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He also criticized individual players and managers. But this, too, usually failed to start a significant discourse.
"I don't write to them, so I don't anticipate responses," James says now. "I rarely offer direct suggestions. If my studies are reported to managers, it is by some third party and I rarely hear any feedback. This might seem counterintuitive, but in baseball the professionals follow the fans. The fans and the media establish what people believe; the professionals follow. So, why do you worry about where the back end of the train is?"
It's hard to tell what James worries about. John Sickels, a baseball analyst who recently moved from writing the Minor League Scouting Notebook for STATS Inc. to self-publishing his own Baseball Prospect Book, worked as James' assistant from 1989 to 1993. He says it took some time before he was able to read James' emotions.
"As verbal as he is in a writing sense, he's not the most verbal person in terms of oral presentation," Sickels says. "He's a very generous and kind person, but he can also be gruff, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly. You have to be on your toes. If you say or do something that's intellectually sloppy, he'll call you on it."
For example, James is a baseball writer, not a statistician. The correct, James-coined term for an analyst of baseball statistics is sabermetrician. That's acceptable, but baseball writer is preferred. He has influenced and worked with a number of practicing statisticians, and his books contain an intimidating deluge of numbers, but he's not a statistician.
"A statistician is a person who maintains statistics," he says. "I have never done this and, in fact, I'm notoriously incompetent at it."
Nor is he a prognosticator. In fact, one of his hopes with the Abstract was to elevate the wild guessing that goes on in the glossy baseball preview magazines that appear on bookstore shelves each spring. "They're still just speculation and bullshit," he says. "In that respect, the Abstract was a total failure." It's only natural to expect that James, who, given a day, can answer even the most obscure baseball query, could predict a team's trends. Natural, and wrong.
"I am very poor at foretelling the future," he admits. "The worst question I have ever been asked by a reputable journalist -- I was asked this by Ted Koppel on Nightline in 1983 -- is, 'What surprises do you expect to see in the World Series?' Let's see, Ted, what surprises do I expect? How does that work?
"It's always surprising how many people confuse knowledge and predictability," he continues. "I used to say that weathermen and sportswriters are the only people who are expected to know what's going to happen next, but the explosion of television 'experts' has led to the popularity of people who are demonstrably unable to predict the future in a wide variety of fields."
Though he's not always thrilled with the questions, James has never declined an interview request, and he has always answered his fan mail. In fact, his willingness to respond to readers contributed significantly to the rapid growth of the Abstract readership. Fans discovered someone to whom they could pose their long-festering baseball questions. But questions came riddled with incorrect assumptions and blatant misinterpretations, which drove James crazy. He typically responded with caustic intelligence.
Cathartic as such "Dear Jackass" letters might have been, though, James never courted confrontation. In 1988's Abstract, he expressed frustration at the caliber of correspondence he had been receiving. "I hate to say it and I hope you're not one of them, but I am encountering more and more of my own readers that I don't even like, nitwits who glom onto something superficial in the book and misunderstand its underlying message."