Every year around this time I catch myself thinking about Bill James's way of declaring basketball games over. Here's an article about it—and here, in the following blockquote, is the gist:
There comes a time in a relationship when a woman will still answer your phone calls, but you're wasting your money buying flowers; you know what I'm saying? There comes a moment during a job interview when you're still talking, but you might as well take off your shoes. There is a time in an illness when you're not dead yet, but you might as well stop taking that nasty medicine.
There is a line there somewhere, and how do you know when the line is crossed that separates hope from fantasy?
... I've been attending basketball games at Allen Field House in Lawrence, Kan. (home of the Jayhawks), since 1967. The Jayhawks usually win by 15 or 20 points, and sometime in about 1968 I started wondering whether there wasn't some way to decide when the game was no longer in doubt.
Spoilers: He did, and his idea of a handy, rule-of-thumb calculation allows for more mathematical operations than mine, and Harry ends up with Ginny, somehow. But the impulse to find that line is what always reminds me of the piece, because I don't care about college basketball and because for me July is unambiguously the month where scoreboard-watching stops being a ridiculous waste of time.
July the trade markets open up, and teams divide roughly into buyers and sellers, and fans are forced to do the kind of calculus I like to avoid until the last possible moment-the Cardinals could trade for Ryan Dempster, but would it be worth trading for Ryan Dempster?
So that seems like a clear-enough line for me. But the one I wonder about, every year, is some indeterminate number of games and games back in the future: When do you start really worrying about a team?
Right now the Cardinals are 4.5 games back of the Reds and Pirates and 70 games away from the end of the season. Baseball Prospectus's adjusted standings give them a basically 50-50 chance of making the postseason, which works for me.
This is not where I worry yet, but this sort of thing is more personal than determining when a basketball game is out of reach-you start worrying when you start worrying, and no earlier or later.
Some people don't worry until September, and after last season will feel justified for it; some people get worried around mid-April, the first time Randy Newman's score to The Natural doesn't seem to perfectly sync up with every Cardinals game; Joe Strauss seems to exist in a state of perpetual, existential, clubhouse-related worry.
I can point to the Prospectus standings all I want, or Pythagoras, or whatever, but I think what keeps me calm at this point in the season is more intuitive and less defensible: The Cardinals are doing worse than they ought to be.
It's the nearly-as-irrational inverse of the Church of Clutch position, which regards the Cardinals' inadequate clutchiness as a moral failing that will inevitably be punished: The Cardinals are a better team than they've shown so far, have been bitten by failings that are either relatively unimportant or unlikely to stick, and so things will, uh, even out.
So that's where I am, on July 20. Where are you?