Luck, Fate, or Providence
I first became aware of Bill James and his work during the spring of 1983. At the time, I was 15 years old and a fanatic baseball fan, growing up in Des Moines, Iowa.
One day, my father took me on a business trip to Kansas City. At the time, he thought we were going to drive home that evening. But for some reason, my dad decided he needed to stay an extra day to meet with some additional clients. I needed to get back home to go to school, so my dad bought me a bus ticket to get back that evening. He also bought me a copy of the 1983 Baseball Abstract so I would have something to read on the bus ride.
I think my dad bought me that book to help me get interested in math. At the time, I was struggling badly with high school algebra, and he likely wanted me to see things in a new light. As it was, I still got a "D" in high school algebra, but I was quickly completely absorbed in the Baseball Abstract, and a rapid convert to the way that Bill James thought about baseball.
One thing that I particularly respected was his writing ability. His sense of humor and his love of the game shone through in every essay. Growing up in a Triple-A city, I had always been interested in young players and how they projected to do in the Majors. Bill's creation of the Major League Equivalent (MLE) for minor league numbers was, for me, the most fascinating part of his work. It eventually became the starting point of all quantitative prospect analysis.
I graduated from high school in 1986, and went to college at Northwest Missouri State University. I decided to study history, with the goal of becoming a college professor. Following baseball prospects was my main hobby, but at the time I had absolutely no idea that it would become not just a hobby, but a career.
I went off to grad school at the University of Kansas in July of 1990. I picked KU for two pragmatic reasons: they gave me a graduate assistantship, and it was within driving distance of Northwest Missouri State, where my girlfriend Jeri was two years behind me. I knew I wanted to marry her, so keeping close was very important for weekend visits.
I knew Bill James lived in Lawrence, the home of KU, and in the back of my mind I wondered if I'd ever run into him, but it was no more than a fleeting thought.
Jeri and I got married during the spring of 1992 after she graduated from college. In early May of 1993, Jeri asked me what I wanted to do for the summer. My teaching assistantship did not cover the summer months, so I made ends meet during financial dry spells by delivering pizzas and working fast food. I jokingly said "I'd love to work for Bill James." Ha ha. It would certainly beat slinging tacos.
The next day, Bill James walked into the luggage store where my wife worked, to purchase a briefcase. She recognized him from the name on his check, asked if he was Bill James the baseball writer, and off-handedly mentioned that her husband was a big fan and would love to work for him. "I'm looking for an assistant," responded Bill, "if he is serious, here is my business card. Have him call me."
Luck, Fate, or Providence. Take your pick.
At the time, Bill was writing a yearly annual called the Player Ratings Book. He needed someone in the office who knew about minor league players, and I was fortunate enough that my interests and skills matched his needs.
I worked with Bill from late May of 1993 through August of 1996. My main duty was to help him with research for the Player Ratings Book, but I was also involved with research for some of Bill's other books, including Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? (also known as The Politics of Glory), The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, and some early work on the New Historical Baseball Abstract. I also answered the phone, took messages, changed light bulbs, and made sure nobody broke into the office when Bill was on vacation. Along with Jim Baker, Rob Neyer, Matthew Namee, Mike Kopf, and Mike Webber, I am one of only a small handful of people who have had the opportunity to work with Bill. It is fair to say that I would not be doing what I do for a living were it not for the events of May, 1993.
Bill is probably the most unique thinker I've ever met, especially in the way he can express ideas on paper. Bill is not always comfortable with talking or expressing ideas orally. Some people think he is gruff and unapproachable, and at times he really does come across that way. But he is really an exceptionally kind person, once you get to know him.
On more than one occasion, Bill would try to give me oral instructions about a research project, but would get frustrated with his inability to explain what he meant (or my inability to understand what he was talking about). He would then disappear into his office for a few hours, eventually emerging with a written document explaining in detail what it was he was trying to say. Bill is adept at using both mathematic and grammatical forms of written communication, both numbers and language. He is constantly thinking and tinkering and testing, not only conventional wisdom but also his own assumptions.
While Bill is certainly the "father" of modern sabermetrics, he isn't really a "numbers geek" in a pejorative sense. He is more aware of the difficult-to-quantify factors in baseball than many people believe. Sabermetrics is not about plugging numbers into a computer. That's one of Bill's pet peeves, the misconception that sabermetrics is about "computerizing baseball." I think Bill would say that the whole goal of sabermetrics is to study baseball, to test common assumptions, to find out what we know, and what we don't know, and to try and find ways to improve our knowledge. Yes, a part of that is to find ways to study and quantify those things which are difficult-to-quantify. Using numbers and computers and formulae are a part of that process, but they are not the process itself. The point is to gain knowledge.
If there is one thing that working with Bill taught me, it was to not reject something just because it does not fit into your preconceived notions. If you find a piece of information that doesn't fit into your system, make sure that the problem isn't your system.
Bill and I remain in touch, and I am fortunate enough to consider him a good friend.
John Sickels worked with Bill James from 1993-1996. He publishes the John Sickels Baseball Newsletter and is the author of several books, including The 2005 Baseball Prospect Book. John's work can also be found on Minor League Ball.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]