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Bill James Finds ‘Moneyball’ Rings True on Baseball Statistics

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.” His wife, Susan, is on his arm. A Hollywood movie premiere is a first for both.

“We usually get our movies from Redbox,” James says in the Sept. 26 edition of Bloomberg Businessweek. “Getting through crowds like this, 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 plays former Oakland Athletics 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 man 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, Kansas, in the late 1970s, 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 A’s General Manager Billy Beane to build a surprisingly successful team in 2002, which Michael Lewis wrote about in a bestselling book the next year, “Moneyball,” and which Sony Corp. turned into the movie that James, 61, was about to see for the first time.

“It’s astonishing that something like this would happen,” he says.

Theory, Money

Inside the auditorium, James spots agent Scott Boras seated two rows ahead and goes over to say hello. James theorizes player value, such as Alex Rodriguez creating 166 runs for the New York Yankees in 2007. Boras turns theory into reality, such as the $27 million annual contract the Yankees gave Rodriguez that year.

An audience member updates James on the Boston Red Sox game. James has been a senior adviser since 2002 to the Red Sox, who are struggling as they try to clinch a playoff spot. This night, they lead the Baltimore Orioles 11-5 in the third inning.

“That’s 92 percent of the runs (John) Lackey needs to win,” James says of Boston’s starting pitcher. The Red Sox wind up winning 18-9 for just their fifth victory in September.

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.

Knee Pat

James 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 asks Beane whether he’s “buying into this Bill James bull--t.”

“That was my favorite,” James says.

The third name-check is during a narrated, thumbnail biography of James, accompanied by more pages from the Abstract, and black-and-white stills of the pork-and-beans factory and a bespectacled James in his thirties.

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 says.

Scouts Abound

James laughs loudest when scouts are the punch line -- talking 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,” he says.

The movie had a couple of false starts -- a pair of directors came and went before 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 says.

In the end, he says, they got the details right.

“That’s what the offices look like,” he says. “That’s the way the conversations go. That’s the way the meetings and the phone calls go.”

James says he’s not holding a grudge that it took so long for his work to be widely accepted.

“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.”

Some Questions

There are a few things James would like to clear up.

First, the lack of World Series title for the A’s under Beane doesn’t represent a failure of the Moneyball approach, he says.

“It worked at that moment because he was ahead of the game,” James says. “And then that moment passed because you can’t stay ahead of the game.”

Second, he says, statistics aren’t the be-all and end-all.

“My work is trying to figure out how to quantify something that has previously been regarded as intangible,” James says. “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 says people need to understand that he’s not as big a deal as Moneyball makes him out to be.

“It’s somewhat exaggerated,” he says, “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,” James says. “Among all the baseball movies of the last generation, this was the baseballest.”

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