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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Stupidity Is Also Contagious, And Stats Geek Bill James Has Come Down With A Severe Case

Illustration for article titled Stupidity Is Also Contagious, And Stats Geek Bill James Has Come Down With A Severe Case
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The Red Sox have had a tough go of things lately. Major League Baseball continues to investigate the team for illicit sign-stealing techniques during their 2018 World Series run, even after championship manager Alex Cora lost his job for his connection to the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing operation while he was their bench coach. They traded their best player, Mookie Betts, in a salary dump, despite being one of baseball’s wealthiest teams. And just this week, even with no baseball going on, they lost ace Chris Sale to Tommy John surgery.

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But at least the Red Sox don’t employ Bill James anymore.

On Friday, the legendary sabermetrician and creator of statistics including Win Shares, an important forerunner to the now widely-used wins above replacement (WAR), created something quite different when he made the extremely ill-considered decision to tweet.

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James’ post was a poll: “Is the one-party practice of indiscriminately yelling ‘racist’ at people you disagree with damaging our culture?”

Now, lest anyone think that this was an idle musing on James’ part, he made clear exactly what he was talking about in a subsequent tweet, as the ratio mounted against him.

“Calling people ‘racist’ because they refer to a virus by the place it erupted is not a generalization, or an assumption?” James wrote. “You don’t think?”

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Something that James is missing is that calling an action racist is not the same as calling the person behind that action a racist. People who are not racists can sometimes do racist things. The difference between those people and racists is that when told that the things they are doing are racist, the non-racists stop doing it. What he also missed was that wording a question in a way that, if you answered “no,” then you’d be tacitly endorsing “indiscriminately” calling people racists.

Which no one is doing here.

So, when Jeremy Lin, among countless others, say, “Hey, stop calling the current pandemic “Chinese virus,” because that’s racist, there are two options. One is to listen and stop. The other is to tell on your racist self.

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But James, who declined comment, is one of these people who doesn’t want to see or talk about race because it upsets their happy rose-tinted view of life, where nothing is complicated.

One of the defenses of Donald Trump’s penchant for calling COVID-19 “Chinese virus,” the phrase employed by James, is that China is where the virus originated, and it’s just like referring to “Spanish flu” for the influenza epidemic of a century ago. This, however, is just as much bullshit as Trump’s attack on NBC reporter Peter Alexander on Friday.

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The “Spanish flu” did not originate in Spain. As written up in History Extra this week, “It is thought that the first cases were in military forts in the United States before spreading at an alarming rate to Europe. … Spain was not hit especially badly compared to other countries but wartime censorship exaggerated the effects of the virus there. While Britain, France, Germany and the United States censored and restricted early reports, papers in Spain — as a neutral country — were free to convey all the horrid details of the pandemic.”

James, who made a career of applying objectivity and logic to baseball, decided to ignore facts here. He also made the crucial mistake, whether purposefully or not, of reading meaning into the results of a Twitter poll, as the “yes” answers unsurprisingly rolled in. “If it isn’t happening, it couldn’t be damaging the country,” he wrote. “But somehow, people are voting ‘yes.’”

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And somehow, James, who in the past has defended Joe Paterno, taken up wildly anti-labor positions, and weirdly took a shot at Frank Robinson after the Hall of Famer’s death, continues to tweet. He’s not the Red Sox’s problem anymore — just everyone else’s.

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