What can modern analytical approaches to baseball and baseball statistics teach us about understanding conflict in Israel-Palestine?
Before answering that, I should say that a lot of our family’s time revolves around baseball, as both of our boys love playing and are very good players for their ages; just last month, both of their teams took home their league championships.  I am not sure if they will have a future in baseball as they get older (though I certainly hope so).  But I do hope that, in the meantime, baseball can teach them to understand a bit about life, Israel and Palestine included.  Particularly in that things are not always as they seem on the surface, there are a few important things that they can be entirely in control of, and that nearly everything is dependent on what one person does in relation to someone else’s choices and actions.  Including their own.
Every sport has its intricacies, but few have as many as baseball.  Listen to the debates about players from one era or another or check out the many encyclopedias and statistical theories created to understand the game.  Of interest to me lately is a concept developed by one such statistical school, which says that of the literally hundreds of things that can happen in the course of a game, only three are what they refer to as “true outcomes.”  (If phrased other ways, perhaps we would call them “direct” or “single cause” outcomes).  That is, these are plays where what happens is entirely determined by the batter or pitcher: strikeout, walk, or home run.
In this theory, every other play depends on the actions, reactions, and choices of one or more players on the field: where they run, how fast they get there, how well they make a throw or catch.  Or these days, what a fan holding a baby could do when a ball comes his way.  All of this interdependency and interconnectedness varies the possible outcome.  That’s what makes baseball so exciting and interesting, even if the pace to the casual fan can make the game seem boring.  There is so much that happens, or could happen, at any given moment that the more you know and see the details, you are almost always on the edge of your seat.
The concept of a “true” or “direct” outcome just heightens this.  On one hand, we narrow the thousands of possibilities to just a few things that can be determined by the actions and reactions of just two people, pitcher and batter.  Conversely, we again open everything else up to influence, to change, and even to chance.  And although occasionally you have a dominant pitcher like Chris Sale striking out more than 10 batters game after game, for the most part, having only three such outcomes means just about everything is up to the work and interactions of most or all the players on the field.   Each player does the best they can, and doing their best is critical, but that can still only take the team so far.
Like every sport, so too does every conflict have its unique elements.   And I recognize it may seem trivial to try to link life-and-death conflict to baseball, but there’s already been a bestseller connecting the game to God.  So I’m not totally breaking ground when I say that this paradigm can also be helpful when teaching our kids about the conflict, and their potential role to impact it.
As with baseball, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often oversimplified, whether in the media, within affected communities, or even by the actors themselves.  “They’ve been killing each other forever.”  “There can never be peace because [The Jews]/[The Arabs] don’t want it.”  The more you learn about the conflict and the people, however, the more you can understand the many complex elements and impacts of history, politics, culture, language, and religion that are at work every day in the region.  The recent PBS documentary (based on an excellent book) connecting so much of what is happening today to events in 1913 is a great example of this point that most readers of this blog will already appreciate.
Within this complexity, for me, the three “true” or “direct” outcomes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be where one person or side determines the entirety of what happens.  That is, one Israeli killing one Palestinian; one Palestinian killing one Israeli; true peace between the two people.  (I would be very interested to hear comments from others on how they would define the “true outcomes” of the conflict).
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Because no matter the influence of history or politics or even religion, what happens each day comes down to what individual people choose to do, or not do, to another person.
[/pullquote] Those choices can, of course, be impacted by what other people do.  And they certainly may influence what will happen afterward, but in and of themselves, these are true outcomes.  It is up to each person to act and react well.
Everything else that happens on the macro level is by its nature the work of many people, all acting and reacting to each other, resulting in varied and indirect outcomes.  The structure of the military Occupation, the settlements and actions of settlers, the actions of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, resistance and protests, the diaspora Jewish community and its engagement, the role of the U.S. government and international community, and more.  All of these are critical components to the conflict as a whole, and like in baseball, these comprise most of what happens every day, and they are intimately interwoven with each other in determining the course of events, just like a pitcher, batter, runner, and multiple fielders are on most every play in baseball.
Nevertheless, nearly every side and constituency in the conflict looks at the situation and seeks to blame what is happening on the actions of the others.   The bloodshed in and because of Gaza in 2014 alone led to dozens of articles and campaigns saying the battle was entirely the fault of Israel, or of Hamas.  And the blame game continues today.   But what baseball and “true outcomes” show us, and what my boys will know to be so from all of their time playing the game, is that these one-sided views cannot be right. [pullquote align=left]
Unless we are talking about literal life and death actions, the rest is open to the influence and change that any player can make, whether for good or bad.
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Conversely, the fact of interdependency does not negate the need to do one’s best.  Even though my son’s good play may only get his team so far if someone else drops the ball, he still needs to do all he can every time to make a good play.  He can’t just throw down his glove and give up.  In Israel-Palestine, the fact that one side’s “good” act may be negated by a counterproductive response should not mean the end of trying good acts.  When a unilateral cease fire is met with an attack from the other side, the urge to fire back and kill may seem necessary but is the equivalent of throwing a glove down and giving up.
So, the true outcomes approach tells us:

  • We have the ability to impact the “true outcomes” in how we specifically act and react to other individuals at a given moment.
  • We all play a role in the indirect outcomes and must recognize that our actions matter, and that while there is no one side to blame for the conflict, every side must continue to move to make the best play every time, no matter how difficult.

One of baseball’s legendary philosophers, Yoga Berra, is credited with the apt quote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”  In the case of Israel-Palestine, it will take all of us to get where we are going, working through so many indirect outcomes to find that one true outcome of peace.  It may seem as hard or unlikely to achieve as a triple play to end a no-hitter in Game 7 of the World Series, but we’ll get there too someday.