James Connects Unlikely Dots Between Dewey, Pitt & my Wife

Out of the blue Thursday night the wife suggested we order, On Demand, one of the movies nominated for Academy Awards. It came down to Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris or Moneyball. We went with Moneyball and both found it extremely enjoyable.

Some 12 hours later, I happened upon an all-too-rare but typically brilliant article from Bill James, the godfather of modern statistical analysis as it relates to sports, baseball in particular. I’ve been a fan of James for more than 20 years (his Historical Baseball Abstract is perhaps the finest bathroom reading ever devised by man), but in the last 24 hours I’ve been jolted anew by the power of his thinking.

Without James, I would never have considered Dwight Evans Hall of Fame material, despite watching him patrol right field for the Red Sox for 17 years. Further, without James there would have been no Moneyball, neither book nor feature film.

For a woman who likes baseball well enough (my wife once resided in the Chicago neighborhood of Wrigleyville) and lives in New England (surrounded by “die-hahd” Red Sox fans), there was a lot in the film for her to like and/or relate to: Brad Pitt, naturally, but also a triumph- and pathos-packed story and myriad Sox references. Still, I was surprised by the extent to which she was engaged by the statistical analysis on which the story is based — the idea that ballplayers can be cannily appraised with such statistical breadth, and that a modest organization like the Oakland A’s could use that edge to compete with richer teams. It was handled beautifully in the context of the movie. I had assumed Hollywood would find ways to soft-peddle it, and they did — building up around it other storylines (Pitt’s single fatherhood, the magical rise of one-time journeyman and former Sox catcher Scott Hatteburg) to defray the essential wonkiness of the stat theme.

But the stat stuff was interesting to her. I hope she reads the James story linked here because what Moneyball author Michael Lewis and the makers of this film (Bennett Miller directed) have done is attach broader meaning and appeal to the gob-smacking insights James pioneered. Maybe she won’t care enough about Dewey Evans to read all the way through, but I would never have dreamed to share such a story with her before we watched Moneyball together.

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