Friday, April 15, 2005

Geeks A-Poppin'

Latest book is The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz, about baseball statistics. It's for people who found Moneyball to be not geeky enough. Schwarz does a decent job, but this is pretty arcane stuff: the evolution of the newspaper box score, etc. I never knew of this book's existence until last week--if it had been out in 2003 when I wrote about fantasy baseball for The High Hat, I'd feel embarrassed for not addressing it, but it didn't come out until 2004.

Sabermetrics has been largely driven by devoted volunteers for a long time, and as with so many geek subcultures, when the first move was made to turn a buck on it (the formation of STATS Inc. in the mid-80s) there were bitter feelings of betrayal, some of them somewhat justified. Baseball stats actually offer an interesting lesson in proprietary versus open-source business models. The Elias Sports Bureau dominated the field of compiling sports statistics for many years (for pro football and basketball as well as baseball), but Elias hoarded its data. It assumed it only had a few dozen possible clients, and had to charge each one $1000's. STATS proved there was a market of average fans who wanted baseball data broken down a zillion different ways--1000s of customers at $20 each. Both companies were successful on their own terms, but STATS puts out a much better product because it invites mass scrutiny and mass input.

The level of fixation on numbers by some baseball fans can only be called a fetish. For example, Hack Wilson (Cubs, 1930) holds the single-season record for runs batted in. Generations of fans knew the magic number to be 190, and there was amazing resistance to the finding that Mr. Wilson had been shortchanged: he actually batted in 191 runs that year. First of all, you'd think people would favor accuracy, and second, for those who favor heroic achievement, the revision was in Wilson's favor. But people howled.

I'm on a bit of a sports-book jag lately. I did get hold of Michael MacCambridge's new one about the NFL. I'll probably get to it before I get to Karen Armstrong.

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