'Abstract' thinking on grand ol' game
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

After five years spent revising his 1985 "Historical Baseball Abstract," Bill James has delivered "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," fresh for 2001. As Alan Schwarz points out in his review of the book elsewhere on this site, this is great news for those of us who were devoted to James' yearly "Abstracts" in the 1980s.

In those books, and in the original "Historical Baseball Abstract," James turned traditional baseball thinking on its head and came up with innovative ways to interpret statistics and to read the historical record of the game.

In so doing, he not only made his own reputation, he inspired a whole generation of baseball-analyzing descendants, including ESPN.com's own Rob Neyer, the Total Baseball folks and the guys at Baseball Prospectus, whose work continues to establish a new conventional baseball wisdom. He also gave thousands of fans smart, fresh ways to understand a game they loved.

James' appeal is pretty simple: He can write, he's inquisitive, and he cares about baseball. His terms and formulas are creeping into the common language these days, and that's a testament to the value of his ideas and a reward for the years he has spent debunking old-school assumptions and prejudices, but it's also because his stuff is just plain cool and fun to read. I spent a whole Saturday immersed in "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract." Among other things, he ranks the 100 best players of all-time at all nine positions, and once I started rooting around in those lists, it was almost impossible to put the book down.

There's a new analytic at the heart of the lists (check out Schwarz's review and Neyer's interview for brief descriptions of James' "win shares" idea), and it generates some unpredictable rankings, so I found myself bouncing from page to page and position to position, making quick-fire associations and wanting to find out how players from my impressionable years compared with one another.

I flipped the book open to an entry on Cesar Cedeno who, it turns out (according to James' new ranking system), up until age 25 was one of the four or five best young center fielders ever. This got me thinking about Willie Mays, who James says was stiffed on about five MVP votes. The Mays essay led me to Barry Bonds -- "the most unappreciated superstar of my lifetime" -- and from Bonds I rolled into the Rickey Henderson piece, where I learned that Davey Lopes, my favorite player on my favorite team growing up, stole 458 bases after the age of 30. According to James, this helps make Lopes the 23rd best second baseman of all-time, which I felt very good about.

Willie Mays
James argues Willie Mays was stiffed on about five MVP votes.
From there, I was led to all things 1970s Dodgers, where I caught up with Ron Cey, who, it seems, was actually a little better than Steve Garvey, and Reggie Smith, who compared favorably to Fred Lynn. Then I hopped restlessly back and forth between Red Sox and Angels players, and so on, until all of a sudden it was 4 in the afternoon, I was still in my pajamas, and I hadn't eaten a thing.

The experience reminded me of the winter of 1983, when my friend Matt Welch first introduced me to the "Bill James Baseball Abstract" books, and the two of us spent the better part of several gray Long Beach weekends playing Strat-o-Matic, eating microwave burritos, listening to Beatles records and reading James with the zeal of revolutionary converts.

We loved the way he spoke plainly, and said smart, provocative things that cut against the grain of conventional wisdom. If he thought a player was underrated or overrated, or believed a theory was nonsensical, he said so and then set about demonstrating why. It wasn't fancy, but it was rhetorically sharp and intoxicating.

Matt told me the other day that James "pleased the little writing center" in his brain. "I'd read each new "Abstract" probably 25 times, looking again and again for the one-paragraph quote about Enos Cabell or Brian Downing or whoever that was so dead-on, or so damn funny."

We were 16, and we heard in James the clarity and wit we wanted to fashion in our own voices.

We grooved on his mathematics, too, on which statistics are actually significant in terms of understanding how the game is played. He made basic claims that were nonetheless revolutionary, like, "a hitter's job is not to compile a high batting average. The job is to create runs. That is what all hitters are trying to do in every plate appearance: They are trying to create runs."

Working through James' formulas gave us a chance to cut our teeth as problem-solvers, and it gave our devotion to the game a kind of scientific weight; it made us believe we were doing real work in the world when we examined and debated the relative offensive value of Don Mattingly vs. Wade Boggs, or Henderson vs. George Brett. And we were exhilarated when we assumed, along with James, a kind of iconoclastic, fight-the-powers-that-be attitude.

Don Mattingly
Was Don Mattingly a better offensive player than George Brett? James will tell you.
Beyond the numbers, there was plenty of simple affection for the game and its players in James' books, too. If one essay or player profile featured hard-core statistical analysis, another might be a funky little sketch of how a guy looked in his uniform, a reminder of something he once said, a strange fact about his career. Alongside the sabermetric stuff, this feel for the odd little pockets of players' performances and personalities made us realize that the true story of the game was a messy, complicated thing, and it inspired us to want to learn more, and to always look for new ways of making sense of it.

Are these the kinds of things that have made James so important to so many other fans and writers in the last 20-odd years? I don't know. Sure, probably these things and 50 others.

At some level, James' popularity isn't about James at all, right? It's our crazy dedication to baseball, our historical attachment to numbers as a way of measuring success and failure, and our human impulse to debate that make his work so influential. At some other level, though, we should also recognize that he's uniquely entertaining and informative, and that we've been mighty lucky to have had access to his work over the years.

It sounds silly, and my wife laughed that "oh, sweetie, you're so cute" laugh when I told her, but I don't think it's too much to say that James' approach to baseball helped a lot of us decide what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it.

"I devoured those early abstracts," Matt said when I talked to him last week, "because they were reorienting my thinking about life, believe it or not." Matt's a terrific journalist now. He and some friends started a newspaper in Prague in the early 1990s, and he's since come back to the States to work as a freelance political writer. He told me that reading James was the beginning of his own life as a writer. "There are a lot of journalists out there who don't write about sports who are directly influenced," he said. "James really is my No. 1 journalism guy because the thing that mattered to him the most was finding a way to the truth, regardless of how he got there." For guys like Matt, James is part of the 1960s New Journalism, along with Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe and a bunch of others. He got our attention because he talked about baseball, which we were already interested in, but his approach helped launch us into our own so-called adult lives, too.

I've been an English teacher and a writer most of my so-called adult life, and though I hadn't thought about it until now, I like the idea that my tendency to turn texts inside out and to stretch ideas thin enough to see their hidden underpinnings is somehow the product of reading Bill James.

It's a romantic notion, I know, full up with nostalgia for baseball, Matt and even the Beatles. But isn't this part of why we follow sports in the first place, because they give us a chance to work out our ideas about how the world works and how it ought to work? And isn't this part of why we read, too?

Speaking of which, that's enough grand claims for one morning. I've got reading to do. But I guess I'd better get dressed and eat something first.

Eric Neel will review sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. The former managing editor of Sportsjones, Neel holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa.


Eric Neel Archive

Schwarz: Another classic from Bill James

Bill James: How the game was played

An interview with Bill James

Best baseball books of 2001

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