It was less than two weeks ago that the Boston Red Sox won their fourth World Series since 2004, a run of excellence that began two years after the then-famously “cursed” club hired legendary statistician Bill James as a senior baseball operations adviser.
Shortly after he was hired by the Red Sox, in July 2003, James was the subject of a New Yorker article titled, “The Professor of Baseball,” that included a passage of particular interest all these years later.
“Joking, (then-assistant general manager Theo) Epstein suggested that they hire Bill James himself. Although James had seemed to position himself deliberately on the margins of the profession, (Red Sox owner John) Henry sent him an inquiring e-mail, just in case. James had, as it happened, worked in the past as a consultant for three major-league teams, but was forbidden to acknowledge his employment.”
Secret consultants are not at all an unheard-of thing in baseball, where the statistical community on Twitter often will bid farewell to someone who has accepted a role with a team they cannot name.
Fast forward 15 years from that New Yorker passage to a statement issued Thursday by the Red Sox.
“Bill James is a consultant to the Red Sox. He is not an employee, nor does he speak for the club. His comments on Twitter were inappropriate and do not reflect the opinions of the Red Sox front office or its ownership group. Our Championships would not have been possible without our incredibly talented players – they are the backbone of our franchise and our industry. To insinuate otherwise is absurd.”
It’s weird how James’ previous consulting work had to be kept secret, yet he’s been with the Red Sox as a senior adviser, quite publicly, since the middle of George W. Bush’s first term. James is listed on the team website as part of the baseball operations department, and that list includes a link to his bio – something that is not the case for Hall of Famers Tony La Russa, Pedro Martinez, and Jim Rice.
The Red Sox may have moved to “distance themselves” from James after his Twitter comments, since deleted, but they didn’t announce that they’re cutting ties with him for bashing “the backbone of our franchise and our industry.”
What James said that necessitated the quasi-apology was, “If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them, the game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever. The players are NOT the game, any more than the beer vendors are.”
As obviously untrue as that is, and as deserving of a rebuke from union leader Tony Clark as it was, it’s also indisputable that the philosophy of all labor being replaceable is nothing new in management circles, even going back to what’s often retold as a cute anecdote about Branch Rickey, when he told Ralph Kiner, “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.” There’s a difference there, but it’s also worth thinking about in the context of Rickey bringing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers not only as a move against racism, but because Rickey knew that his team being first to integrate would mean a competitive advantage on the field by greatly widening the available talent pool.
It’s evident what the problem is now, and it’s classic 2018: James said the quiet part out loud. Of course the Red Sox would put out a statement that they’ve barely even heard of James and that they love their players more than life itself, but it hardly changes the fact that we’re only a generation out from Major League Baseball actually using replacement players through spring training in 1995, right up until the strike that canceled the previous year’s World Series was resolved.
Henry bought a 1% stake in the Yankees in 1991, and had to sell his shares as part of his purchase of the Florida Marlins in 1999. In other words, Henry was part of ownership at a time when “the backbone … of our industry” was indeed the subject of an attempt to be replaced as a union-busting tactic that wound up failing. To insinuate that James’ tweets don’t reflect “the opinions of the Red Sox … ownership group” is absurd.