Bill James in the abstract

The American Enterprise Online has an interview with the incomparable Bill James, the man most responsible for bringing the study of baseball out of the dark ages. I’ve sometimes wondered what James’ politics are. My guess was that a guy that bright and iconoclastic would hold at least some conservative views. The AEI interview suggests that this is the case. Note for example, his impatience with non-meritocratic approaches, his reference to the consequences of bad decisions, and especially his statement that “in our society we try to make each other less tough.” He even has a good word to say about Presdent Bush’s State of the Union discussion of steroids. At a more fundamental level, James’ career was a bet that ultra-rational analysis could shed revolutionary light on baseball. This is an Enlightenment notion, and one that once could be viewed as more liberal than conservative. In today’s environment, I would argue that, if anything, it is more conservative than liberal.
One of the main questions explored in the interview is baseball’s declining popularity. James believes that popularity trends are cyclical and that “in the future, when the game is played crisply at the highest levels, people will realize what an exciting game it is, and remember that it’s fun.” Maybe. But I wonder whether the changes in society that James refers to later in the interview work against baseball. James argues that “Sports haven’t abandoned hardness and strength and masculinity, because they can’t. So they’re tenaciously hanging onto the concept of being tough when everyone else is trying to get rid of it. I think that’s the sporting world’s way of trying to tell us something.” But, more than other sports, baseball places a premium on mental toughness. Fans made hungry for the most obvious manifestations of hardness, strength, and masculinity will probably continue to prefer football and basketball.
HINDROCKET adds: Bill James is one of my all-time favorite analysts of anything. If our political scientists and philosophers brought as much objectivity, knowledge, and sheer force of logic to their professions as James does to baseball, the world would be a much better place. In support of the idea that James is, to some degree at least, a conservative, he once analogized umpires to judges and baseball’s rules to laws. His argument was that umpires should apply the rules as written; if the rulebook says that the strike zone goes from the letters to the knee, then umpires shouldn’t call everything above the waist a ball. If the rule needs to be changed, then change it. In the meantime, the umps should follow the rulebook.


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