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Watching 'Moneyball' With Bill James

Bill James stands in the atrium at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, surveying the crush of people who have arrived for the world premiere of Moneyball. He looks pleased and a little overwhelmed. His wife, Susan, is on his arm. A Hollywood movie premiere is a first for both. “We usually get our movies from Redbox,” he says as he maneuvers his broad, 6-foot-4-inch frame by the bar to snag an apple-vodka martini. “Getting through crowds like this,” he jokes, “I always want to say, ‘Excuse me, I’m a minor celebrity.’”

Gawkers lining the balcony steps let out a cheer as Philip Seymour Hoffman passes beneath. Hoffman, more casual than most in a sky blue sweater, plays former Oakland A’s manager Art Howe in the movie. A few of the men in the crowd, though, point at James and turn to their dates to explain that the bearded giant in the tweed jacket is a baseball legend. While working as the night watchman at the Stokely Van Camp’s pork and beans cannery in Lawrence, Kan., in the late ’70s, James began trying to figure out just how major league baseball games get won. His answers, self-published in annual volumes he called Baseball Abstract, marked a fundamental shift in the understanding of the game. It was adopted by Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane to build a surprisingly successful team in 2002, which Michael Lewis wrote about in a 2003 bestselling book, Moneyball—which Sony (SNE) turned into the movie that James, now 61, was about to see for the first time. “It’s astonishing that something like this would happen,” he says.

Once inside the auditorium, James spots baseball mega-agent Scott Boras seated two rows ahead and goes over to say hello. James theorizes player value. (Alex Rodriguez created 166 runs for the Yankees in 2007.) Boras makes it real. (The Yankees paid A-Rod $27 million that year.)  The two shake hands. Seated in the row between them is “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger.

Awkward Moments for Real Viewers

An audience member updates James on that day’s Boston Red Sox game. James has been a senior adviser to the Red Sox since 2002. The Sox, stumbling badly in September, lead the Baltimore Orioles 11-5 in the third inning. “That’s 92 percent of the runs [John] Lackey needs to win,” he says of Boston’s starting pitcher. Director Bennett Miller takes the stage to introduce Lewis, the producers, the cast, and Beane. “I know you don’t want to be here,” Miller says as he calls Beane to the stage. Beane stands, hands in pockets, next to Brad Pitt, who plays him in the movie, the real jock towering over the Hollywood version. Meta awkwardness is the night’s theme. When Beane, in the movie, says to Boras over the phone, “Congratulations, asshole, you win,” flesh-and-blood Boras turns to his date and shakes his head.

James, for his part, gets four mentions on screen. At each, his wife clutches his hand or pats him on the knee. In the first, the camera pans over a page from an early Abstract as a voiceover tells the audience that “Bill James and math cut straight through” misperceptions about baseball. “Seeing those pages was the strangest part,” says James. In the second, an Oakland scout incredulously asks Beane whether he’s “buying into this Bill James bullshit.” (James: “That was my favorite.”)

The third time he gets name-checked is during a narrated, thumbnail biography of James, accompanied by more pages from the Abstract and some black-and-white stills of the pork-and-beans factory and a bespectacled James in his thirties. (“Looking as silly as possible.”) Finally, near the end of the film, Red Sox owner John Henry, played by Arliss Howard, marvels to Beane that baseball front offices spent decades ignoring James. (“That scene captured Henry’s quiet forcefulness.”)

James laughs loudest when scouts are the punch line—spouting nonsense about a player’s “good face” or struggling with basic arithmetic and pop culture references. Over a glass of zinfandel at the after-party, James seems genuinely flattered: “It was odd how much a part of the movie I was.”

“I Was Pretty Sarcastic Myself”

Moneyball, the movie, had a couple of false starts—a pair of directors came and went before Bennett Miller came aboard—and James didn’t know what to expect. “At one time, I think I was supposed to be a cartoon character,” he recalls. In the end, he says, they got the details right. “That’s what the offices look like. That’s the way the conversations go. That’s the way the meetings and the phone calls go.” The crusty scouts are real too: “You point something out that’s true; you don’t expect it to take 25 years for people to accept it.” But James is not holding a grudge. “I never felt that baseball hated me,” he says. “I was pretty sarcastic myself, as I recall. I wrote some things about players and scouts that probably delayed the acceptance of my core ideas by 10 or 15 years.”

Even so, there a few things James would like to clear up. First, the failure of Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s to win a World Series, he insists, does not represent the failure of the Moneyball approach: “It worked at that moment because he was ahead of the game. And then that moment passed because you can’t stay ahead of the game.”

Second, he does not think statistics are the be-all, end-all: “My work is trying to figure out how to quantify something that has previously been regarded as intangible. It’s not to say that there aren’t true intangibles. People think that you start with the statistics, which was never true. You start with a question and you end up with a statistic.”

James watches the revelers stream into the after-party and says that the thing people need to understand is that he’s not as big a deal as Moneyball makes him out to be. “It’s somewhat exaggerated, but my contributions to the game have been a bit exaggerated for quite a while now.”

Not that he’s complaining. “I thought it was a terrific movie. Among all the baseball movies of the last generation, this was the baseballest.”

Boudway is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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