remember where I was - the front steps of our Medford home, listening on a transistor radio - when Ned Martin announced the final out of that Impossible Dream season. (“And there’s pandemonium on the field!’’ he shouted after shortstop Rico Petrocelli had drifted back to catch a short fly to left.)
More important, from a math point of view, that season saw Carl Yastrzemski capture baseball’s elusive Triple Crown. To keep track of Yaz’s progress, I became an apprentice mathematician, using my developing skills at long division to confirm his batting average and thus ensure he remained ahead of any rivals.
My youthful fascination with statistics and probability has never waned. Of course, every sport relies on number-crunching to assess a player’s worth. But as “Moneyball’’ demonstrated, baseball’s relationship with math is by far the most intimate.
When Joe DiMaggio died in 1999, writer (and Rotisserie League founding father) Daniel Okrent penned a fitting tribute to the Yankees legend in Time magazine. “His career, like so many in baseball,’’ Okrent wrote, “can best be divined by a sequence of numbers.’’ Okrent went on to render a playing career summed up by a heady catalog of statistics. One glance at the figures and any baseball fan - who is by default an amateur math sleuth - will recognize the greatness of the Yankee Clipper. (Apologies for leaving out any reference to the exceptional career of Boston’s Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, and the astonishing sequence of numbers he produced.)
Finally, we come to the enduring geometric elegance of a baseball diamond. A few years back, I was part of a volunteer grounds crew tasked with laying out a new field for Ireland’s oldest baseball club, the Greystones Mariners in County Wicklow.
Those of us on hand that day - players, parents, and coaches - found ourselves trying to recall basic algebraic equations to help us position the bases and pitcher’s mound. Our job was made more difficult because we needed to accommodate three varying base lengths: youth, teenage, and adult. Luckily, there was at least one nimble mind (and a pocket calculator) among us.
So there you have it. The figures, as they say, speak for themselves. If you want a child to stay active in both body and mind, baseball is definitely the game. And that adds up to a healthy outlook for any country’s economy.