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The Mind of Bill James

How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball

The Mind of Bill James
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US$ 13.99
The first book to chronicle the life and ideas of “the serious baseball fan’s high priest” (New York Times), the impact of his brilliant and entertaining writings, and how someone who never pitched a ball, held a bat, or managed a team fundamentally changed the way baseball is interpreted, analyzed, and even played.

Bill James has been called “baseball’s shrewdest analyst” (Slate) and “part of baseball legend” (The New Yorker), and his Baseball Abstract has been acclaimed as the “holy book of baseball” (Chicago Tribune). Thirty years ago, James introduced a new approach to evaluating players and strategies, and now his theories have become indispensable tools for agents, statistics analysts, maverick general managers, and anyone who is serious about understanding the game.

James began writing about baseball while working at a factory in his native Kansas. In lively, often acerbic prose, he used statistics to challenge entrenched beliefs and uncover surprising truths about the game. His annual Baseball Abstract captured the attention of fans and front offices and went on to become a bestselling staple of the baseball book category. In 2002, the Boston Red Sox hired James as an advisor. Two years later they achieved their long-awaited World Series triumph.

The Mind of Bill James tells the story of how a gifted outsider inspired a new understanding of baseball. It delves deeply into James’s essential wisdom–including his surprising beliefs about pitch counts and the importance of batting-order, thoughts on professionalism and psychology, and why teams tend to develop the characteristics that are least favored by their home parks. It also brings together his best writing, much of it long out of print, as well as insights from new interviews. Written with James’ full cooperation, it is at once an eye-opening portrait of baseball’s virtuoso analyst and a treasury of his idiosyncratic genius.
Crown Publishing Group; March 2006
255 pages; ISBN 9780385517713
Download in secure PDF format
Excerpt
Bill went into the army at the start of December 1971. “I believe I was the last person drafted from the state of Kansas,” he says. “They had us raise our hands and swore us in. Then the officer in charge informed us that, because enlistments were ahead of schedule, they had temporarily stopped the draft, right after my group. But they never did have to resume, and then the draft was ended.”

Bill had a harder time than most getting through basic training. “You have to understand,” he says, “as a soldier, I failed every test you can fail. I simply had no ability to do any of the things the army wants you to do. I couldn’t do push-ups. I couldn’t shoot a rifle worth a crap. I couldn’t march fast or climb obstacle courses, I couldn’t assemble and re-assemble a rifle quickly, I couldn’t keep my shoes shined or my shirt-tail tucked in. I was constantly singled out, in training, as the guy who didn’t get it. I very seriously did not think that, if I wound up in Vietnam, I was coming back.”

Bill doesn’t tell stories, but he has one he likes to tell about being shipped out. He says, “When I was completing the final stage of draftee training, they marched us to a center to pick up our unit assignment. The address on my assignment was an overseas shipping center in San Francisco, which meant Vietnam. Then–I swear this is true–we marched back to the training company and, for the first time in weeks, were allowed to turn on the television. Richard Nixon was on, and he was announcing new policies aimed at ending the war protests. One of the new policies was that draftees would no longer be sent to Vietnam. But, Nixon specified, draftees who already had their orders for Vietnam would have to go, but no new draftees would be sent there.

“I couldn’t believe it! They got me again. I already had my orders--had had them for ten or fifteen minutes before the policy was announced. At this point I was absolutely convinced that I was going to be the last soldier killed in Vietnam. I was going to take a bullet, and just as I went down Henry Kissinger was going to coming running up waving his arms, saying, ‘It’s over, it’s over. Stop shooting.’ But fortunately the army was too disorganized at that time to keep track of who had received their orders when, so when I got to San Francisco they weren’t sending any draftees to Vietnam. They changed my orders to send me to Korea.”

He says the main thing he took from his time in the army was the opportunity to work with a first sergeant named Clarence Bray. “He was a fine man, a Kentuckian with a high school education,” Bill says. “He knew how to organize and get things done. This probably sounds stupid, because, as anybody knows, I am not at all organized, but you should have seen me before I worked with Sergeant Bray. I’m ten times better organized now than I was before. I learned at least as much from him as I did from any professor.”
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Bill says, “In our society, we use ‘psychology’ as an explanation for anything we don’t understand. This is precisely the way people identified witchcraft for hundreds of years. The widow Mueller walked by about 3:00 as I was milking my cow, the milk turned out to be sour, there’s no reason why that milk would be sour . . . it must be witchcraft.

“My point is, in order to show that something is a psychological effect, you need to show that it is a psychological effect--not merely that it isn’t something else. Which people still don’t get. They look at things as logically as they can, and, not seeing any other difference between A and B conclude that the difference between them is psychology.

“We don’t understand why the Red Sox played better without Nomar than with him, so we credit it to clubhouse psychology. We don’t understand why Joe Torre is successful, so we claim that he is a master psychologist. This is illogical, and it isn’t really any different than attributing it to witchcraft. People used ‘witchcraft’ to explain why babies died in their cribs and why cats act weird. Using ‘psychology’ in the same way isn’t any better, and it isn’t a service to real psychology. It is actually defending real psychology to resist the bastardization of the term.
***********

The data needed to test much of baseball’s traditional knowledge always existed, but opinion and lore lorded over research. It’s so much easier to form an opinion than to study a question, like the difference between making babies and raising children. Rather than start with an opinion and build a case, Bill began with the question and searched for evidence to help answer it. “Perhaps the central tenet of my career,” he says, “is that hard information is much more powerful than soft information. Whenever you add hard, solid facts to a discussion, it changes that discussion in far-reaching ways, and sometimes in unfortunate ways.”
***********

Susie says, “Publishing the books at home he could print what he wrote, just as he wrote it. To have someone he didn’t know come in and start giving advice was difficult for him. He knows what he wants to do, and if there’s any suggestion to the contrary, he tends to take offense. Since I used to read everything and did a lot of his typing, I learned early on that it was a risky business to point out even spelling errors. I just corrected them and went on. If I thought a sentence was poorly worded or needed punctuation, I learned to keep my opinion to myself.” Once, one of her professors called to say he enjoyed the book, but couldn’t resist passing along one thing he wished were different. “He thought it was a little lazy to use cuss words,” Susie says. “I told Bill about his advice, but of course it didn’t do a damn bit of good.”
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By the mid-eighties, the Abstract and its author had become a cultural marker. Newsweek once called the Janus Report “the sexual equivalent of the Bill James Baseball Abstract.” There were references to “the Bill James of education policy,” of suicide, and movies, elections, comedy, weather. . . . A book review in the Chicago Tribune praised an author for being to politics what Bill James is to baseball: “a mix of historian, social observer, and numbers cruncher who illuminates his subject with perspective and a touch of irreverence.”
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The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan posited in 1984 that Bill could be as important to baseball as Alexander Cartwright, “who codified the game,” and Babe Ruth. Recently it’s been much noted that Bill James didn’t invent statistical analysis in baseball. That’s true, of course, just as it’s true that baseball existed before Cartwright codified it and that Ruth wasn’t the first player to hit the longball chicks dig.

But all three epitomize what Japanese artisan Kaneshige Michiaki meant when he said, “Tradition is always changing. Tradition consists of creating something new with what one has inherited.” Mr. Michiaki explained that people sometimes confuse tradition with transmission. Copying what came before is transmission. Producing something new while incorporating what came before–that’s tradition.
***********

“What about No-mah?” I asked Bill. “A lot of people thought you screwed up.”

“I thought a lot of people had an unrealistic view,” he said. “The reality is that we didn’t own Nomar’s future. Nomar owned Nomar’s future. Some people wrote about it as if we’d traded six years of Nomar Garciappara. We didn’t own that, nor did we have any great chance of obtaining it.”

What about for the rest of the season?

“We’d lost confidence that he was going to help us win. His effort was fantastic. Sometimes he tries too hard. But it wasn’t working. We had lost confidence that it was going to work.”

Was it a panic move?

“Well, if you’re trying to start a fire, and you have a box of matches, and you start striking matches and throwing them in there, and the fire’s not lighting, you start to feel kind of desperate. We weren’t desperate, but we were getting down to our last match. We felt that the team should ignite, but it hadn’t. Fortunately, finally it did.”

A.L. Division Series 2004: Sox 3, Angels 0
The Sox blazed through August and September to win the Wild Card, then swept the division series against the Angels. David Ortiz won the final game in extra innings with a walk-off homer. Bill and Susie were watching the game at home. Bill says that what he’ll always remember is the move manager Terry Francona didn’t make. In the ninth inning, score tied, Ortiz drew a walk. Bill says, “Tim McCarver and Joe Buck, broadcasting the game, felt certain that Terry should pinch run for Ortiz, try to move the runner into scoring position, and play for one run. Susie was screaming at the television, ‘No! No! Don’t pinch run for him! We need his bat!’ And Terry, thank God, saw it the way Susie did. The gain in the chance of scoring that run wasn’t worth taking David’s bat out of the lineup.”

In the eleventh inning Ortiz stepped up and blasted the Sox into the ALCS.

A.L. Championship Series 2004: Sox 4, Yankees 3
As a lifelong Kansas City fan, Bill came to the Sox with a pre-forged dislike of all things Pinstripe. He points out, “The Yankees beat the Royals in heartbreaking fashion in ’76, ’77 and ’78, just as they did the Red Sox. The Yankees used Kansas City as a farm team in the fifties and sixties, just as they did the Red Sox from 1919 to 1930. They took Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, but they got Roger Maris from Kansas City. They got Red Ruffing from the Red Sox, but they took Ralph Terry from Kansas City. They got Joe Dugan from the Red Sox, but they took Clete Boyer from Kansas City.”

Rachel McCarthy James, Bill and Susie’s college-age daughter, says, “Dad hates the Yankees, and taught us kids to do the same, reading us The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant, etc. When I was nine or ten, we were in a toy store and I found a Barbie in a Yankees outfit. I took it up to him, and said, ‘We should burn this, Dad!’”

A doll burning may have been in order after Game Three of the ’04 ALCS, a 19—8 shellacking. Game Four was close, but Yankees relief ace Mariano Rivera came on to try to save a one-run lead in the ninth. Two batters later, with a pinch-run steal in between, the game was tied 4—4. Popular history will hail the Dave Roberts steal as the key to the game-tying sequence, but Kevin Millar’s leadoff walk was at least as crucial. Getting the leadoff man on base is the factor most linked to scoring in a given inning.

Between the walk, the steal, and Bill Mueller’s timely RBI hit, Bill doesn’t weigh one against the other. Neither do I--except to balance the notion that the stolen base was the inning. Bill says, “All I remember about the steal is that, at the time, I thought he was out. He wasn’t, obviously, but from my vantage point in the seats behind home plate, I thought he was out. It was a great play, and it deserves a place on the roster of famous plays from that postseason, of which there are so many.”

Mueller’s single sent the game into extra innings, where Ortiz ended it with a home run.

Two more wins and it was Game Seven, first inning. Boston took a 2—0 lead on Ortiz’s short-porch homer. In the second inning, with the bases loaded, Johnny Damon jacked Javier Vasquez’s first-pitch meatball into the upper deck, effectively putting the Sox in the World Series. Susie says, “Bill rarely mistimes a trip to the bathroom, but Johnny was at the plate when Bill left with the score two—zero. I knew it would kill him that he missed the grand slam, but it gave me a chance to try and fool him. Our TV is in the basement, and access is from a staircase walled off from the rest of the room. As he came down, he asked what happened to Damon. I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice and said, ‘He hit into a double play.’ By this time, Bill was at the base of the stairs, and rather than react to me, his eyes went straight to the score in the upper corner of the screen. He’s hard to fool, and yes, he’ll check the evidence before he believes his wife.”

Near the end of the seventh inning of Game Seven, with Boston in control, my mind drifted back to the eighth inning of Game Seven the year before. Aaron Boone should never have had the chance to end Boston’s season in extra innings. Pedro Martinez was 115 pitches into the red, jammed up after back-to-back hits to Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams. The Sox had relief help available, but manager Grady Little left Pedro on the hill.

A week later I heard a story that said it all.

A devout Red Sox fan got stuck in London on business at the time Game Seven was to be played. He went from pub to pub, looking for one with the necessary satellite equipment and that was going to be open all night. He didn’t find any that were good on both counts, but he found one with a satellite and an owner who agreed to stay open for a price. The fan settled in to watch the game.

It was near daybreak in London as Pedro gave up hit after hit and the lead slipped away, the Sox fan raging and writhing in agony while a half-dozen Brits drank away the night. Finally one of the inebriated Londoners looked over at him in concern, looked back at the television, and asked, “Excuse me, sir, but would the rules permit those fellows to employ a substitute for the bowler? He seems to be laboring a bit.”

Grady Little had failed to comprehend what was apparent to a drunk, half-asleep Englishman who had never seen a baseball game before. Pedro was toast.



From the Hardcover edition.
ISBNs
0385517718
9780385514644
9780385517713