September 13, 2010

Bill James's guilty conscience

For a few years, I've been pointing out that baseball's most sainted statistical analyst, Bill James, was completely AWOL while obvious steroid-users were piling up statistically ridiculous numbers. He'd immediately change the subject from steroids to, say, Barry Bonds using a maple bat instead of an ash one.

Now that the evidence of steroid use by most of the setters of anomalous statistics is overwhelming, he's changed tunes and is praising the cheaters in a Slate article:
Life, Liberty, and Breaking the Rules
In defense of Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, jaywalkers, and all the other scofflaws that make America great.
First of all, I have absolutely no doubt that, had steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs existed during Babe Ruth's career, Babe Ruth would not only have used them, he would have used more of them than Barry Bonds.

Let me propose a more relevant counterfactual. If Mr. James had been intellectually honest and had spoken out about steroids, as, say, Tom Boswell of the Washington Post did as early as 1988, then Mr. James would not have been hired as a senior executive of the Boston Red Sox in 2003 and capped his career by helping them win their first World Series since Babe Ruth's time in 2004. Why not? Because the Red Sox's two biggest hitters, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, were juicers.

Should intellectuals who are dishonest about the biggest issue of their time in their field because of obvious conflicts of interest be subjected to penalty of law? 

No. 

But they should be publicly shamed.

44 comments:

rightsaidfred said...

I like the idea of throwing rotten fruit at such.

DR said...

One can make the argument that sports fans are just as complicit as anyone else in ignoring steroids. Sports fans want to see stronger, faster, bigger players. Hence the reason women's sports are universally unpopular. Joe Sixpack doesn't really care that Barry Bonds is loading himself with another andro to kill a horse as long as he keeps slamming them out of the park.

The only people that do make a fuss about steroids are moralistic politicians and journalists looking for "the outrage of the month" and baseball nerds who want to be able to have debates about whether which decade had the best pitchers.

Based on this argument I would argue that Bill James was doing a good not a bad thing. Protecting the common man's right to see the kind of juiced up athletes that have been turning in viewers from the elites who would try to take it away from them if the methods to produce said athletes became common knowledge.

Kylie said...

Steve Sailer said..."Should intellectuals who are dishonest about the biggest issue of their time in their field because of obvious conflicts of interest be subjected to penalty of law?
No.
But they should be publicly shamed."

Seems to me the trouble with that idea is that within my lifetime, we shifted from a shame culture to a guilt culture and then we dispensed with the guilt.

There is now only one "sin" that can reliably elicit a public shaming.

Anonymous said...

Here's a counter-factual for you: If the most widely publicized juicers were white, would you be as outraged?

It seems to me that your distaste of juicing is at least in part because juicers outshone white players.

Kevin said...

I hope that Babe Ruth would have been too lazy to take steroids. I know he was interested in hitting HRs, but he seemed to rely on his natural ability and didn't seem to mind showing up to spring training in suboptimal shape. Reagardless, I hope they can figure out some way to save baseball, because I can't stand it now. At least in football, you can't juice your knees.

Kylie said...

Anonymous said..."Here's a counter-factual for you: If the most widely publicized juicers were white, would you be as outraged?

It seems to me that your distaste of juicing is at least in part because juicers outshone white players."

Right on cue after my comment, "There is now only one 'sin' that can reliably elicit a public shaming."

The Outsider said...

Art De Vany argues that steroids have had no statistically significant effect on home runs.

http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/03/de_vany_on_ster.html

This doesn't let Bill James off the hook, since he appears to believe that steroids have had an effect, but it still seems like a relevant point.

Anonymous said...

I demand that congress get to the bottom of this. I want to be assured that when a guy hits a home-run that it is due to god-given talent rather than steroid-enhanced. I cannot think of any better use of the time of our elected representatives that to preserve the integrity of baseball!

Peter A said...

"It seems to me that your distaste of juicing is at least in part because juicers outshone white players."

How so? Clemens is white, so is McGwire. Most people consider Nomar white as well. The real question is which players weren't juicing. Which is why Sailer singling out Ramirez and Ortiz is pretty silly.

Anonymous said...

Shame is good, but libs don't allow shaming. Hollywood doesn't allow shaming. Pop psychology (a redundant phrase, of course) doesn't allow shaming.

The people who still believe in shaming, for the most part religious fundamentalists, are those who are ridiculed most by society.

That's a shame.

Anonymous said...

"If the most widely publicized juicers were white, would you be as outraged?"

Two biggies--

Canseco, while a Cuban American, is still considered by most people to be white (even though he evidently doesn't think of himself that way).

McGuire is white.

This is a non-racial issue.

Roger said...

Where is the dishonesty? James does not want to criminalize steroid use, and this appears to be a longstanding belief of his.

Bumbling American said...

Speaking of dishonesty, there's this nugget buried just before the jump:

I have just finished writing a book called Popular Crime, and one of the issues I looked at is why America's crime rate is much higher than that of most other advanced nations. This attitude that we have toward following the rules is certainly very relevant to that.

That's Occam's Razor for you.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that your distaste of juicing is at least in part because juicers outshone white players.

Thanks for the confirmation: non-white cheats outperform honest whites. (on average)

Anonymous said...

Where is the dishonesty? James does not want to criminalize steroid use, and this appears to be a longstanding belief of his.

Thats not what is being asserted. He originally dismissed juicing as a factor.

PatrickH said...

God, how I hate the way baseball is metaphysicized, mythologized, and otherwise overlaid with quasi-religious ooga-booga. Nobody talks about steroid use in other sports as if it's the worm in the apple in the garden of eden. Why baseball?

Steroid use in baseball became inevitable when resistance training began to be used by baseball players. James was right to ignore the nonsense spewed about steroids in baseball. Let the mythologizers wring their mythy little hands about how stats are being "inflated", and "freaks" are dominating the game. Steroids work in a limited way in baseball, and will (I hope) continue to be used to make players better at the game, and better for longer, across seasons and across careers.

God, baseball writers can be so immature. Drop your sandlot pickup game fantasies. You don't have any more in common with pro baseball players than you do with players in basketball or football or any other sport, whether or not steroid use is common in that sport.

Steroid use, and performance-enhancing drug use should be encouraged among athletes. We should encourage athletes to be open-minded and risk-taking (remember risk-taking? Remember when we used to admire that? In athletes? Remember?), in other words, encourage them to function as guinea pigs. For whom? Us! For us non-elites. The money involved will finance research into better PEDs, which will provide potentially life-enhancing drugs for the population as a whole...SARMs anybody? And better play for the fans.

PED use should be encouraged in sports.

Anonymous said...

Steroid use is a problem, but put it into context: pitchers in the small-ball era commonly used amphetamines to enhance their stamina. Does that mean that their records are invalid as well? Besides, home runs aren't hit with the biceps, they're hit with the eyes and the wrists. Having large arms and shoulders doesn't make that much of a difference.

Jim O said...

Some people complain that some comments don't make it past the censor. I complain that not enough get snagged. Like the anonimi who just wrote:

It seems to me that your distaste of juicing is at least in part because juicers outshone white players.

Oy. Do you actually follow baseball, Slick?

Please. the next time you feel a desire to tell us how things "seem" to you, lie down until the feeling goes away.

James Kabala said...

Just for the record, David Ortiz was still a scrub when James was hired. I don't believe he even cracked the starting lineup until June or so. (Of course, one could put an even more sinister construction on that - James sat by passively while Ortiz began his steroids routine!)

Kevin: I think all indications show that steroid use is probably WORSE in football. People seem to care less because there are no sacred individual records that were broken. Big stars such as LaDamian Tomlinson have been suspended for steroids and no one bats an eyelash.

keypusher said...

Here's a counter-factual for you: If the most widely publicized juicers were white, would you be as outraged?

It seems to me that your distaste of juicing is at least in part because juicers outshone white players.


Kylie dealt with you.

Art De Vany argues that steroids have had no statistically significant effect on home runs.

http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/03/de_vany_on_ster.html


Adjusting for scope, there has been as much denial in the steroids saga as there is in, say, education and race.

Anonymous said...

Steroids are safe when used intelligently (cycled) and they are awesomely effective. Pete Rose and hundreds more players from the old school popped amphetamines like candy and they were "gritty" "tough" "hustlers" running out ground balls while chewing tobacco like their jaws would fall off if they stopped moving them for an instant.


Speed is a performance enhancing drug. It just doesn't get you jacked and doesn't require working out.


Of course, there's a more important issue than pointing out how others also cheated. Yes, steroids are illegal but that's a question begging argument. Old athletes didn't have creatine or other legal supplements that athletes now use. They also didn't know about effective weight training.


A lot of things give modern players an "advantage" and the line between "hard work" and "cheating" is pretty damn arbitrary. You can take dozens of pills to help you gain strength, from simple amino acids to technically sophisticated hormone precursors...but it's malicious to take actual hormones? Why? Because they work? Because they're unnatural?

Corking a bat is cheating. It's manipulating an external object to gain an advantage over other players using legitimate equipment. But who thinks players should not be allowed to "manipulate" their bodies? That's sports--my physical ability against your physical ability in a fairly judged contest. It's the rules that become unfair if they start regulating physical abilities (e.g. "No basketball player can be over seven feet tall")

You can't cry foul because someone practices too much, or lifts weights too much, or eats too much protein. Everyone is supposed to maximize his physical ability. The rules of the sport need to start where the human body ends. If you take steroids and squat 600 lbs, that doesn't mean you aren't really squatting 600 lbs. Using a robot to lift the weight does mean you aren't lifting. Corking the weights does mean you're not lifting 600 lbs.

You tweak your biochemistry any time you do anything--walk, smoke, drink, take a nap, eat a meal, etc. Steroids is certainly a conscious attempt to alter your body in a specific way....just like stretching or taking vitamin C. The question is, why is that a moral or ethical problem? Because it gives the athlete an unnatural advantage over those who don't want to take steroids? Practicing your jumpshot certainly makes your basketball skill "unnatural." Lifting weights certainly makes your strength "unnatural." But no one is allowed to complain when an athlete alters his natural capabilities with these and dozens of others "artificial" techniques.


Don't want to take steroids? Fine, then don't. Just like you don't have to take creatine or B vitamins or anything else. However, there is no meaningful way to say a home run or a touch down is unnatural if the athlete is using his body and the external instruments of his sport in accordance with the rules.


Human agents should be allowed the freedom of their own bodies. That is a meaningful principle. It draws a distinction between a person making a 25-yard putt and a person using a machine to put a ball in the hole. It does not draw a profound distinction between taking beta blockers to steady your pulse or not taking beta blockers.

You can say that this line is less clear in the case of someone like the amputee sprinter who was denied a chance at the Olympics. But it's still pretty straightforward--for the purposes of sport we can say that human bodies are made of human tissue. Steroids passes that test. It's not like going the Wolverine route and bolting adamantium onto your skeleton.

Kylie said...

Peter A said..."The real question is which players weren't juicing. Which is why Sailer singling out Ramirez and Ortiz is pretty silly."

That may be the larger question. But Steve's article was not about which players were using steroids. It was about how Bill James's lack of integrity helped his career. Steve makes that clear when he writes: "If Mr. James had been intellectually honest and had spoken out about steroids,...then Mr. James would not have been hired as a senior executive of the Boston Red Sox in 2003 and capped his career by helping them win their first World Series since Babe Ruth's time in 2004. Why not? Because the Red Sox's two biggest hitters, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, were juicers."

Steve singled out Many Ramirez and David Ortiz because they were two players using steroids and on the team for which Mr. James was hired as chief executive. That speaks directly to the issue of Bill James's integrity, which was the point of Steve's article in the first place. You might have gleaned that from the title, "Bill James's guilty conscience".

Truth said...

"This is a non-racial issue."

Slight correction;

"this SHOULD BE a non-racial issue"

As with anything else in society, there is a large minority who make it such. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were the best pitcher and hitter of their era, yet I don't think that their press treatment was anywhere near equitable.

George said...

@Peter A
"Which is why Sailer singling out Ramirez and Ortiz is pretty silly."
A more careful reading will show you that Sailer used those two in context of Red Sox success and not baseball in general.

Anonymous said...

The question everyone is failing to ask is, "Does Batman use steroids?"

Superman certainly doesn't need them and Spiderman's juice comes from a radioactive spider. The Fantastic Four got strong from radiation as did the Hulk. Everyone else had some "natural" path to big muscles except Batman.

Bruce Wayne, an otherwise sedentary billionaire, like say Bill Gates needs to periodically change into tights and duke it out with scores of villains or some mega-enhanced bad guy. He can't even fly but needs to swing from ropes, an activity that requires exceptional upper body strength.

Wayne has his own labs so presumably he doesn't have to buy on the street.

I think the evidence, while circumstantial, is overwhelming - Batman is a juicer.

Albertosaurus

Anonymous said...

I'm still trying to figure out which skewed things more: steroids and HGH and the home run record or artificial turf and Pete Rose's alltime hits mark.

Brutus

Anonymous said...

“Do you want to know the terrifying truth, or do you want to see me hit some dingers?"

-Mark McGwire, The Simpsons guest appearance.

GEugene said...

I beleive that it was determined that artificial turf was deemed neutral as to the number of hits. Defenses played deeper to get to speedy ground balls. This led to more infield, swinging bunt, type of hits but fewer bloop singles, since infeilders were playing deeper. They did find more doubles and triples, since balls were more likely to scoot between outfielders to the walls than on grass.

Anonymous said...

I don't follow baseball at all, but why not let all players use all the steroids they want? It may not be healthy for them but no one's forcing them to do it. And it might make for more exciting games. Let guys get as big as they can by any means necessary and then bat it out on the field.

Geoff Matthews said...

"I don't follow baseball at all, but why not let all players use all the steroids they want?"

Because some of us have children who may want to do this as well.
I'd prefer that my kidlets not play with their health like that.

greenrivervalleyman said...

This makes the question of whether Albert Pujols has ever juiced an interesting one. Pujols is by far the best hitter of his era, and probably only behind Ruth for status as best ever. Yet he is also the only major slugger not to be implicated in a performance-enhancing drug scandal... yet.

PRCalDude said...

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were the best pitcher and hitter of their era, yet I don't think that their press treatment was anywhere near equitable.


"Waaaaa! Waaaa!" from Twoof and Anon.

Barry Bonds was much dumber with the press and was/is much less likeable than Clemens, possibly owing to the chip on the shoulder of members of that population group *wink*. I've noticed Twoof shares the same level of likeability.

Bonds basically told the press, "Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone!" which was an invitation to the press to skewer him.

Did Bonds' teammates even like him? Did yours, Twoof?

Anonymous said...

Great post Steve. I have enjoyed Bill James' work for twenty-five years, but he was dead wrong on Pete Rose and now dead wrong on steroids. It was perfectly obvious to anyone that looked at Lenny Dykstra (former Met/Phillie) in terms of face (bloated) and statistics (also bloated) that he was juicing in the early 90s. Everybody knew, and everybody talked about it. Selig is full of crap when he says he didn't know.

It's a shame. Bill James could have come up with analyses that demonstrated all the players who were very likely on steroids, but instead chose denial. He didn't want to believe, and so he didn't. How many athletes felt forced to use steroids just to compete? James could have helped save the game 10-15 years ago, but didn't.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I don't care about the steroid issue much. The MLB didn't bother even trying to test them til it got stupid over the top. Also, there was that one kid who committed suicide and his father said the juice made him do it - that's the guy who started the movement...

That said, my real complaint is pro sports busts players for performance dehancing drugs like marijuana. Gimme a break.

James Kabala said...

PRCalDude: I'm pretty sure this is the first time anyone has ever described Clemens as "likeable."

Truth: But at the same time, I don't think Clemens got off easy in the media either. I think he and Bonds both received pretty negative coverage.

Anonymous said...

Bill James SHOULD be ashamed, but hey he's a Liberal - so they're beyond decency.

EVERYONE knew Bonds was juicing. Guys over 35 don't INCREASE their HR percentage. Guys over 35 don't put on 30 lbs. of muscle or need a bigger hat size.

We all knew he was juicing, even Bill James. Mr. James was not only a selfish, money mad hack, he was a liberal. Why liberals always side with the criminal and the rule breaker is a good idea for a Sailer column. Hatred of the Goys, maybe or a hatred of straights?

You make the call.

PRCalDude said...

PRCalDude: I'm pretty sure this is the first time anyone has ever described Clemens as "likeable."


Parse my statements more carefully. I didn't say Clemens was likeable, I said Bonds was "less likeable" owing to an enormous chip on his shoulder characteristic of a certain group of people and that he challenged the press.

I agree with the anonymous above. Pro-athletes are good for little else than running and jumping and should thus be guinea pigs for new wonder anabolics that can prolong life and mental acuity as simple short-ester testerones can already do.

Drugs like dianabol have been around for a very long time and, back then, no one considered using it cheating because everyone else was doing it.

The fact is that anabolics are bad for kids and bad if overused, but the health risks are low compared to other things (like alcohol) that are legal.

James Kabala said...

PRCalDude: Sorry. I agree that Clemens ranks slightly hugher than Bonds on the likeability scale.

Truth said...

"Barry Bonds was much dumber with the press..."

I don't remember Barriod using the phrase "misremembered."

"and was/is much less likeable than Clemens,"

That's an opinion. You can do your own research, but from what I've read, Clemens is unpopular with press and teammates in Toronto, Boston and New York. Like Bonds, he has always been considered spoiled, selfish and churlish, both have have multiple affairs on their wives, etc. etc.(Clemens, allegedly with a 14 year old.)

Your perception is just that.

JK: You're right, Clemens did not get off Scot free. But if you will look back at some of the press, it seems at though Clemens was being judged for what he DID, whereas Barry turned into Lucifer himself.

There are many examples of this. Mark McGuire is a complete jerk to the press and cheats, he offers a phony apology, and it's like he's mother Teresa all of a sudden. If he wanted to work in baseball again HE HAD NO CHOICE but to make an apology. Sammy Sosa is basically persona non grata in Chicago where he was once as big as Ernie Banks and Dick Butkus.

Koby Bryant has a woman accuse him of rape, networks interrupt their nightly prime time lineup to cover the trial. Rothlisberger does it, TWICE, it's only an ESPN story.

Tiger Woods fools around on his wife, a few times, he is the worst human being alive, David Letterman does it, makes a few jokes - all if forgotten. Charlie Sheen beats and threatens to kill his wife, he comes back to his sitcom after hiatus like nothing ever happened. I could go on.

Toral said...

It's interesting to note that about the *non*-performance-enhancing drug scandals of the '70s, James argued that

1) everyone in baseball knew which players were, like Dave Parker, underperforming because of drug use (he mentioned once that he had named such a player on radio and had to be reminded off air that the player's drug use was technically not public knowledge);

2) serious fans also knew the names of such players because sportswriters communicated the information through code words (lifestyle issues, lack of motivation);

James was devastatingly critical of managers such as Chuck Tanner who turned a blind eye to rampant drug use in their clubhouses.

But then these were performance-destroying drugs.

It's senseless to suggest that James avoided criticism of steroids to enhance his chance of being employed by a MLB team. That was someone no-one expected to happen until one multi-millionaire took a fancy to the odd idea. And once he had been hired, what he could say about members of his own organization, or any MLB players, was restricted just as any employee in a similar position would be.

James Kabala said...

"He mentioned once that he had named such a player on radio and had to be reminded off air that the player's drug use was technically not public knowledge."

Interesting. I wonder if that can account for some of his reticence on the steroids subject. Of course, Tom Boswell worked for the nation's third or fourth most famous paper and aired his suspicions without negative consequences.

PRCalDude said...

Sammy Sosa is basically persona non grata in Chicago where he was once as big as Ernie Banks and Dick Butkus.

Sammy decided to bleach his skin. He's a freak.

Kobe never got traded. He's loved by the fans. Roethlisberger got more criticism IMO, and he got traded.

Tiger Woods is a superstar compared to Letterman. Jewish sexual immorality is always passed-over by the press - just look at all the apologies made for Polansky amongst Jewish writers. Woods also made a lot of money by being perceived as an upright guy. That's part of the reason his sponsors liked him. Golf is also perceived as a more gentlemanly sport where such things are more taboo.

You'd see the world much more clearly without such a huge chip on your shoulder.

Anonymous said...

Letterman is not Jewish.

I also think you mean suspended, not traded, as Roethlisberger is still a Steeler.

Truth said...

"Kobe never got traded. He's loved by the fans."

Sure he is, because he is the best in the world at what he does; "fan" comes from "fanatic."

When did Roethlisberger get traded?

"Tiger Woods is a superstar compared to Letterman."

Letterman has been one of the biggest names in American TV for 30 years.