When Bill James comes to townby Anna McDonald
December 06, 2010
Bob Costas, in his element, on a cold, rainy night in St. Louis in front of a packed house, illustrates why the context of history matters to the sports fan:
“Stories are so rich and so fascinating that they grab us. I’m going to mention this only because there will never be another occasion to, because we are here in St. Louis....
"Years ago, I used to work at KMOX. … I got a call coming off the air one night around 1978 or 1979. I pick up the phone and the guy says, 'Mr. Costas.' I said, 'Yeah.' 'My name is James Bell,' he says.
"At first, I’m thinking he wants to tell me the Cardinals should trade Lou Brock, or whatever he thinks they should do. Then it occurred to me in a few seconds that I was talking to James 'Cool Papa' Bell, who outside of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson is probably the most legendary Negro League player. He said that he found these conversations about baseball interesting and he invited me to his house.
“James 'Cool Papa' Bell lived on Cool Papa Bell Boulevard. I wasn’t exactly sure how to get there. I’ll never forget this, I’m driving down Kingshighway…. I asked a guy on the corner, 'How do I get to Cool Papa Bell Boulevard?' He said to me, 'My man, you’re on Kingshighway.... hang a right on The Doctor,' which was Martin Luther King Drive. So I did, and pretty soon I got to Cool Papa Bell Boulevard, and I pulled in, and he welcomed me into his house.
“He had a crate full from the Negro Leagues. It was one of the most fascinating things you’ve ever seen. And his wife then came into the room and Cool Papa Bell’s wife’s name was Clara Bell. Not Clara Bell, but Clara Bell Bell.
"You can’t make this stuff up; we do care about the guys.”
When Washington University in St. Louis hosts a panel discussion on "The Future of Sports," you drop whatever plans you have, and you go hear what Bill James, Bob Costas, Joe Posnanski and Gerald Early have to say. Combine that with a recent interview with Kyle Elfrink of Fanball.com and SiriusXM Radio, and you have a thought-provoking story about the future of baseball and its struggle to compete with the NFL.
Costas knows sports have changed. "From my first experiences of sports, television existed, radio existed, but we weren’t overwhelmed by it," he said. There was enough distance for there to be mystique and romance and anticipation."
The stories from those who have been around the sports legends are just that, the real legends. "The only thing that could be possibly said that is legendary about Michael Jordan," Costas said, "is some story about how he didn't make his high school basketball team, that's been passed on by word of mouth. The word legendary does not apply to any modern sports figure. Satchel Paige was legendary. Michael Jordan is not."
The magic and mystique that legends such as "Cool Papa" Bell bring to sports are missing from sports today, these men think. When asked about the most profound change in spectator sports since he's been a fan, James said, “Sports has grown from a small town to a midsized city. As the towns have grown larger, the sense of ownership has been rearranged and sometimes lost.”
Added Posnanski: “If anything happens anywhere in sports (now) you are hammered with that very thing, 25 times, 50 times, before the next day. Everything that used to be extraordinary you could see it once and imagine it….Now, there is so much less room for imagination.”
And Early agreed, “The biggest change would be television, and what television has done. Not only are there so many sports on television, but there are so many ways for you to see it. And so many ways for you to experience it.…The age we live in is the empire of the eye.”
What does this mean for baseball?
"People talk about baseball shrinking in relation to other sports," James said. "Well, yes it has, but not because baseball is shrinking, but because the other sports are growing."
Kyle Elfrink has a theory on why, when once unchallenged in popularity, major league baseball can't compete with the NFL. Elfrink co-hosts the Fanball Fantasy Drive on SiriusXM Radio, which gives listeners an inside perspective on the fantasy sports game. He said:
"Our country is so event oriented....You look at the NFL and it’s the perfect event programming. It’s once a week, you have your game on Sunday, Monday is the recap, Tuesday, it's who got injured and let’s hear from the coach. Wednesday we start looking ahead, and you build up gradually. By Sunday, it’s the event again.
"For baseball I have to put eight months into following this team and this sport day after day. You can’t say, 'Hey, I’ve got to do a story on the Philadelphia Phillies'. You can’t just look at the paper one day and know what’s going on. You have to follow for weeks at a time.
"In the long run, I feel that the growth of fantasy involvement will tag-team with the TV numbers (eventually to be helped by better televisions, innovations in presentation, etc.) to become the dominant way that a vast majority of people consume sporting events. Just look at the fact that the NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB all host their own fantasy games on their own league websites. They realize it's key to their growth, creates fervent followers, and can easily be turned into a profit-making device. It's the best way for a sports league to stay 'involved' in a fan's life after the game is over and after they have left the stadium. With each coming year, there will be a stronger embrace of the fantasy world by any sports franchise looking to survive.
"I also feel that fantasy sports celebrate the individual and create fans of players, not of teams. We'll still have those baseball fans that are 'diehard' Brewer, Yankee, or (even) Marlin backers, but the 'live and die with a team' attitude will decrease with each passing year. Loyalty will be to the player, not the team. Some think this is good, some believe this is terrible. I would argue that whether it's in support of team or player, anything that keeps a fan base steady or increasing is a definite good."
Costas' favorite sport is baseball, but he believes there is nothing on the horizon that could challenge the NFL in popularity. Monday night, the Jets and Patriots game is predicted to be one for the ages, setting records in television ratings. And this is still just a regular season game; with the playoff system in football there's even more fan appeal.
"When you get to the playoffs every football playoff game is the equivalent of a seventh game in baseball, basketball or hockey," Costas said. "Baseball can't get to a seventh game of the World Series enough, it hardly ever does. Every football playoff game is a seventh game. And they come once a week and we talk about them and they come at a time of a year in January and February when everyone is watching TV and they have no other sports alternatives....The whole thing is set up perfectly for football. The game televises well."
"Football translates, it’s very simple." Elfrink suggested in the interview:
"In baseball there are thousands of numbers, that’s probably the attraction for you, me, stat geeks, but in football there’s a quarter of that. Football numbers are very easily digestible for the typical fan. When they see Peyton Manning had 300 yards, everybody can digest that. But if I say Albert Pujols has 52 doubles, people will say, 'well, is that good? I don’t know. I assume it is, because Albert Pujols is doing it. But Skip Schumaker having 21—is that good?' You almost have to be ingrained in the game to know if that’s good.
"There’s been a big fight from print versus Internet media on what numbers matter. Average means nothing, OPS means everything. OPS is only for baseball junkies. I could explain that to my sister who likes baseball and she might understand it, but it wouldn’t click with her.…You don’t have that in the NFL. The closest thing is a QB rating. And NFL fans don’t even know how the hell they figure that out. After that, there’s nothing. There’s nothing that is a statistical scare. Baseball, all it is, is statistics. Most people know a .300 average is good, but they don’t know how it’s figured."
Back at the panel discussion, before allowing James to answer an audience question about when sabermetric stats will become mainstream, Costas took the time to make sure everyone in the audience knew that Bill James "literally revolutionized the game of baseball."
"Literally, you are looking at the father of this," Costas continued. "There are advanced stats used in all sports...and it's all because of what Bill did starting at home in Lawrence, Kan.—literally mimeographing this stuff....The guy's a genius...it now comes into play with every general manager with how they evaluate talent and how they build their teams."
"We make progress," James answered. "We're never going to wipe out the old ways of thinking and we shouldn't."
Much of the night at Washington University was spent discussing what baseball could do to speed up the pace of the game. The panelists offered various options. James summed it up: "It's hard to fix baseball."
So much of baseball's future is entwined in the past. Even with all the discussion about no sport being able to rival the NFL in popularity, Posnanski made the case for baseball's survival:
"Baseball is absolutely never better in any era than it is when you are 10 years old. And when you are 10, baseball is perfect. So, I was 10 in 1977, so baseball was perfect. And everything that has happened since then has made baseball less perfect than what it was in 1977. And I don't think that's going to change....I used to go to games in Cleveland Municipal Stadium and I loved Cleveland Municipal Stadium, it was the best stadium ever....I don’t care that I always had my view blocked by a pole…and I don’t care that my feet stuck to the ground to some substance I don't want to think about, and I don't care that there were 12 people in the stands and it was like 47 below zero. I don’t care, because it was great because I was 10 years old."
But how would this experience of Posnanski's help the future of baseball? Today's kids are the future. He believes kids aren't bothered by the same things adults are. "If you're 10 years old now, it's great, everything about baseball is great."
The future of sports is a question about what Americans value and who we are, but when it comes to baseball what do we value? If we wish we could have seen what Bob Costas saw in that crate, we still need mystique. If we hold our own memories from our favorite ballparks, there's still a love story. And ultimately, if we find part of baseball is about the mistakes made along the way, we haven't drained all the human element from the sport.
The paradox of baseball's future is clear: How do you change something to fit the culture for today when so much of what is beautiful about the game depends upon the past? No matter how much changing some aspects of baseball would help to solve some modern day problem, those changes might go against who we are.
At the end of the evening at Washington University, a questioner put forth the possibility of having just three balls and two strikes to speed up the game.
To which Bob Costas replied, "Are you an American, sir?"
References and Resources
The event at Washington University in St. Louis was the design of Michael MacCambridge, adjunct instructor in Communications and Journalism at Washington University and author of several books including America's Game. He was hoping the event would look like a few friends sitting around discussing something they were all passionate about. He more than achieved that goal, much to the pleasure of all in attendance.
Anna just opened a Twitter account. You can follow her @Anna__McDonald. She also writes for ESPN.com.