When Bill James comes to town

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:

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“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 & 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.

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11 years ago

Market the Players: it’s that simple.  Baseball is individual match-ups, batter vs. pitcher. If I don’t know who the players are and their stories – then the game is not interesting.  Roster movement between ML and AAA needs to be minimized so that fans have a chance to learn who’s who. 
Football is fighting helmets.  Baseball cannot compete with that because it is a different game.  I don’t have to know who made the tackle, it’s just not important – but if Ethier vs. Hudson is going to mean something to me in the middle of June, I’d better know who the hell they are.  I think perhaps TOPPS used to do this marketing for MLB; I don’t know how to replace that.  Sorry for the ramble, but the solution is simple in theory:  market the players.  How to implement that solution, however?  I’m not sure I know.

Phil Birnbaum
11 years ago

“James ‘Cool Papa’ Bell lived on Cool Papa Bell Boulevard.”


Anna McDonald
11 years ago

You make an excellent point about the Topps baseball cards. One of the things that I was unable to squeeze in here was that Kyle Elfrink mentioned how much baseball lacks in star power in contrast to the NFL. 

He gave Robinson Cano as the perfect example, he’s an outstanding baseball player- at star, a great fantasy player and even in New York, but outside of New York and into the average person watching a baseball game, people would not know who he is. You don’t have that in the NFL- those great players, not just mega stars are well known even outside of the average fan. 

Kyle Elfrink suggested looking at the problem by way of understanding when a magazine publication is deciding who to put on their front cover to sell a bunch of magazines, there’s really only a handful of ballplayers who would grab everyone’s attention- Tim Lincecum is a great example, he’s got that national star power, but guys like Cano, people just can’t recognize—- and then they don’t sell a bunch of magazines. That disconnect from the average fan probably has a lot to do with the national marketing to kids.  And the baseball cards is a great example.

Rocket J. Squirrel
11 years ago

View the described discussion on YouTube:


John Dupont
11 years ago

Lanier….what about having a pitcher and a batter of the day somewhere prominent on MLB.com? Something to try and get the average baseball player more known to the public (a short bio, etc)

11 years ago

Great article, Anna. You talk abaout star power, which the NFL has in abundance. But where does that come from? Unfortunately, it seems to come from notoriety outside the game. Name any NFL star, and the reason casual fans know who they are is because of behavior off the field as much as on. Tom Brady marries a supermodel. Payton Manning does a gazillion commercials. Ochocinko and Owens have their own tv show, capitalizing on their bad behavior. Dozens have had a brush with the law.

Lincicum has star power, and he was busted for posession. ARod and Manny – steroids. Other than those, only Jeter and Pujols can be seen doing commercials. Cano? Never seen or heard from away from the game. Adrian Gonzalez could have walked through downtown Boston a couple days ago and no one would have noticed.

Maybe baseball needs more star power, but at what cost.

11 years ago

I really enjoyed the article, Anna. Regarding star power, it seems to me there are two reasons it is easier for the NFL to utilize star power. First, the “stars” are mostly limited to the offensive skill positions, especially QB. Even a casual fan can get to know 30 names and something about each of those individuals. Or if the fans don’t know a team’s stars, they know where to look to find them – among the offensive skill positions. Second, the stars in football get more consistent exposure during the course of a game. The QB handles the ball every offensive play; a running back may carry the ball 20 to 30 times a game. The closest baseball can come to this is the starting pitcher, who handles the ball each play, but even the best of those are part of a five-man rotation.

11 years ago

These guys need to go on a tour. (And you need to accompany them as documentarian, Anna.)

Bruce Markusen
11 years ago

Anna, who was the best one on the panel? James does not always come across very well verbally.

I’ve never heard Posnanski speak.

Anna McDonald
11 years ago

Thanks for the comments. It was an easy article to do as the information was so good. I started the evening skeptical (as I always do) and immediately was glad my phone had a recording app on it.
As far as star power, I have difficulty accessing how the problem is to be solved for MLB, because I’m undecided on what is impacting the NFL star power, you all bring up good points. I wonder, is it the media, the tone of our culture, the game itself, or marketing?

Joe Posnanski thought the NFL is not quite as overpowering as we think. I tend to think there are a few elements about the NFL right now that if the major media outlets would choose to shed light on over and over again, the culture surrounding the game would change, and they would have a problem in marketing the game to fans, but right now everyone’s making so much money from it, it’s not going to happen.

Bruce, I’ll be diplomatic here, you ask a tough question as Bob Costas was in his element, speaking in front of people is his gift. 

They all appeared very comfortable with each other and respected each other. Because of the length of applause Bill James received when Bob Costas was talking about how Bill James revolutionized baseball, I believe it was Bill James and Rob Neyer’s link that got the masses to attend (at least that’s what got me out of the house on a cold night), so in that regard we didn’t hear enough from Bill James.

Alex Bensky
11 years ago

I wonder if a part of it, probably not a big part, is the way baseball is televised. Local or national it always seems to be the same—shot of the batter, shot of the pitcher, the pitcher throws, if the ball is in play a medium shot of the fielding and if it’s not another shot from behind the pitcher. I occasionally find a televised game a bit boring and I am not only a reader of this site, I’m 27-year SABR member.

Is it absolutely necessary to show each and every pitch crossing the plate from the camera behind the pitcher? It’s very hard the way the game is televised to get a feel for what’s going on across the broad field, to get a perspective that you might have if you were there at the game.

I agree that football has that “event” feeling that baseball neither has nor should strive for, and I prefer to see a game on tv over going—I attend a football game when I’m given a free ticket, not otherwise. But I wonder if some change in how baseball is televised might have some effect.

Bruce Markusen
11 years ago

Alex, I think you’re on to something. Back in the early 1970s (and before), the camera angle that was most often used was right behind the catcher. That angle was replaced by the center field camera angle.

It would be a good idea to mix in some of those behind-the-plate angles during games. That way we would get the perspective of a hitter—what it’s like to look at a Tim Lincecum fastball. It would give the broadcast some variety.

Anna McDonald
11 years ago

The panel did talk a lot about the slow pace of the game and television-which I didn’t include in here. 

Bob Costas said, and this is not a direct quote, but from my notes—-In 1970 guys didn’t get out of the box with no one on base. They made the batter stay in the box unless he had a damn good reason to get out of it.

They also talked a lot about the pitching changes in the game and limiting those, as much of the drama of a pitcher facing a batter 4, 5, 6, times through the lineup has been lost, as well as the fact that it makes the game too long. Bill James wanted to reduce the commercial time, to which Bob Costas said that wasn’t going to happen.

Much of the talk at the beginning of the year for the NFL revolved around the game being televised too well- with the Red Zone channel, the replays, etc.  NFL fans would rather watch at home as the broadcasting is so good it outweighs going to the stadium. But I don’t see this happening with baseball, I think a baseball game live will always have alluring power- but I’m biased. So, I guess there is an art to getting it just right. But Alex I agree, it is frustrating when there’s a different angle that you want but can’t have- I thought TBS didn’t do such a good job this year in the postseason with camera angles. 

Just FYI I’ve shared this with others and anyone can probably find it on other posts about this event, but two things that didn’t fit in the article that were really funny (at least I thought) were a rant by Bob Costas on poker and Bill James on soccer, here they are:
Joe Posnanski:  “One of the most remarkable things that has happened in the last few years in sports is Poker.”
Bob Costas: “That’s a sport?”
Joe Posnanski:  “It’s on ESPN”
He continues in a rant, at the top of his voice. It was hard to hear with all the laughing…
“Yeah… We will call it “superstars of poker” and people will tune in thinking they’ll see the Cincinnati Kid, or (I couldn’t hear who). Instead they see some clammy degenerate in a member’s only jacket … What kind of get a life looser, unless the remote was broken, in which case you just leave the house, would watch two seconds of this?
Joe Posnanski “… if poker can break through anything can break through.”

Later, Bill James commenting on soccer:
“When I watch soccer I think, I could fix this if they’d let me.

Rocket J. Squirrel
11 years ago

Poker a sport?  How about Spelling Bees or Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating contest?  With 3 ESPNs and 72 hours/day to fill, look for mouse racing, flower growing, quilting, and bricklaying to be classified as sports.  When Manny was going through his histrionics of leaving Boston, ESPN ran the same crud for 15 hours a day.  No doubt the ESPN producers were disappointed that Jeter signed so quickly.  Throughout history there is one constant and that is man longs for things to be the way they used to be.  I, myself, pine for the days when sports reporters did no more than reporting.

11 years ago

I think that marketing the players will change the game forever, and not for the better.  It will probably mean more money for teams and players in a few markets.  But as long as there is no way to assure a basic level of competitive balance, why would the sport be better if the few top guys are marketed hard, all end up on the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Mets?  Marketing star players works in other sports because Pittsburgh can afford Crosby and Oklahoma City has a fair shake in retaining Kevin Durant.  Baseball is a team game, and as long as we promote players over teams, it will hurt the game.  The key is finding a way to create team loyalty in a manner similar to the NFL.

Rocket J. Squirrel
11 years ago

Patrick said, “But as long as there is no way to assure a basic level of competitive balance, why would the sport be better if the few top guys are marketed hard, all end up on the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Mets?”

Sometimes we fall prey to inventive nostalgia and loose sight that throughout baseball history there have been haves and have-nots, front liners and cellar dwellers.  The Yankees (starting with Rupert), the Red Sox (starting with Yawkey), the Giants (starting with Stoneham), and Cubs (starting with Wrigley) have always had money.  The Browns, Philadelphia A’s, and Washington Senators were prime examples of teams that continually had to sell off their quality players to stay financially afloat.  For many a year, the bottom four were always replete with the Boston Braves, Philadelphia Phillie, Philadelphia Athletics, Pirates, Cubs, Browns, White Sox, and Senators.  We have rarely witnessed balance.