I pay three dollars each month to be “friends” with Bill James. This isn’t the first time I’ve traded money for companionship, and it probably won’t be the last. As you know, I’m not afraid to open up my wallet if I want something bad enough, and if I’m short on cash: I’m not opposed to opening up somebody else’s wallet. If things ever became really desperate, I’d consider putting on a ski mask and robbing a liquor store.
But that’s just the kind of man I am, the way I was raised. Bill James, on the other hand, is also from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s a rebel, an outsider. And although he’s denied it repeatedly: I believe he’s a direct descendent of either Jesse James or Jesse Owens; or possibly both Jesse James AND Jesse Owens. To me, his mysterious past is one of the most compelling elements of his appeal. Well…his past, and the fake beard he’s been wearing for thirty-plus years.
Based on a thorough examination of several black-and-white publicity photos, James appears to stand about 7’5” and weighs maybe 260 pounds dripping wet. To follow is his harrowing tale, the story of a Midwestern everyman clawing his way up from the seedy depths of the baseball stat underworld…
George William H. Bonney “Bill” James (born October 5, 1949) has been turning sabr-tricks since the 1970s, when he began peddling crudely rendered baseball smut from a dark alley behind a pork and beans plant in Kansas. Business was slow at first; with James offering an enigmatic selection of stat-urbation, sometimes published in Baseball Digest, the contents of which befuddled most hardcore baseball johns at the time.
During those pre-Cable TV days, back when Gerald Ford was stumbling over ottomans in the Oval Office, most traditional hardball hustlers would say, “Johnny Bench IS the toughest catcher to steal against,” then quickly move on with their lives. It was an impersonal, wham-bam, love ‘em and leave ‘em commentary which often left customers feeling cheap and dirty. James had a different approach, more personal. He’d ask, “Is Johnny Bench the toughest catcher to steal against?” then gently invite you into his thought process as he tackled the problem. You’d experience him going through box score after box score after box score, adding up the numbers for a large “sample” of catchers, then watch as he presented statistical evidence answering his question. It was an exotic, interactive experience; and over the first few years he developed a small, but lustful, cult following.
About this same time, James began publishing a subversive paper called the “Baseball Abstract.” In retrospect, the outsider’s annual Abstract was to the insider’s weekly Baseball Digest, what Larry Flynt was to Hugh Hefner. Whereas the Digest was classy, but conservative; the Abstract was loaded with page after page of explicit, uncensored baseball analysis. James would take readers “around the world,” then “blow” their minds with the kind of “full frontal” investigations that may have made Red Smith blush.
Bill James’ Statistical Inquisition (he later coined the term “sabermetrics”) soon became a cottage industry, albeit not quite mainstream, due to the vehement opposition of baseball authorities, barkeeps, and the media elite’s cliché peddling pimps. He had to break through a powerful cabal of old school big league skippers, scouts, beat reporters and TV broadcasters, who for years had made a quick buck telling us things like “the Cardinals play better on artificial turf,” or “Ron Guidry is tough in day games,” or “this kid’s gonna be a great hitter because he’s got a solid baseball chin and a large penis,” even though they had no concrete evidence to support their claims.
Bill James brought a ruler and a calculator, and said “Let’s measure it!”
Sabermetrics changed the game, and like another literary giant, Heidi Fleiss, soon Mr. James had a national book deal and several best sellers. The Kansas Kid was able to the leave the dirty world of back-alley, baseball-bump-and-run for good. The baseball street hustler had made it.
PART TWO: Today Bill James is the kingpin in charge of a multinational sabermetric empire, with posh offices located in Kansas and on the east coast. He’s been known to rub shoulders with many of the biggest names in the game, including Ty Cobb and Mark Grudzielanek.
In fact, the former wheeler dealer is now a high-ranking informational Geisha inside the Boston Red Sox front office. His sponsoring danna is a youthful man named Theo Epstein, a Harvard grad who first became smitten with James’ work after secretly thumbing through some old Abstracts during his youth, which nearly caused blindness. After rising to a position of power in Beantown, one of Epstein’s first official orders of business was to clean up the old stat master and put him on his payroll.
The man who first made a name for himself dabbling in the cheap thrills of Major League Equivalencies (MLEs), Ballpark Effects and the Platoon Differential; now slides around the floors of 4 Yawkey Way in his split-toed tabi, whispering secretive, high-level saberotica into the ears of the Bosox brass.
After a 263-year drought, the Red Sox finally won a World Series.
PART THREE: Some of the former drifters and curb crawlers who first jumped on the James bandwagon back in the early 80’s have suggested that BJ’s lost a little bit off his fastball since going “mainstream.” I’m not going to provide any evidence to the contrary just yet, not with a golden opportunity to extend this introduction another couple hundred words.
But I will say this: Bill James has tried to keep one foot rooted in his old school, sabermetric past. When not wearing his black and red kimono in Boston, BJ is an active partner in billjamesonline.com, a site foisted on the internet back in ‘07. BJOL (as it’s known to hipsters on the ‘net); is a clean, ad free, pay-for-play baseball bordello, offering a number of exotic services and experiences to its subscribers, with a menu rivaling that of an ancient Roman bath house.
There are basically 12 major categories for subscribers to explore, including things like POLLS AND ARGUMENTS, FUN STUFF, and POWER RANKINGS. But three areas seem to stand out above the others: STATISTICS, OTHER COLUMNISTS and HEY BILL, although not necessarily in that order.
STATISTICS- BJOL offers a mountain of obscure baseball data, courtesy of Baseball Info Solutions, Inc., whose owner is a partner in the web site. Not the traditional Jamesian analysis, rather it’s a collection of raw statistics, intricate data not found at the conventional web-based sites, such as baseball-reference.com. They chart things like batter performance during various pitch counts, and the number (and type) of pitches thrown by every Major League hurler during the previous couple seasons. There’s also some Clutch Hitting, Skill Assessment and unconventional Fielding data available at the site. Having access to this kind of information allows subscribers to cobble together their own sabermetric studies, which is often dangerous and boring.
For instance, over the past six months, I’ve been using the information for my ground-breaking study regarding how well married players perform during the various stages of their wive’s menstrual cycles. Also, I’ve been working feverishly on a little something I call “PCAFs,” or, Protective Cup Adjustment Factors. We’ll just have to wait and see where these studies take us.
OTHER COLUMNISTS- Last Summer, during periods when James was otherwise predisposed with his Red Sox work, his “guest” columnists were often charged with keeping the BJOL ship afloat. I say “guest” columnists because they’re not really employees of the site, but rather a collection of volunteer writers and sabermetricians making high-standard contributions to the venture. Most of them were selected during an American Idol-like talent search promoted by Rob Neyer at ESPN.com; and in fairness, Bill James said upfront that winners were unlikely to receive any compensation for their efforts. In other words, after beating out hundreds of aspiring writers, they get paid zippo; although some of them did get to take a bubble bath with Simon Cowell.
The problem is, as a subscriber, I don’t know when or if my favorite columnists are going to produce anything new. Most of the Other Columnists got out of the gate pretty fast, producing new stories every week, but then quickly slowed down. Without the Cash Factor (CF), it must be a challenge to summon up the creative motivation on a consistent basis. Some columnists continue to contribute new material every couple weeks, while others have regressed to monthly columns or something new every 5 or 6 weeks. One guy, one of the guys who was there at the very beginning, hasn’t written anything new since the last time Billy Martin was fired by the Yankees. This is a serious issue.
Open letter to Mr. Bill James:
I have three demands. Number one, start paying the columnists. Number two, pay them well. Number three; demand that they contribute high quality stuff on a weekly basis in exchange for their compensation.
I don’t care if you have to start selling ad space on the site, or stealing money from Big Papi’s locker, just get it done.
Oh, and I have one more demand. Number four; fix the boiler down in the columnist’s locker room. They’re sick and tired of cold showers after a strenuous day at the keyboard. It’s the least you can do.
(To the columnists: as your de facto agent, you’ll kindly tithe 15% of your weekly income to me, ad infinitum.)
Scott (Boras) Simkus
HEY BILL- Hey Bill is a Question & Answer column, where subscribers get to pepper the Jamester himself with a variety of baseball (and non-baseball) questions. I believe the concept is modeled after the classic newspaper feature called “Dear Abby.”
For those of you too young to remember, Dear Abby was a popular newspaper column syndicated nationally for over 50 years. Although nobody reads newspapers anymore, a different version of Dear Abby continues to run today; although the weekly readership is said to consist of less than two dozen people.
The concept of DA was simple. Dear Abby’s original writer, Pauline Phillips (a socialite who lived a life of privilege in Beverly Hills), offered heartfelt advice and answered questions which had been submitted by idiots.
Hey Bill is a little like DA, but with a twist. The questions aren’t necessarily submitted by idiots; but James uses a creative arsenal of quips, barbs, Pravda-like editing, and snarkiness to make them appear stupid. It’s all intended to be innocent, masochistic fun, harkening back a bit to the good old days behind the pork and beans plant.
I like it.
PART FOUR: The Book.
Over the past several years, Bill James has been threatening to publish something he calls a “Crime Book,” and although not completely positive, I believe it’s going to be the tell-all autobiography we’ve all been waiting for.
Rumor has it; over 100 pages will be devoted to Bill’s thoughts on retired Houston Astro slugger Jeff Bagwell.
I decided to utilize the Hey Bill section to press James for some more details about his autobiography. To follow is an unedited transcript of the questions, with some parenthetical commentary following each one. Because these were originally published at BJOL, and may or may not violate a number of copyright laws, you’re advised to read them at your own risk.
SCOTT SIMKUS: When you were risking your life working nights at Stokely Van Camp, did you ever have to fend off any would-be criminals? It’s my understanding the black market for pork and beans was pretty lucrative (and ruthless) during the 1970s. And as a follow-up question: Although you were paid to protect the inventory, were you ever tempted to pilfer any merchandise?
BILL JAMES: You wouldn’t steal that stuff either if you saw them packing it.
(I think it’s pretty obvious BJ isn’t being completely forthright in his answer here. Very short answer, tense. As if I had struck a nerve.)
PETER JENNINGS: Is your crime book going to include “sabermetric-styled” statistical analysis? Just hoping it does…
BILL JAMES: It doesn’t contain statistical analysis, no, but it does contain certain types of arguments and analysis that will look familiar to you.
(This is an homage to one of my favorite journalists, the late Peter Jennings. When I use the Hey Bill section, I’ll often put on a disguise at my computer and type in questions using a fake name. And yes, the “just hoping it does” thing is part of a well-known, textbook suck-up strategy used by all the great media outlets, including the E! Network)
SCOTT SIMKUS: To follow up on Peter Jennings’ question about the crime book…Having worked on the thing for a couple years, do you have any sense of whether there is more violent crime, less violent crime, or perhaps the same amount of violent crime per capita as there was, say, 50 years ago?
BILL JAMES: There is certainly less. Much less. Violent crime has decreased in this country throughout most of the last 140 years, with the exception of a few periods such as 1963-1976 and 1903-1914 when there were significant increases in crime rates.
(This is one of my signature moves, to secretly follow up on one of my own questions. How can Bill not respond to a follow up on Peter Jennings query?)
Over the past few months, I’ve submitted dozens of probing questions to Bill James. Sometimes I’ve used my own name, other times not. Sometimes Bill answers them, while other times he simply hits the delete button and moves on with his life. To see the rest of the interview, my attorney has advised me to suggest that you subscribe to Bill James online. You’ll find the rest of the stuff there.
At three dollars a month, it’s a pretty decent bang for your buck.