Time after time in the last 10 years, I've walked out of ballparks after games that decided pennants, playoffs and World Series and been left with the sense that I've missed something.
I don't think I'm alone in this. There is sometimes a missing link in our baseball sense of cause and effect.
After the seventh game of the 1975 World Series, we wondered how the Boston Red Sox could lose when they seemed to have the enormous psychological boost of Carlton Fisk's historic home run the previous game.
How could the 1979 Baltimore Orioles, after leading the Series, 3-1, in games, come home and play as though paralyzed in the last two games at Memorial Stadium?
Again in 1982, the Orioles won three games in 24 hours from Milwaukee to make the season's final game a winner-take-all production for the AL East flag. Every factor seemed in the Orioles' favor in Memorial Stadium, yet they were crushed, playing as though they were running into an unseen wind.
Last season, the Orioles seemed to be on the other end of an identical sensation. First in the playoffs against the Chicago White Sox, then in the World Series, the Orioles swept crucial games on the road -- five straight in all -- in which the home teams played more anxiously, or perhaps overanxiously, than if 50,000 people had been screaming against them.
In all these cases, the standard wisdom was that the home teams had choked a bit, which was doubly unusual because "everyone knows" that a huge home crowd in a season-deciding game is an edge. You play all year to get that home field advantage.
Now I'm starting to feel better.
After more than a century, you'd think that all the basic factors at play in a vital baseball game would long ago have been discovered and ground into barroom dust.
That may not be true.
To the dozens of parameters serious fans use in their baseball watching, we may have to add one more. And not a small one.
The Home Field Choke.
Two researchers from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland have published a report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that has caused a bit of a stir here at the World Series.
And it probably should.
Roy Baumeister and Andy Steinhilber think that in games of enormous importance, games that will decide the entire season, players try much too hard to please their hometown fans as well as their friends and family in the stands.
They try so hard, they are so aware of the psychic rewards -- the heroes' wreaths -- that await them, that they suffer from paralysis by analysis.
Before we go further, it should be said that our Case Western fellows may have the worst writing-by-committee prose style on earth. Their stuff makes you want to rewrite Shakespeare and say, "Let's kill all the pop psychologists." But they have their teeth in a nice idea with solid stats to back it up.
The question before the house is: "Does the presence of supportive versus unsympathetic audiences . . . interact with opportunities for claiming desired identities to cause paradoxical decrements in the quality of preformance?"
Try not to say, "Jeez, I sure hope not."
This is just our old shrink-tank friend -- "performance anxiety" -- dressed up in a baseball uniform.
"The imminent opportunity to claim a desired identity in front of a supportive audience might engender a state of self-attention that could interfere with the execution of skillful responses," say Steinhilber and Baumeister, and as soon as I stop laughing I'm going to agree with them.
In studying World Series results from 1930 through 1982, they've concluded that while the home team is almost certain to win at least one of the first two games, it is a clear underdog when playing the decisive contest at home, be it the fifth, sixth or seventh game of a World Series.
In the years under study, the home teams have won 60 percent of the time in Games 1 and 2. However, when the Series went to seven games, the home team's record is 10-16.
Yes, I wish we had a sampling of 5,000 games, not a couple of hundred.
No, this doesn't prove anything.
However, our friends from Cleveland, who were presumably clear-sighted because the Indians haven't had to worry about a home-field disadvantage in a generation, have some pretty stats on fielding errors.
In Games 1 and 2 of World Series, the visitors make far more errors per game (1.04 to 0.65). But, in seventh games, the home teams make many more errors (1.31 to 0.81).
Again, far from conclusive. But, subjectively, the idea has appeal.
Obviously, this home-field factor is just one of many variables. I'll take Walter Johnson pitching and Babe Ruth batting and you can make my team play anywhere you want.
Nonetheless, in the last decade, a lot of teams have followed this pattern of playing spectacularly at home early in a Series, but poorly when they were within reach of a title.
The two managers in the 1984 Series, Sparky Anderson and Dick Williams, certainly know the feeling. They met in 1972 and Anderson's Reds lost a seventh game to Williams' Oakland A's in Cincinnati.
It will be interesting to see if this Home Choke Theory seems to carry any weight in this World Series.
How would it work?
Sunday's fifth game in Detroit might be the first test.
With the Tigers leading, three games to one, then the idea is that they will have a hard time finishing their dream year at home. They'll press, worry about returning to a San Diego field that they hate, and play poorly.
If the Padres force the Series to return to San Diego, they might have a hard time closing out the Tigers, even though the whole baseball world would be shouting about the Padres' "home-field advantage" in a seventh game.
Many fans will note immediately that, in last week's National League playoffs, the Padres won a fifth and final game at home.
Might this not be attributed to an even more powerful factor than the Home Choke? Namely, the Cub Choke?
What about that grounder between Leon Durham's legs that tied the game? Or the potential double play smash at Ryne Sandberg that went into right field for a two-run, pennant-winning double?
Couldn't one hex have outweighed another?
Of course, we'll never know.
Until a lot of statistical evidence and subjective history is piled up to disprove The Case Case, the feeling here is that it deserves some respect.