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Office Hours

The Running Man

Sports are a big part of Rick Cleary’s life. They’re also a big part of his career.

Rick Cleary

Photo: Tom Kates

By John Crawford

Sports have given Rick Cleary a lot of enjoyment through the years.

As a young man, he and a friend, armed with baseball schedules and Greyhound bus passes, spent a summer visiting every ballpark in the major leagues. During another summer,he worked as an extra on Slap Shot, a 1970s hockey movie starring Paul Newman. Cleary appears in a crowd scene at a game. He’s not easy to spot. “It’s not a clear picture of me,” says the statistician and mathematician. “I’m standing behind a goal. I’m a blur in a green coat.”

Nowadays, he coaches Wellesley youth sports, particularly Little League Baseball, and he continues his lifelong pursuit of running. Cleary has finished the Boston Marathon 32 times, and in his younger days, he once ran the Ottawa Marathon in a speedy 2 hours and 34 minutes. When he runs, he likes to ponder work problems and dream up word puzzles, scrambling street and business signs into anagrams. “I think of all sorts of things when I’m running,” he says.

A professor of mathematics and the chair of the Math and Science Division, Cleary started at Babson last July, the school’s small-college feel appealing to him. Previously, he taught at Cornell, Harvard, and Bentley universities and at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. In the beginning of his career, Cleary didn’t intertwine his sports fandom with his more serious academic pursuits. He watched games and contemplated the myriad ways mathematics plays out on the field, but he mostly kept such thoughts to himself. “For years, I thought I was watching a different game than everyone else,” he says. “You wouldn’t think of talking to your dean about it.”

That has changed as, among other things, Moneyball and the work of baseball stats man Bill James have become popular. Sports now have a place in the hallowed halls of academia, and Cleary hopes to develop a course on sports and math at Babson. “The field has become huge,” says Cleary, who has authored papers, given talks, and been interviewed on various sports topics. He has examined the probability of winning streaks and rare events (such as when the Boston Red Sox hit four consecutive home runs in 2007), looked at how the length of a playoff series affects which team wins, helped to invent an alternative NCAA basketball pool, and worked with a student investigating the parallels between two seemingly unrelated processes: the development of pharmaceuticals and of minor league baseball players. In both cases, risks are taken on unknown commodities that may or may not pan out.

Cleary’s love of sports began in Oneida, N.Y., where he was born and raised. The small-town life depicted on public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion reminds Cleary of his old hometown, which is known for the silverware once manufactured there. “People from my hometown look at the back of silverware,” he says. “They check if it’s from Oneida.” Cleary admits that he’s not the most dexterous person, so in high school he took up running, joining the cross-country and track teams because he feared he wasn’t coordinated enough to make the cut for baseball or basketball.

In college at SUNY Oneota, Cleary originally thought he would major in chemistry, but his lack of dexterity plagued him in the lab. He felt awkward mixing chemicals and using the Bunsen burner. “I’m not handy,” he says. “I didn’t like being in the laboratory. I didn’t want to work with beakers.” Besides, chemistry lab interfered with cross-country practice. Cleary, though, enjoyed the other science disciplines, and as he kept having great math teachers, he found himself gravitating toward the subject.

After earning a master’s at UMass Amherst, Cleary landed a job teaching computer science and math and coaching cross-country at St. Michael’s College. “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” he says. “I enjoyed figuring things out and sharing them with people, getting them excited about what I was excited about.” The position was supposed to be temporary, but this was the early 1980s, and the need for people who could teach computer science was growing. He ended up in a tenure-track position, though, as the years passed, he was told that to actually attain tenure he needed a PhD. He eventually earned his doctorate in statistics from Cornell.

Beyond sports, Cleary has examined a variety of other subjects during his career. “One of the great things about being a statistician is that you can work with all kinds of people,” Cleary says. For instance, he helps a biomechanics lab make sense of the data it collects about the failure rate of hip and knee replacements. Cleary also gives talks about using data to detect fraud.

Investigating the math of sports, though, has proven particularly rewarding. It also has brought Cleary some notoriety. USA Today and other newspapers have interviewed him, and when the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team went on a 24-game streak without a regulation loss last season, a Chicago sports-talk radio show chatted with him about the probability of such a run.

NPR’s Science Friday program interviewed Cleary about the alternative NCAA pool he co-created. The usual NCAA pool requires people to fill out a bracket predicting the victor in every tournament game, which can be tiresome. In this alternative pool, every tournament team is given a monetary value (teams seeded first are 25 cents, second seeds are 21 cents, and so on) and participants are allowed to “invest” in a dollar’s worth of teams. The winner is the person whose teams have the most victories. “It’s finance meets basketball,” Cleary says. When discussing the pool on Science Friday, Cleary didn’t want to sound like other professors he has heard on NPR who seemed overjoyed when hosts thanked them for being on a show. Hoping to sound natural and relaxed, he practiced his sign off. When the host thanked him for appearing, Cleary said simply, “You’re welcome.”

At Babson, Cleary so far has taught classes on business analytics and statistics, and he likes that his Babson Hall office is a mere 100 yards or so from the Webster Center’s indoor track. He enjoys going on invigorating noontime runs. “It’s a break in the day,” he says.