November 9, 2018

Bill James In Spotlight For Several Tweets Some Players Found Offensive

On Wednesday, Bill James, the revolutionary baseball historian who currently works as a special adviser to the Red Sox, posted a series tweets that drew the anger of MLBPA executive director Tony Clark and several players. Some of the posts were later deleted.

One of James's comments was:
If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them. The game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever. The players are NOT the game, any more than the beer vendors are.
Clark blasted this opinion as "reckless and insulting considering our game's history regarding the use of replacement players". Justin Verlander and Torii Hunter also referred to replacement players in their condemnation of James.

I found this reaction odd, because James - at least in that quote - did not mention anything about "replacement players" (as that term was used back in the spring of 1995, which seems like what Verlander was referring to).

James said that if every player RETIRED and other players had to take their place, the sport of baseball would survive and "would go on". That's common sense and we have seen evidence of the truth of that statement for almost 150 years of professional baseball. The players change and the game continues. (The Red Sox no longer have David Ortiz or Carl Yastrzemski or Ted Williams in their lineup, but they still play - and win - games.) While you obviously need players of some type to play the game, baseball is certainly bigger than the current group of major league players.

We can all agree that no major league player from 2018 will be playing in 2048. In other words, over the next thirty years, every single player currently on a major league roster WILL HAVE BEEN REPLACED by another player. And baseball (presumably) will still be around. The game will "go on".

NBC Sports Bill Baer noted "fans root for the name on the front of the uniform, not the back. That's generally true — fans tend not to hop from team to team along with their favorite players. The players come and go but team fandom sticks for life." However, Baer called this interpretation "the most generous reading" of James's "clumsy" argument.

James explained his thoughts in an interview with the New York Times (my emphasis):
I don't speak for the Red Sox and I try to make that clear as often as I can. But from the Red Sox standpoint, we have a responsibility not to offend the players and it's unfortunate that I did offend the players. I didn't mean to do that. I don't know that the idea that the game endures and we're all just passing through it is inherently an offensive idea. But if I phrased it in an offensive way, that was not my intention. ... I enjoy working for the Red Sox and I would like to continue that as much as I can.
James had tweeted that it was "asinine to say that players making only a few million a year are underpaid":
It's a question of which perspective you choose. ... I got in trouble by trying to tell people you don't have to choose the players' perspective. That is what I was trying to say: You can choose the perspective of broader society. It makes equal sense to do so.
Tyler Kepner of the Times stated that James's tweets "seemed to play into the skepticism among some players and fans about the growing influence of analytics". James:
I don't think it's true that players in general dislike analytics or distrust them. It is true that there are a lot of players who have images associated with analytics which are not friendly images — that's true of a certain number of players; it's true of a certain number of sportswriters; it's true of a certain number of air-conditioning repairmen; it's just a general condition of the world. There's nothing I can do about that, but I have to be more careful not to feed into those negative images.


Zenslinger said...

I found all this criticism of James kind of dumb. Isn't it pretty easy to understand the perspective he's writing from?

laura k said...

I admire and respect Bill James, but I agree unequivocally with Tony Clark. No company, no organization, exists without its workers. James' tweet is insulting and offensive. If the players' union didn't say that, they're not much of a union.

laura k said...

I should add that his later comments (re the game endures) seem very different than that initial statement. I don't read that as a different expression. I read the first as contempt for the players and the second as (at best) clarifying but perhaps backpedaling.

allan said...

James can be combative and extremely opinionated, but he usually doesn't fire off tweets as fast as he can type.

I saw this:

Andrew Getrarer
You're right, the game would go on. And you said it the way you've said everything since the earliest Abstracts: with a combination of sarcasm and hyperbole. But you're the Establishment now and the Establishment has limits on how it is expected to speak. That's the way it is.

Bill James:
I think that's right; in fact, that's a remarkable Twitter-short summary. I don't think of myself as the Establishment or part of the establishment, but I do think that this controversy has arisen because yesterday's comments were perceived in that way.


James also tweeted these two posts:

I do my best not to offend people. Can't say that I have much talent for it.

What I said here yesterday, I once said to Marvin Miller. Marvin very strongly disagreed with it, but we were still friends. He understood that it was not in any way disrespectful to the players; he just thought it was factually wrong.

Zenslinger said...

I don't get it. There's a book called The World Without Us which studies the environment and human civilization by positing the questions: what would happen if all humans suddenly disappeared from the Earth? How long would it take for natural systems to take over again?

Should the author be criticized for his disrespect of humanity? It's a hypothetical James was referring to.

D.Ing said...

James is right. The players are being way too sensitive. In addition to the many batboys, PR assistants, and clubhouse people, perhaps Henry and Werner should hire a slave, as the Romans did, to stand a step or two behind each player who crosses home plate and points two digits to the skies.

The slave should then approach, and whisper in the player's ear,
"All glory is fleeting.".

Extra slaves could be procured for DuckBoat rides.