COLUMN: Abstract? Not when it comes

TUPELO – When I was a younger man and still had most of my hair, Bill James taught me most of what I know about baseball.
He never played the game. In fact, he was working as a security guard in a pork-and-beans factory in Kansas when he began writing about major league baseball, using the analysis of statistics to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of hitters and pitchers and managers.
“Everything you know about baseball is wrong,” he once wrote.
I loved it.
It’s all old hat now, of course, but in the early 1980s The Bill James Baseball Abstract was seen, in many quarters, as radical stuff.
Some of my colleagues on the USA Today baseball desk liked to scoff at James and his ideas – that ballpark dimensions could skew our perceptions of a pitcher’s performance, that stolen bases were overrated and that batting averages were a poor yardstick for evaluating a player’s offensive value.
The best-selling book Moneyball played a big role in that, as has the recent success of the Boston Red Sox – a team that has won two World Series with, of all people, Bill James working as a consultant.
I bring this up because Sunday’s Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y., welcomed Jim Rice along with Rickey Henderson and some others.
Rice made it in on his last ballot, and I think a part of that is because his reputation has grown as the true dimensions of baseball’s steroids scandal have become understood.
Rice’s career numbers – 382 home runs in 16 seasons – seem puny in comparison to the gaudy stats of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa. But Rice wasn’t juiced up, and it’s worth holding him up an example these days, when everyone is wrestling with the question of whether the stars of the Steroids Era belong in the Hall of Fame.
James weighed in on the topic recently. His essay, at billjamesonline.com, is most interesting because he uses the example of two Mississippi State standouts who made it to the bigs, Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro.
Clark, James says, “is a historically underrated player in part because his numbers are dimmed by comparison to the steroid-inflated numbers that came after him.”
Palmeiro insists the positive steroids test that effectively ended his career in 2005 was the result off a mistake, a B-12 administered by a former teammate. He is eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot in 2011, and it will be interesting to see what kind of support he gets from the voters, all of whom are baseball writers.
James thinks history will ultimately be quite forgiving of the steroid-era stars, who’ll make it to Cooperstown a couple of decades from now as oldtimers. I have my doubts.
He’s right about this part, though – if they eventually let in guys like Bonds and McGwire and the other big steroids stars, let’s hope they’ll make room for some of the Will Clarks, too.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@djournal.com) is sports editor of the Daily Journal. If diet sodas are performance enhancing, then he’s guilty, guilty, guilty.

John L. Pitts/NEMS Daily Journal