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Opening Day Special

Play Ball

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Bill James, the world’s most famous sabermetrician. James is a wonderful writer who is currently employed as a special advisor to the Boston Red Sox. His latest book, “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers,” written with Rob Neyer is due out later this spring. I thought our discussion would make ideal banter on the first full day of the season. Hope you enjoy.

Bronx Banter: Where did you grow up and when did you become a baseball fan?

Bill James: I grew up in Mayetta, Kansas, a town of about 200 people. I became a baseball fan in the spring of 1961, when POST cereals put baseball cards on the back of their cereal boxes. I was just completely captured by them.

BB: Who were your favorite writers, and players growing up?

BJ: Among my first favorite players were Tito Francona, Minnie Minoso, Warren Spahn, Ron Santo, Norm Siebern, Jerry Lumpe and Dick Howser. Among my favorite writers were Jim Murray, whose column was syndicated in the Topeka paper, which I saw every day, and a couple of local guys. . .Jim Hentzen and Dev Nelson.

BB: Can you talk about the influence that Jim Murray and Leonard Koppett had on you.

BJ: Jim Murray was somebody that I read every day in the time when I was learning to write. Murray was a very talented man, able to make almost any subject entertaining by swinging wildly through an unusual mix of figures of speech. From this I learned a) How to construct a figure of speech, and b) The value of not letting an article get too linear, too straight. But what I do is, in a sense, almost the opposite of what Murray did. Murray picked a position on an issue and honed in on it like a laser, logic be damned. I’m the exact opposite; I start with the issue itself and dance all around it before I approach a conclusion. What I do is more like what Koppett did.

BB: Were you a fan of “Sport” magazine during the 1960s and 70s? In particular, did you enjoy Ed Linn and Ray Robinson? Also, who were your favorite radio and TV announcers growing up?

BJ: I’m a huge fan of Ed Linn. Greatest baseball books ever written–“Nice Guys Finish Last,” “Veeck as in Wreck,” “Thirty Tons a Day.” I read Sport magazine religiously from 1961 to 1967, which contained a lot of Ed Linn and Arnold Hano. These guys weren’t looking for a quick hit; they wanted to really take on the subject.

BB: I read Maury Willsí biography “On the Run” this winter because you made mention of it in one of your books. He claims to have revolutionized the game stealing all those bases. Is that accurate? Do you think Lou Brock rode on Wills’ coattails?

BJ: It is not accurate in my opinion. The stolen base revolution started more with Aparicio than with Wills, and was driven mostly by the conditions of the game. Runs were scarce; therefore it made sense to try to manufacture them. Brock was always generous in crediting Wills, and it is impossible to step between them in this way, and say that Brock did NOT owe to Wills what he was so willing to pay to him. But I always thought he had overstated his debt to Wills, frankly. Wills made a huge deal out of getting the biggest possible lead, and he would lecture anyone who would listen about how to get the biggest possible lead. Brock, as a young player, tried to copy that; he tried to study pitchers, as Wills had, and figure out how to get the biggest possible lead. But eventually Brock realized that this was a mistake, that getting a big lead was delaying his break from first base, and that it was much more productive to “time” the pitcher and get an early jump from first than it was to get a big lead. Suppose that two guys are sitting at an intersection, trying to get away quickly when the light turns green. One guys sticks his bumper as far as possible into the intersection and revs his engine. The other guy lays back, waits for the cross streetlight to turn yellow, then gets a rolling start. Who gets away quicker? Of course, the guy who lays back and gets a rolling start gets away much quicker. Same thing; Wills was the guy who tried to get as far into the intersection as he could, never realizing that this was nailing him down in terms of getting an early getaway. Brock finally realized he could steal more

BB: I only remember Brock in his last year, but I grew up watching Rickey Henderson, Rock Raines and Vince Coleman. Do you think baseball will return to the stylistic balance of the 70s and 80s, or will it indefinitely remain a power game?

BJ: I am absolutely certain that neither of those will happen.

BB: Speaking of small ball, do you think Negro League stats will ever be collated in a way that would allow a good analyst to filter the noise out and compare them in some meaningful way to major league stats? Is this project worthwhile or does it just ask a false question?

BJ: I doubt that it can be done. The problem is not simply missing events. The gaps are more profound than that. The schedule was never very regular. You simply don’t have 150-game samples against relatively balanced competition. The games were never played that way. One can never guess what the people of the future will know, and certainly much progress has been made, and certainly more progress will be made. But I don’t see how these stats could ever be pulled up to something approximating the level of American or National League stats from that era.

BB: What do you make of the wealth of baseball writing on the Internet? Does it hold any interest for you?

BJ: I can’t keep up. Reading stuff on the Internet is not natural to me, as it is to younger people. There are zero web sites that I check every day. Also–and this is one of the most critical differences between myself and regular journalists–I can’t keep current on what could be called the general baseball discussion, and I make very little effort to do so. I never have. Why? Limited brain cells. I’m not that smart; I have a limited number of synapses. I always figure if you fill them up with stuff that’s going to change in 24 hours, you have less capacity to really think about the problems you are trying to puzzle through. I know what the BIG stories in the game are, but the little stories that come and go. . .I can’t keep track of them, and I don’t try to.

BB: The amount of baseball writing on the net is overwhelming. I follow the Yankees, and yet there is so much about the team–like their minor league system–that I very little about. It amazes me that some guys can write with authority about more than one team, let alone an entire league. Do you follow of all the stories–large and small–with the Red Sox however? Do you know what’s going on with the team through your relationship with the front office, or do you read the Boston press to find out the scoop?

BJ: Well, I communicate with the front office every day, usually many times a day. But even with the Red Sox, sometimes I miss stuff. Following up on the earlier question. . .you were close to something worth talking about there. It is the instinct of all young writers to walk toward the game, to get as close as possible to the game, to immerse themselves in it. This instinctive behavior then becomes a commandment of sports journalism: they assume, because they’re all doing it, that this must be the right thing to do. I’m sure it is the right thing to do–for them. But I made the decision, 25 years ago or more, to do the opposite: to walk AWAY from the game. I study the game passionately and thoroughly and without end–but from a distance. My decision was to try to see the game as an astronaut would see the planet earth–that is, with a different perspective. Try to see the big picture. Constantly immersing yourself in the details of day-to-day news coverage interferes with your ability to see the bigger picture of the game, at least for me.

BB: During the 2003 season, was your experience working with the Red Sox front office different from what you expected it to be?

BJ: This question requires me to think in ways that I simply don’t think.

BB: After all those years as a baseball “outsider” what’s it like to be on the inside?

BJ: Different.

BB: How many Red Sox games did you watch/attend?

BJ: I saw 23 Red Sox games in person, I believe–3 in Kansas City, 1 in Oakland, and 19 in Boston. I watched all or virtually all of the Red Sox games on TV, taped them and studied them.

BB: Are you enjoying your work with the Red Sox?

BJ: Very, very much. I love Boston. I hate traveling, but I love being in Boston once I get there. And the people I work with there, from John Henry and Theo down to the shoelaces of the organization, have just been fantastic.

BB: Have you met any of the players on the Red Sox personally? Does meeting and talking with ballplayers interest you?

BJ: Ballplayers are simply people. They are as interesting as your neighbors, as interesting as the people you work with–no more and no less.

BB: Other than when Derek Lowe is on the hill, there has been a good deal of debate as to whether second baseman Pokey Reese is as valuable to the Red Sox as he might be to another team. Will his defense be all that valuable behind pitchers such as Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, neither of whom relies on keeping the ball on the ground to retire the opposition?

BJ: Well, certainly it is going to be MORE of a priority to maximize the infield defense when Lowe is on the mound. But every pitcher appreciates (and needs) defensive support, and we do have other ground ball pitchers, such as Kim and Mendoza. We get an average or above-average number of ground balls. We’re going to go into the bottom of the ninth with a one-run lead sometimes, and we’ll want the best defense out there no matter who is on the mound.

BB: You’ve always championed players like Brain Downing, who was great with the Angels in the eighties. Are there any players like that on the current Sox team? Which Red Sox players are you especially fond of watching?

BJ: My favorite player to watch on the Red Sox is Jason Varitek. Jason has a lot of hustle and a lot of leadership, plus he has a lot of subtle skills that you don’t see unless you focus on him.

BB: What subtle skills does Varitek possess?

BJ: I don’t know if I can describe it. He’s very interactive with the other parts of the game. He interacts with the umpire. He interacts with the other infielders. He interacts with the dugout. He interacts with the pitcher. Of course, much of this is the nature of the catcher’s position, but there are catchers who just go through the motions. Jason’s very alert to how all of those other parts of the game are moving, always looking for ways to contribute.

BB: You have a book that youíve written with Rob Neyer coming out this spring called the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. What does this book give us that we’ve never had before?

BJ: A source for specific information about pitchers–who threw a curve ball, who threw a slider, who threw a change. Not on a hit-and-miss, catch-as-catch-can basis, but systematically and thoroughly.

BB: What can we do with it? Will it be a useful tool for further understanding of the game?

BJ: Well, we would certainly hope so. Suppose that you want to study the question of whether the screwball is hard on the arm, or the question of whether pitchers whose best pitch is a sinker reach their peak later than pitchers who best pitch is a curve. This book gives you a starting place to research those questions, or any of a thousand others.

BB: In view of the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers book soon to be published, do you think that a deception pitch like Rip Sewell’s eephus ball could ever be effective in today’s game?

BJ: Oh, absolutely. Beyond any question it could.

BB: I wanted to ask one Yankee question. In Ben McGrathís New Yorker profile on you which appeared last summer, you said something about how people in Kansas City root against New York more than they do in Boston. Or something to that effect. Have you hated either the Yankees or New York City since you were a kid?

BJ: Well, I love New York City, to begin with, and I wouldn’t exactly say that I hate the Yankees. I root passionately against the Yankees, and I have since I was a small child. It’s like, if you’re watching a car race. . .if you hate somebody you root for them to have an accident. I’ve never rooted for the Yankees to have a car accident. I just want them to lose.

BB: Like Downing, I know youíve always liked Bernie Williams. Do you think heíll be a hall of famer?

BJ: Well, I try to stay out of Hall of Fame arguments. Bernie Williams is one of my favorite players, but I think it is clear that he is not a Hall of Famer based on what he has accomplished yet. He starts the 2004 season with 1,950 career hits. That’s not a Hall of Fame number. Maybe it is if you’re Sam Thompson and you drive in a fantastic number of runs; maybe it is if you’re Earle Combs and the Hall of Fame voters don’t know any better. But in general, Bernie’s numbers are nowhere near Hall of Fame standards.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver