Friday, April 13, 2007

"I don't even try to figure out this game anymore”

Brandon Inge said that the other day. He’d started off the season 0 for 20.

I should not have left Bill James off my list of people who would enjoy World War Z. I grew up reading his books, and I think he’s one of the most influential people in the past quarter-century of sports. His Historical Baseball Abstract is the best sports book ever written. I still remember that in his 1990 Abstract he predicted John Smoltz would win 200 games in his career (he had 14 wins at the time, he now has 194).

James was recently interviewed by a Mets blog, and some of his answers were exquisitely left-brained. When asked if he might start his own blog or web site, he replied, “Not a blog, no, but a web site, yes. Based around information.” He got a question about player development that rambled a little and informed the interviewer, “You're mixing up several issues in a jumbled question.” When asked about Mark McGwire’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame: “He isn't being judged by the standard that I would choose for him, but then, it isn't my choice, and there is no logic to admiring athletes, anyway. It's just arbitrary. It's like admiring people who won the lottery.”

Beep-boop. Beep-boop-bop.

But he’s right, as always, and, more impressively, unafraid to reveal an unsightly truth about the underpinnings of his life’s work.

James works for the Red Sox now, and he was asked about how that’s changed his perspective. “A lot of decisions in baseball are made on the basis of things that you never think about as a fan,” he said. “The internal discussion of the front office is vastly more sophisticated than the discussion that takes place in the public arena, more subtle, more layered, more complex, and with hundreds of times more information.” This from a guy who’s charted types and locations of pitches at hundreds of games, just so he could better understand what was happening on the field and why.

This brought to mind a conversation I once had with a friend whose father was a coach for the Michigan State football team. I asked her about the coaching changes that took place in the nineties. “The real reason [one assistant coach] didn’t get the job,” she said, “is that he was sleeping with the head coach’s wife.”

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