Monday, March 28, 2005

Bill James interview

There is a great interview with baseball guru Bill James on the Sons of Sam Horn. Some of my favorite excerpts:

James T: What's your opinion of the comportment of fans today as compared to throughout baseball history?

Bill James: Well, what do I know about manners? I’m pretty much an unreformed lout, myself.
There were a couple of books published in the late 90s, one by Robert Bork and one by a prissy woman named Gertrude something, bitching and moaning about the degeneration of civility in our culture. I read the books, but the thesis doesn’t ring true to me. These books create the impression that our culture is in rapid decay. But they create that impression by (a) selective editing of the facts—for example, pointing to “exploding” crime rates, when in fact crime rates have declined throughout most of the last century, were declining at the time the books were published and are declining now—and (b) simply ignoring most of the ways in which things are getting better. Forty years ago, tolerance for racism and violence was at levels it is hard to imagine today. Thirty years ago, comedians made jokes about rape. Twenty years ago, you went to a baseball game, people would drink themselves silly and fights would break out all over the park.
At the same time, we have problems now that we didn’t have 30 years ago. Public vulgarity is rampant; that’s not a good thing, because for one thing it takes all the fun out of private vulgarity. In some ways people are ruder and less considerate than they used to be, I think. I don’t know how to sum up the gains and the losses, honestly, but I’m an optimist by nature. Things always seem better to me.

James T: HOK is known as the designer of new parks in recent times was there one firm primarily responsible for the spate of parks 35 years ago, Riverfront, Three Rivers et al?

Bill James: I think those were mostly designed by Albert Speer. . .

James T: If they had the requisite HOK retro park there, do you think an MLB team could be located in Las Vegas without economics or gambling becoming insuperable difficulties?

Bill James: Yes, but the team would bomb big time. It’s a mistake to put baseball teams in tourist areas, because the pursuit of the tourist trade interferes with the development of a loyal fan base. Baseball teams need deep roots. People think you could put a team in Orlando and take advantage of the millions of people a year who are visiting Orlando, but those are one-time visitors, and you only get some percentage of them. To thrive in baseball you need to have 100,000 fans who come to the game ten times a year.

James T: NESN recently re-broadcast the 1975 World Series and the difference in broadcast styles over time was striking. Joe Garagiola sounded like a Raymond Chandler devotee with his florid similes but he at least shut up some. Would you care to comment on the change in broadcast styles over the last 30 years?

Bill James: I think the broadcasters of 30, 40 years ago were on the whole better than the broadcasters of today, honestly. They were bolder, more colorful, more interesting. The concept of “professionalism”, which has damaged our culture in so many ways, has made the broadcasts more predictable.

James T: I remember announcers saying, for years, that in Tiger Stadium the Tigers were letting the infield grass grow very high. Can teams really do that with impunity, create hay fields to protect their groundball staffs?

Bill James: I think so. . .there may be some MLB policy regulating the length of grass, but I’m not aware of it. Honestly, major league baseball—and all sports—would be far better off if they would permit teams to do more to make one park distinctive from another—even so far as making the bases 85 feet apart in one park and 95 in another. Standardization is an evil idea. Let’s pound everybody flat, so that nobody has any unfair advantage. Diversity enriches us, almost without exception. Who would want to live in a world in which all women looked the same, or all restaurants were the same, or all TV shows used the same format?
People forget that into the 1960s, NBA basketball courts were not all the same size--and the NBA would be a far better game today if they had never standardized the courts. What has happened to the NBA is, the players have gotten too large for the court. If they hadn’t standardized the courts, they would have eventually noticed that a larger court makes a better game—a more open, active game. And the same in baseball. We would have a better game, ultimately, if the teams were more free to experiment with different options.
The only reason baseball didn’t standardize its park dimensions, honestly, is that at the time that standardization was a dominant idea, they just couldn’t. Because of Fenway and a few other parks, baseball couldn’t standardize its field dimensions in the 1960s—and thus dodged a mistake that they would otherwise quite certainly have made.
Standardization destroys the ability to adapt. Take the high mounds of the 1960s. We “standardized” that by enforcing the rules, and I’m in favor of enforcing the rules, but suppose that the rules allowed some reasonable variation in the height of the pitching mound? What would have happened then would have been that, in the mid-1990s, when the hitting numbers began to explode, teams would have begun to push their pitching mounds up higher in order to offset the hitting explosion. The game would have adapted naturally to prevent the home run hitters from entirely having their own way. Standardization leads to rigidity, and rigidity causes things to break.

James T: Was there any situation comparable to the circumstances of Nomar Garciaparra's in MLB history, a longtime star player being traded in mid-season and his team then winning without him?

Bill James: I believe that the situation may be unprecedented. I tried to find a case, sometime in baseball history, where something much like this happened, and I failed to find one. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t happened before.
One situation which is fairly comparable is Whitey Herzog in St. Louis twenty, twenty-five years ago. Herzog traded away Ted Simmons, who was a huge star and by far the most popular player on the Cardinals, and then Keith Hernandez, who had become the most popular player on the team after Simmons left. He was under a lot of pressure when he did that, but he came out smelling like a rose after the Cardinals won the World Series in ’82 and the National League pennant again in ’85 and ’87. But the time frame was different. It was never as quick as this. For us, it was three months from trading Nomar to winning the World Series.

James T: What are some reasons why the Red Sox might win more games in 2005 than they did in 2004?

Bill James: A healthy Trot Nixon would be #1 on the list.


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