Addison Russell and Starlin Castro
  • Jeff Roberson/AP Photos
  • Addison Russell and Starlin Castro

It’s as true in baseball as it is in academia: it’s not enough to win—your enemy must also lose.

In baseball that’s known as gaining a full game in the standings. If you win but your enemy also wins, you’ve gained nothing; and if you trail in the standings all the day means is that you’ve wasted precious time.

Thursday I was watching on TV as the pretender Cubs played the regal Cardinals in the last game of a four-game series that hadn’t gone well for the Cubs. Chasing the Cards in the Central Division standings, the Cubs had fallen further behind. Today’s game would either expand that margin by another full game or shrink it. The Cards were up 2-0.

“They lead 2-0 if all you do is glance at the scoreboard,” I told myself. “But if you think hard about it it’s a different story.”

The Cubs weren’t simply two runs behind; the Cardinals were two runs ahead! Let’s say the Cardinals were playing at home against the Pirates, while the Cubs, hot on the Cardinals’ heels, were playing in Wrigley against the Brewers. The Cardinals led their game 2-0 while the Cubs’ game was scoreless. We could say then that the Cardinals were two runs better off than the Cubs—they enjoyed a two-run margin in their game while the Cubs had no margin at all.

But in this game I was watching, every run the Cardinals scored not only put them further ahead but plunged the Cubs further behind. By this analysis, the important margin between the two teams was the difference between +2 and -2—that is, 4.

This was the certainly one way of looking at it. But not the only way.

Each team hoped to give up no more runs. Looking at each team in turn, I made an assumption this would happen.

If the Cardinals continued to hold the Cubs at bay they’d win. Further Cardinals scoring would provide what poets of the press box like to call “insurance” runs, what I think of as “breathe easier” runs, or “kick ’em while they’re down” runs. Good to have but not essential.

But unless the Cubs scored three runs, victory was impossible. The Cubs needed three runs; the Cardinals didn’t need any.

So how far back were the Cubs actually, when the score was parsed with the perspicacity it deserved? Two runs? Three runs? Four? Weighing these alternatives, I felt close to a mathematical proof that it’s impossible for the Cubs ever to win another World Series. What a solace it would be for beleaguered Cubs fans to have that established once and for all. But by then the score was 5 to 0 and however you do the math it was time to change the channel.