Talkin' about baseball, and watching a game, with Bill James
Bill James has changed the way people think about baseball in myriad ways
James thinks that "professionalism" has made teams like the Royals second-class
He doesn't love stats, he isn't cynical; he just doesn't accept things at face value
One of the many things that strikes me about Bill James -- who is just one month away from his 60th birthday -- is that his mind never stops whirling. Here we are watching an astonishingly boring game between the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals last week, and suddenly, out of nowhere he says this:
"You know one little way in which baseball changes us? We don't even think twice about Japanese names anymore. You know what I mean? Remember how foreign those names used to sound to us a few years ago? But now I can think about Masahide Kobayashi and it just feels familiar, you know what I mean?"
I do know exactly what he means. And yet ... I look down on the field and notice that there are no Japanese players in this game. So where does this thought come from? What is it that sparks this particular musing at this particular time? Bill doesn't know and doesn't particularly care to think about it. It's just how his mind works.
Pretty much everyone knows Bill James by now. He is the only writer ever to be hired by a major league baseball team, featured by 60 Minutes, studied by the U.S. military and named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people. You know the old line that only a few thousand people bought a Velvet Underground album, but every one of them started a band. So it goes with Bill James. He always had more popularity than people expected -- he's a multiple-New York Times best-selling author. But his influence trumps his popularity. Bill James has changed the way people think about baseball in a hundred different ways.
"I don't know," he says about all that. "Maybe a few less people say that pitching is 90 percent of baseball." This was one of his breakthrough observations. For years, people around baseball would utter this mathematical piece of nonsense -- pitching is 90 percent of baseball -- and it took Bill James to ask: "What the heck is THAT supposed to even mean?" He then destroyed the concept, brick by brick, but just in asking the question he got people to smile and realize that, wow, pitching as 90 percent of baseball is one ridiculously stupid concept.
"You know what I wish people would stop saying?" he suddenly asks ... and once again his mind goes in a whole other direction. Bill has just finished writing a true crime book -- a million thoughts on crimes from Elma Sands to the Kennedy assassination to JonBenet Ramsey -- and his mind has locked in on another seemingly ridiculous thing: People always talk about the eyes of serial killers. The eyes. You can see it in their eyes. There's horror in their eyes.
"That's just nonsense," Bill says. "Nonsense! Do people really believe there's something different about the eyes of murderers? Their eyes look like everyone else's eyes. And this is dangerous nonsense because it makes people believe that they can look in someone's eyes and determine guilt or innocence."
Yes, the mind never stops working. The questions never stop coming. This seems to be one of the things that makes Bill different ... most of us hear a cliché like "There was something dark in the murderer's eyes," and it just rolls right over us. We don't -- or at least I don't -- stop to ask what it means.
But for Bill James -- who has spent his life asking questions -- it's just natural to heard him ask, "Are you saying that there was a black spot in the eyes of the guy who committed the murder? Or was it a gray cloud?"
* * *
The Cleveland-Kansas City game has little action, which is not unexpected. The Royals -- Bill James' favorite team until he started to work for the Boston Red Sox back in 2003 -- are a million games back and are well on their dead-man walking march to 100 losses. The Indians -- my favorite team when I was young -- are only a few games ahead of the Royals and seem only slightly more interested in the ongoing season.
"The problem is the idea of professionalism," Bill says, while we watch Kansas City's Willie Bloomquist ground out to second. This has been an overpowering thought for Bill the last few years -- his idea is that for all the good that has come from it, "professionalism" has taken a heavy toll on American society. "Cops became police officers, but the crime rate soared," he wrote in the New Historical Baseball Abstract. "Professionalism in law has brought us the O.J. Simpson case in lieu of justice. ... Professionalism in medicine has given us medial miracles for the affluent but hospitals that will charge $35 for aspirin."
In baseball, he thinks the pursuit of professionalism has made teams like the Kansas City Royals second-class. The Royals don't have enough money to compete the same way as the Red Sox, Angels or Tigers. A short boxer cannot win using the outside jab. A quarterback with a weak arm will not win by throwing deep. A 5-foot-10 basketball player cannot make it to the NBA with a back-to-the-basket game. The one sure way that the Royals will lose is by using the same blueprint as the New York Yankees.
And yet ... that's what the Royals (and other small market teams) do. They play the game conventionally. They fall back on old ideas. They hire old school managers and preach old school baseball values and scout players on the same 20-80 scale that players have been scouted for 50 years. Bill pulls out his spiral notebook -- he always brings a spiral notebook to games -- and on a page he draws two ladders, one on top of the other. The higher ladder is the "professional" ladder. The lower ladder he calls the "amateur" ladder. He then draws a picture of someone dangling from the bottom rung of the professional ladder. That, he says, is the Kansas City Royals.
"It's so important for them to be considered professional," he says, "that they are unwilling to try anything that might make people think they're amateurish."
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