The magic behind magic numbers

Around this time of the year, there’s a lot of talk of “magic” numbers.  If you follow a team faithfully, and they’re having a good year, you’ve probably heard commentators say things like, “Their magic number to clinch the division is 26.”  (If you follow a team faithfully and they’re having a bad year, I salute you.)
You probably know that the number represents how many times your team has to win and/or how many times their closest competitor must lose in order for them to clinch.  When the magic meter hits 0, break open the bubbly!  Strangely enough, I find plenty of people who understand the basics of what a magic number is, but they seem to believe that figuring it out involves differential calculus.  It doesn’t.  In fact, if you have slightly more intelligence than Miss Teen South Carolina (cheap shot!), you can do it.  Want to figure out your team’s magic number?  All you need are the current MLB standings.

  1. Start with the number of games for a full season (so, 162).
  2. Add 1.
  3. Subtract the number of wins your team has.
  4. Subtract the number of losses the 2nd place team has.

On the flip side, if you’re the fan of a second place team that’s sliding into oblivion, consider calculating your team’s tragic number for elimination.  Use the same first two steps as above.  Instead, subtract how many losses your team has, then subtract how many wins the first place team has.  The tragic number is the number of combined losses by your team or wins by the team at the top of the ladder which you are trying to climb that will eliminate you.
On a related note, a shout out the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who as I write this have a tragic number of 1 for the Wild Card chase.  The Wild Card leaders, the New York Yankees (cheaper shot!), have 79 wins and the D-Rays have lost 83.  Using our tragic number formula, 162 + 1 – 79 – 83 = 1.  That means that the Yankees will have to lose all of the rest of their games and the Devil Rays will have to win them all to catch the Yankees (and at that point, they would only tie… plus someone else would take over the Wild Card lead).  That means that within the next day or so, the Devil Rays will have the distinction of being the first team in baseball to be mathematically eliminated from the 2007 playoffs. 

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