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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 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.