But it also tested, less intentionally, a hypothesis about literature: if you write well enough about a single subject, even a subject seemingly as trivial as baseball statistics, you needn't write about anything else.
The trouble was that baseball readers were not ready for what he had to say. The people who found him worth reading struck him, increasingly, as ridiculous. His skeptical detachment from the world around him helped him to become a writer but it left him ill-suited to be a best-selling one. "I hate to say it and I hope you're not one of them," he wrote in his final, 1988 Baseball Abstract, "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. . . . Whereas I used to write one 'Dear Jackass' letter a year, I now write maybe thirty." The growing misunderstanding between himself and his readership was, he felt, not adding to the sum total of pleasure or interest in the universe. "I am no longer certain that the effects of my doing this kind of research are in the best interest of the average baseball fan," he explained. "I would like to pretend that the invasion of statistical gremlins crawling at random all over the telecast of damn near every baseball game is irrelevant to me, that I really had nothing to do with it. . . . I know better. I didn't create this mess, but I helped."
Intelligence about baseball had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What James's wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible; and that point, somehow, had been lost. "I wonder," James wrote, "if we haven't become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them."
Tags: Bill James, Michael Lewis, Moneyball, The New Journalism