The goddamn thing sat there, and it annoyed me immensely.
The numbers were of minimal consequence to me and every effort to comprehend them just seemed a Sisyphean task, so I haphazardly wedged the book into my shelf and went about my life.
What is this bastard book of which I speak? Is it a John Nash game theory book? A Stephen Hawking treatise on the origins of life? No, it was something far more insidious to my 11-year old brain: a copy of the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract.
I want to pinpoint my freakish obsession with all things numbers to a trip made to Barnes and Noble in late 2000. I remember running throughout the store straight to the humor section because it was where my Calvin and Hobbes fix would be pacified. My uncle and father were doing whatever a lawyer and a history teacher do when they enter a large bookstore. Just before leaving, the clearance section compelled my uncle to ask me, "Do you guys have a baseball encyclopedia in your house?" I replied that I did not know, but that we probably didn't.
Ten minutes later I was carrying out a clearance-sale copy of Total Baseball: Sixth Edition
. Printed after the 1998 season (I learned this quickly because I was so pissed that the postseason section of the book ended with the Yankees
World Series), it featured Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa
on the cover. My fifth-grade brain gobbled this damn book up at breakneck speed, although my favorite sections were the rosters/depth charts for each team each season. One of my favorite things to do during this time period to occupy myself would be to write down each and every player named on the depth chart for a given season and fill in the requisite stats with batting average/home runs/runs batted in. No triple-slash line to be found on these sheets of loose leaf paper.
That book was put through the wringer with my father and myself. The glue that composed the spine started to erode and eventually the cover simply became a defacto protection device to what looked like a gigantic legal brief. Goodness, did I abuse the postseason section. Those 200 someodd pages were always the most worn because I would copy down box scores from these games ad nauseam. So yes, at an age when most boys are playing sports and doing things, I was amusing myself by learning how Bruce Kison had a 108.00 ERA in the 1979 World Series against the Orioles
. Did I mention I was a painfully anxious kid at school? Every now and then I would venture into the players section and while I knew the standard rate and counting stats, certain numbers confused me.
Then that fateful day came when the Bill James abstract got into my hands. It was given to me by an older leader of my Boy Scout troop who had it lying around, and it was from 1983. That person has since passed away (I believe), and I wish I had gotten into sabermetrics sooner because if he owned a book from that era, I have since assumed that he was immersed into it. Or maybe he just found the thing kicking around in his house, that's plausible too.
I remember seeing how the players were ranked by position, although I forget exactly what criteria was used to differentiate them. Probably a WARP or WAR from that era. All I remember was that the Mets
sucked, and were near the bottom in nearly all of the position rankings for the NL. I vaguely remember there was FRAA for each player, but everything else was a haze. As mentioned before, I stuffed the book aside and thought, "That's a bunch of worthless shit" and returned to the delightfully comprehensible world of Total Baseball.
When I was 14, I bought the newest edition that came out (whoa, this one had higher-quality paper!) and it managed to escape the torment my constant use had placed on my previous encyclopedia for a myriad of reasons. I actually started to develop a social life, so stats began to disappear from my regular rotation, but I could never quite quit them so it was always a delight to snag that sturdy, black-bound book (I hated the cover and junked the thing as soon as I bought it). I finally began reading the articles at beginning of the book, and while I cannot recall such things from memory, that was my first exposure to sabermetrics that I could understand. Even then, the numbers were lost on me because my attitude consisted of: "Well, no shit Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays were really good. Why do you need this crap?"
Now, this is my philosophical portion of my post. As most of you well know, I love my sabermetrics and even shell out money for Baseball Prospectus (going on two years now). Actually, if you're familiar with my work, my Jon Heyman post from a little over a year ago garnered much support and is probably my best-known post on this site (not my favorite though, that belong to "Coffee's For Closers") yet I have a very strained and strange relationship with it.
Perhaps the most humbling thing about the internet is that it has an immensely vast and sharp memory. I re-read that Heyman post the other day, and was appalled because it was everything I have since come to detest about SABR and related miscellany. It was smug, condescending, and it carried the tone of someone bearing a burden because one sportswriter didn't want to induct Bert Blyleven. As much as I loved Fire Joe Morgan, I always misread them in terms of their journalistic opponents. Some even contacted them and told them they found them funny, and most were good sports about it all. I have since softened my views (especially on how I view the Hall of Fame), but once you dip your toe into the pool of sabermetrics, there's no turning back. Even if you want to be as open and understanding as possible, people who don't follow or think it is a bunch of worthless crap will do or say something about baseball that will annoy you immensely. I don't think I am a bad person, it just comes from being far too analytical about the game.
On some levels, I do miss the days before I was drowning myself in JAWS, WAR, UZR and the like because I have all but eliminated the emotions that come with simply being a subjective fan of the team.
I think to myself, "Actually, he's consistently among the top of the NL in WAR and his OBP is stellar for a second baseman."
Believe me, if there were a switch I could use to become a shameless homer whenever the Mets played, I would flip it in a millisecond. But it's rarely there, and it saddens me to realize that it may never be there again because I have changed how I fundamentally view the game. Yes, I enjoy being informed, but watching a team is far less fun to me when I'm playing fact-finding researcher. That human element, often maligned in sabermetric circles, I want it. The temporal elation of victory, and the ephemeral ecstasy of bitter defeat. I hate drowning in objectivity and the empirical. Granted, this doesn't mean I am going to start ranting and raving in game threads (I'm actually reserved by nature, and people like fxcarden are naturals at doing so), but perhaps enjoy the game as opposed to viewing it under such scrutiny one would think an assignment for college somehow hinged upon how much I can glean about everything.
C'est la vie. I miss baseball, and while BP and the like can pacify me, there's nothing that compares to watching it live. I view the game in such theoretical prisms in the off-season, that one almost forgets these are fallible humans playing the game, not Strat-o-Matic or their respective projections. I get chills whenever I see Mike Piazza's post-9/11 home run, or Robin Ventura's grand-slam single, as grateful as I am to those blogs for informing me, their articles will never give me those vivid feelings of jubilation.
Well, to be fair, that Bill James Abstract did give me chills.
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