Bill James lives as a solitary genius in Winchester, Kan. Well, not quite solitary. He has, he says, a wife to neglect. Does she, too, like baseball? "She does now," he says tersely. All James does--I'm not criticizing, he does enough--is compile, each year, "The Bill James Baseball Abstract," the most important scientific treatise since Newton's "Principia."
More than anyone since Pythagoras (who thought that the essence of everything could be expressed arithmetically), James believes in numbers. He also believes in looking at evidence.
For example, in 1981 careless persons said the Yankees had an "incredible" won-lost record, 51-3, in games in which they led going into the eighth inning. But James found that the average record for American League teams leading after seven innings was 49-5. The Cleveland Indians, part of baseball's Third World, were 42-3. And James found that the Yankees' remarkable won-lost record was 0-41 when they were behind after seven.
'Round the clock and through the calendar, James sees things no one else sees, and disproves things that "everyone" knows are true. Next time conversation flags at a cocktail party, say: "In 1982, the Indians made 61 fewer double plays than their opponents, and no other team in the league had a differential of more than 31. The Twins were the only team that had a losing record even in games when they scored a run in the eighth inning." If people do not burst into applause, you are at the wrong cocktail party.
Two moral imperatives are: be as intelligent as you can be at whatever you are doing, and savor the sweetness of life. James does by marinating himself in the mathematics of baseball. Baseball statistics gave many of us our first sense of mastery, our first (and for some of us our last) sense of what it feels like to really understand something, and to know more about something than our parents do.
Baseball people are Pythagoreans, but there are limits in life to what can be quantified. I knew I was in the wrong profession when, as a graduate student in political science at Princeton, I opened a scholarly article on "The Judicial Philosophy of Justice Robert Jackson" and found a mass of equations and graphs. Part of baseball's charm is the illusion it offers that life can be completely reduced to numbers. But how would you like it, reader, if every day from coast to coast newspapers printed a box score of your accomplishments and errors at work the previous day?
Mathematics now has proven what clear-thinking moralists always hoped would be true: the American League's designated hitter rule, America's worst mistake since electing President Buchanan, is a deserved affliction to its perpetrators. Sports Illustrated's Jim Kaplan, a prophet who will not be without honor in his country while I draw breath, notes that for the first time the National League has won four consecutive World Series with four different teams. Also, the National League has won 19 of the last 20 All- Star games. Some MIT mathematicians told Kaplan that the odds against such a result between equals is 23,800 to one, so Kaplan concludes the leagues are not equals.
Writing with a judgmental tone not heard since the Old Testament Prophets were cataloging the shortcomings of the Israelites, Kaplan says to the American League: your failures are the wages of sin, and the DH is sin. True, Kaplan cites other factors, such as better farm systems, and fewer small parks that encourage mindless, swing- for-the-fences baseball. But the DH also has made managers dumber: "Because pitchers don't bat in the American League, managers have tended to leave them in the games when they are losing. As a result, there has been less thinking, less strategy, less managing." With the DH, teams lust incontinently for a big inning, so there is less aggressive scrambling for runs. Sloth. Sin.
I have warned Ronald Reagan: he will be judged by whether he rids the nation of the DH. He has not lifted a finger, preferring to squander his time on lesser matters, like arms control. I am remaining uncommitted for 1984 until I hear where Alan Cranston stands on the DH.
However, God gave us baseball so that we should not have to think about missiles or the money supply all the time. An old man once said that if he could get through March, he usually found he lived till the end of the year. Old man, wherever you are: we made it.