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    Yvonne Abraham

    Statistical significance

    This isn’t a big story, but it is a sweet one.

    It’s about a baseball game, a chance meeting, and an act of generosity that changed not the world, but a single grade.

    Marcia Long can take baseball or leave it. But a few of her old friends — they all live in Tampa — are crazy for the Rays. So when her crew was in Massachusetts on one of their trips in early October, there was no debate. They had to see the Rays go up against the Sox in their first playoff matchup at Fenway.


    Boston is famously, sometimes off-puttingly passionate about its teams, and Long admits she felt some trepidation as she and her friends headed to the baseball park — decked out in Rays blue from head to toe. “Our husbands kept telling us, ‘Boston won’t like it if you flaunt it,’ ” says Long, a retired X-ray technologist. “Well, we flaunted it.”

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    And Boston liked it. Sox fans posed with them for pictures before the game. People were super polite in the stands. Which was handy for Long, because she gets bored at games, and likes to strike up conversations with strangers. There was a nice couple sitting nearby, so she wished them good luck.

    “We were like, ‘Whoa, we lucked out, sitting next to the friendliest opposing fans ever,’ ” said Matt Finkelman, one half of that couple. Long kept telling Finkelman and his girlfriend, Amy Krasner, what a sweet couple they made, which delighted them. She talked about her daughter Emily, who wants to be a psychiatrist but was struggling in her statistics class at the University of Central Florida.

    Finkelman could probably calculate the exact probability that Marcia Long would end up sitting next to him that day, but for our purposes, let’s just acknowledge that the odds were, well, long. It just so happens he is a statistician. Not in the way baseball fanatics fancy themselves statisticians, but for real: He’s an assistant professor of biostats at Tufts University. He urged her to have Emily contact him.

    “Is this really going to happen?” she remembers thinking. She texted her daughter anyway.


    Before they parted, Marcia Long passed Finkelman a note: You have no idea how much you made me smile when you said you’d help her. She is an awesome daughter. It is such a relief to know there are good people left who care.

    When her mother’s text came in, Emily Long “kind of blew it off,” she says. “Nobody is going to take the time to help me from Boston.” But she was desperate, so she e-mailed Finkelman anyway. He answered.

    And thus began a series of phone tutorials, in which Finkelman unlocked for Emily the mysteries of P-values and Z-scores. The professor’s patience seemed infinite, even late at night, when his voice sounded worn.

    “It’s so strange for someone to willingly help somebody for hours and hours,” Emily Long says.

    It was no big deal to Finkelman, who has volunteered to tutor kids before. “I enjoy that ‘Aha’ moment when she understands a concept,” he says. “She sent an e-mail saying ‘I passed the test’ with seven exclamation marks.”


    Before that baseball game, Emily Long was headed for an F in statistics. She just got a B.

    “I want to tell the world,” Marcia Long says. “Who does this? Without even knowing her, without even knowing me?”

    Of course, this happens quite a bit — people doing nice things for strangers, wanting nothing in return. There’s so much life-and-death stuff going on, sweet moments like these rarely make the newspaper. Nor would this one, if it hadn’t been for Marcia Long. Floored by the generosity of a man who owed her nothing, she was determined to have Finkelman recognized publicly. This seems like the right time of year to grant that wish.

    So here’s to statistician Matt Finkelman, and to the countless, nameless others who remind us that the chances of running into kindness are way higher than we think.

    Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at