Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Living an hour away from the nearest major league team doesn't seem like an ideal environment for a baseball writer, but it suits Bill James perfectly.
Living and working in and around Lawrence since 1967 has allowed James, to keep from becoming so attached to any one team that it compromises his nationally respected writing.
That detachment was beneficial in the 1980s when he wrote the books that made him famous -- the Baseball Abstracts, which were annual encyclopedic looks at teams, players and statistical trends.
"What I always try to do is not to immerse myself in the team, including the Red Sox," James said. "I try to see things in perspective. The physical space from the team is helpful in doing that."
Lawrence provides 54-year-old James the opportunity to be both a famous writer and just another resident. Though James and his past works have been featured in The New Yorker, Business Week and many other publications, he still can walk down Massachusetts Street without a second glance.
"This is where I've always lived, and it works for me, and I feel more in touch with myself ... here than I do anywhere else," said James, who was hired as senior adviser to the Boston Red Sox in late 2002.
"I believe in trying to be as normal as I can," said James, husband and father of three. "I wouldn't be comfortable in a place where people overreact to celebrity."
ESPN.com senior writer Rob Neyer, who was James's assistant for four years, thinks that Lawrence is the perfect town for his former boss because it allows James the freedom to work however he needs to.
"The type of work Bill does really requires a lot of solitude," Neyer said. "He has to be by himself just thinking of what he's doing. He's not writing reaction pieces to last night's game; he's trying to come up with original material. I think it's probably easier to do that in Lawrence than in New York where you have two baseball teams and God knows how many TV stations and magazines that want your time, and other writers who want to go out for a beer. I think that being in the Midwest is probably a good thing for Bill."
Home on the range
The Midwest has always been home for James, who grew up in Mayetta (a small town about 20 miles north of Topeka) and studied English and economics at the University of Kansas.
One distraction from James' studies -- the Kansas City Athletics -- was taken away during his first semester at KU. A's owner Charlie Finley moved James's favorite team since childhood to Oakland, Calif., at the end of the '67 season. After the move, James found himself unable to stay as much of an A's fan.
"It was pretty hard to root for Charlie Finley," James said of Finley, known for his adversarial actions toward the A's players and fans. "He had all the annoying habits of (current New York Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner, plus some. He had to remind you, about every 10 minutes, that this is his team and not your team. It was hard to root for him when he was right there and when he was halfway across the country it was really impossible."
Though the A's were half a continent away, James didn't give up his love of baseball. He just started looking at it in a different way.
"Whenever I studied anything, rather than applying it to whatever I was supposed to be applying it to, I would think, 'Well, I can use this to study baseball,'" James said. "So I always wonder if that psychic separation from the game caused me to see the game differently during the time I was being educated. I don't know. It's just a theory."
A writer's preseason
It's a theory that makes a lot of sense when looking at James' works, which are renowned for their usefulness in analyzing and predicting a player's worth, apart from more subjective judgments, such as a player's popularity.
Of course, there was a time when those works were unlikely to ever exist. After four years at KU, James joined the Army in 1971. He spent two years stationed in South Korea.
"After two years of being in the Army, I just wanted to decompress for a while," James said. "I came back to Lawrence and got an apartment and just stayed in bed for about a month to get over being in the Army."
James then started working on an education degree, which he completed in 1975. While taking graduate level psychology classes that summer, he had a meeting with professor Edward Wike that set him on a new career path.
Wike told James, who had always wanted to be a writer but didn't see it as a realistic goal, that the number of young people getting doctorates was far greater than the number of available jobs because of a baby boom. Because of this, Wike told James it was possible he could work 10 years on his degree and have no guarantee of a job.
"I thought, 'You know, 10 years I could be a writer. What am I doing here?'" James said. "It just struck me. It was a gamble one way or the other, and if it's a gamble one way or the other, you might as well do what you want to do. So then I went home and started writing articles."
His first article was a submitted piece that August for Baseball Digest about pitchers who had won 20 games and hit .300 in the same season, but it wasn't long before he delved into more groundbreaking ideas.
- Bill James at a glance...
- What: Baseball analyst and writer; Boston Red Sox senior baseball operations advisor
- Where: Lawrence, Kan.
- Importance: James brought objective baseball analysis to a larger audience in the 1980s, and his hiring by the Red Sox in 2002 helped bring this method -- sabermetrics -- to national prominence.
- Important works: Baseball Abstracts (1977-88); Historical Baseball Abstract (1985); New Historical Baseball Abstract (2001); Win Shares (2002).
- Buy his books online at amazon.com
- "To some, (Bill James) is a philosopher-hero who brought baseball out of the Dark Ages; others consider him a calculator-punching pedant with too much time on his hands. The once proud and conservative Red Sox, by hiring James to be their Senior Baseball Operations Adviser, have joined the ranks of those teams-such as the Oakland A's and the Toronto Blue Jays-which are now emphasizing the principles of "sabermetrics" as an alternative to the steadfast reliance on weather-beaten scouts with radar guns, hunches, and cigars. ... The Red Sox have not merely sided with the brainiacs; they've enlisted the help of the founding nerd."-- Ben McGrath, The New Yorker"His name has practically become a trademark among fans. But despite his success, he remains, at bottom, a fan himself. His books often begin with the same disarming line -- "Hi. My name is Bill James" -- as if he were merely a patron at a ballgame, introducing himself to you over hot dogs, beer and that lousy call at third base."-- Todd Leopold, CNN.com"The unquestioned pioneer of the statistical evolution that has at last taken hold in Major League Baseball the last few years, Bill James didn't get involved in all of this because of an obsession with numbers. Instead, James, an avid baseball fan for the better part of his life, had -- and still has -- an undying thirst for answering questions about the game."-- Sports Business NewsSome stories written about James:
- The Professor of Baseball, The New Yorker
- Breaking the Curse, Business Week
- Bill James -- MLB Stat Man, Sports Business News
- The King of Stats, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
- The Percent Solution, Hartford Courant
- Baseball not just by the numbers, CNN
- Bill James on ..., CNN
- Another Classic from Bill James, ESPN
- Bronx Banter Interview
- The Saberetric Manifesto, The Baseball Archive
- Society for American Baseball Research
- Baseball Prospectus
- Baseball Primer
Nothing to do with Jedi Knights
His annual baseball abstracts in the 1980s and his work over the next two decades gave a generation of fans a new way of looking at the sport.
Bill James coined the search for objective knowledge about baseball "sabermetrics" after the Society for American Baseball Research.
Rather than concentrating on a player's intangibles, such as charisma and the number of winning teams he had played for, sabermetrics focused on what the player did on the field -- such as getting on base or striking out batters.
In 1985 James released his "Historical Baseball Abstract" which became one of the sport's most important and influential works. For decades, part of baseball's appeal had been that, unlike other sports, there was no clock. Games moved at their own paces and seemingly could last forever.
In the "Historical Baseball Abstract," James altered that viewpoint, espousing the theory that outs were the sport's only finite component. With just 27 outs in a regulation nine-inning game, he proposed that teams should minimize those outs wherever possible. For example, a team shouldn't sacrifice bunt just to gain one run early in a game, contrary to widely practiced strategy.
This theory helped give importance to two statistics that have become almost synonymous with sabermetrics -- slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
Slugging percentage gives more importance to extra-base hits than singles. On-base percentage -- a player's walks, hits, and hit-by-pitches, divided by total plate appearances -- takes into account every a way a player reaches base without giving up one of his team's all-important outs.
Each statistic makes for a more informed measure of a hitter's worth than the previous standard, batting average -- which only accounts for hits (not walks, etc).
On-base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG) have become very popular among fans and even some baseball executives -- namely Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane and Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein -- over the past two decades, helping bring James even more fame.
In fact, James' system have become so mainstream that Topps put another sabermetrics stat -- On-base plus slugging, which is the addition of OBP and SLG, a quick-and-dirty metric for determining a player's value -- on the back of its baseball cards for the first time this season.
No need for limos
Even with widespread notoriety and publicity (particularly after being hired by the Red Sox), James has stayed in or near Lawrence. While providing him the opportunity to work in solitude and near anonymity and being a good town to raise his children, there are a few possibilities Lawrence keeps James from attempting.
"I can't really pursue a television career in a meaningful way unless I leave Lawrence. I could do that, but television isn't that natural to me anyway," James said. "There are some things for which living in Lawrence is not ideal, but I'm a writer. I can live anywhere and this works for me."
Living in Lawrence may stop James from pursuing a career in television, but it doesn't mean he can't make an occasional appearance on screen, including an appearance on Dennis Miller's CNBC show earlier this month.
CNBC offered to pick James up in a limo for the trip to and from the station in Kansas City, but that wasn't his style. He had to turn down the offer numerous times before convincing the network he could drive himself.
"You live in L.A., you live in that limo-type world. I couldn't stand that," James said. "You live in New York, you live in that intensely competitive environment in which where you rank compared to other writers is tremendously important. I couldn't stand that," James said. "I love going to Boston. Boston's fantastic. I love New York. It's a great place to go. But this is home."
- Levi Chronister talks with Bill James April 8 at India Palace
- Why did you go to KU?
- What did you do after graduating KU?
- Did you plan to return to Lawrence after being in the Army?
- When did you start writing?
- When did you know you wanted to write?
- Was there ever a time you considered leaving Lawrence?
- Is there anything in particular that keeps you here?
- How is Lawrence a good place for you to work?
- Is it nice coming back to Lawrence after visiting big cities?
- Does it help you to work outside of a major-league market?
- Did you follow the A's after they moved to Oakland?
- Did you start following another team after the A's moved?