When Bill James writes what he thinks, some people accept it as the gospel. Others aren’t so sure.
For about three decades now, James has been writing opinions about baseball based mostly on innovative statistical analysis. Some of his calculations are so abstract as to elude the common fan. Others are intriguing.
Regardless, bits and pieces of what James has wrought from his Lawrence office on Tennessee Street have come to be accepted by several major-league general managers as the contemporary way to conduct player personnel business.
Sometimes, though, what James writes has nothing to do with statistics. His first mention of baseball and performance-enhancing drugs, for example.
Writing on billjamesonline.net, his subscription-based Web site, James shrugged off baseball’s steroids era, saying: “If you look into the future 40 or 50 years, I think it is quite likely that every citizen will routinely take anti-aging pills every day.
“How, then, are those people of the future — who are taking steroids every day — going to look back on baseball players who use steroids? They’re going to look back on them as pioneers and say, ‘So what?’”
In the same vein, James penned that the use of performance-enhancing drugs “will mean virtually nothing in the debate about who gets into the Hall of Fame and who doesn’t.”
Well, you have to admit that’s a take on steroids you hadn’t heard before.
In Monday’s sports section of USA Today, baseball writer Tom Weir wrote a short blurb about James’ commentary on steroids, suggesting it was “surprising — perhaps even a little shocking.”
Weir conceded that James’ prediction could indeed come true, but added that an unscientific poll conducted by USA Today showed that more than half the voters believed any player linked to PEDs should be banned from the Hall of Fame.
Curiosity about reaction to James’ online piece prompted me to send him an e-mail — James rarely answers his phone — and I’ll have to admit I was surprised by his reply.
“The article, which I wrote while on vacation two weeks ago,” he told me, “has been inexplicably well received up to now.”
The most positive reaction he ever received, James continued, was to an article he wrote in his 1986 Baseball Abstract about being a Kansas City baseball fan. Now he calls this steroids commentary a “contender” to the K.C. piece.
“By the time I checked my site the next day there had been a wave of very favorable comment within the site,” James reported. “And in another 48 hours there had been quite a bit of discussion about it (on the Web).”
You would expect folks who pony up the $3 a month to access his Web site would be more inclined to agree with James’ opinions than nonsubscribers. And it’s possible Monday’s mention in USA Today will trigger a different response.
“Anyway, you know how it is,” James told me. “Sometimes you hit a nerve and you never know why. It must have been that I said what other people were thinking.”
At the same time, he conceded, a negative wave could follow now that his opinion has gone national.
Either way, James once again has people reexamining a pre-conceived notion about baseball.