Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball, by Scott Gray

The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball, by Scott Gray

I found this book quite interesting, although the writing was terrible. I’ve heard a lot about Bill James and was looking forward to learning more about him. Because of the wide range of topics, this is neither a complete biography or a well-rounded baseball discussion. Gray is clearly a huge James fan and spent a lot of time fawning over him and making odd comparisons, such as “Bill James was the closest thing to Neo that the baseball matrix has ever seen.” The basics are covered (birth, marriage, kids) but not in much detail and thick with baseball allusions: “[Bill’s wife] threw out the ‘first ball,’ as it were—a baby girl named Rachel.” In addition to the sparse biographical information, we get long passages about James’ opinion on non-baseball topics such as what evidence juries can see and the criminal justice system. Of course, James did often weave such tangents into his Abstracts, so I suppose this could be seen as a parallel, but I found it distracting.

This book generated a lot of discussion in my book group. We are all baseball fans (or in one case, was before the strike) and I was surprised at the widely varying opinions. In fact, about all we could agree on was that this was a poorly written book! The biggest argument was around James’ contention that the minor league system is a charade: “Players are assigned to the minor league team ... without the team having any say ... anonymous young men playing to develop skills rather than playing to win. ... If you’re selling a sport and the players don’t care about winning, that’s not a sport. That’s a fraud.” While there is a bit of truth here, ironically we were discussing this while watching the local Triple-A franchise—along with over 8,500 other fans. Considering we were nine games out of first place and there was a 40+ minute rain delay, “fraud” seems an overstatement to me.

The appendix was by far my favorite part. It was a collection of short paragraphs that shared many of the essential ideas that James brought to the baseball world. Many of these show why he is considered controversial: clutch hitting is a myth, aggressive base running hurts a team more than it helps, and the designated hitter increases strategy to name a few. The ideas here countered many of the wilder opinions presented in the main text, such as having variable distances between the bases depending on the park dimensions. Yeah, you read that right!

First Sentence:
Like William Shatner singing “Rocket Man,” bad lineups have a perverse appeal.

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