Penkava: When math magic turns tragic

Well, the bubble finally burst. The goose has been cooked and the end of the rope has been reached. The tide has ebbed low, the boat has been missed, and the kibosh has been put on.

If you haven’t gotten the idea yet, the towel has been thrown in, the blank has been drawn, the bottom has fallen out, and the vine has withered. Oh, and one more thing: first base wasn’t reached either. And I’m not even going to mention any regression to square one.

What has precipitated such melancholy in a usually upbeat column? Well, to put it simply: a formula. Let me explain ...

There are many formulas that cross our paths in our daily lives. Some are purely mathematical, like “a + b = c.” Others take on a chemical implication, as in having a drink of H2O. And who of us hasn’t had to turn to “ = torque = I• ” as we contemplated Newton’s Second Law for Rotational Inertia while doing the annual changing of the lawnmower blade.

Other formulas are a bit more mundane, but vital nevertheless, such as:

16-inch pizza + root beer = Dinner me

Or this one:

(television + Amish glider chair) x 3.5 hours = What I did last night

But let’s get back to that one simple formula that has me all in a pickle. Here it is:

M = 163 - W1 - L2

From my youth through my adulthood and into my extra innings, I have lived by this formula. Each spring I computed it with hope, and each fall I calculated it with despair.

What is this formula? It is the formula to determine a baseball team’s Magic Number: How close a team is to clinching the season title. Winning the season title ensures a position in the playoffs and thus places the team on track to winning the World Series.

It’s pretty easy to understand how the formula works. The “M” means the Magic Number. The 163 represents the 162 games in the season plus 1 (The 1 is added to prevent ties). The “W1” is the number of wins of the leading team and the “L2” stands for the number of losses of the trailing team.

The Magic Number should go down and down and down until it reaches 0. When that happens, it means that your team has clinched the division title. Whoo! Whoo!

The big problem arises when your team doesn’t even have a Magic Number. It’s so far down in the standings that it doesn’t even qualify to have one. Instead of a Magic Number, it has what is called a “Tragic Number.” This number simply identifies how close your team is to being totally eliminated from any playoff hope. And that brings us back to my despondent introduction to this week’s column.

Well, recently magic turned to tragic as my beloved Cubs were officially, mathematically and unequivocally eliminated from any hope of competing in the World Series this year. No hope. No miracle. No “Let’s play two.” Just more scar tissue.

I remember back in the day when I used to go to the Cubs games with my grandfather. At the beginning of the season we’d always talk about how this would be THE year. But as the season progressed, we talked less and less about hope and more and more about other things, like how good the Frosty Malts were and how pretty the ivy was.

And as September slipped into October and the closed gates of Wrigley Field once again sealed up our dreams, we would reset our Magic Numbers and wait. We knew that spring would eventually come. We knew that the gates would once again open. And somehow we knew that 163 - W1 - L2  would start out as magic and end up as tragic.

At least until next year.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He is currently working on a new Magic Number formula that places more value on losses than wins and therefore guarantees the Cubs a playoff berth perpetually. He can be reached at

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