"The people who are responsible for it are the media. The media created this smokescreen behind which Sandusky operated, and then they're trying to blame Paterno." -- Red Sox senior adviser Bill James, during an ESPN Radio interview Saturday
Bill James is at his best when he's questioning things.
I think he's the most influential baseball writer who has ever lived, and it's not even close. James changed the game, at the very least changed the way it is evaluated. And how he got to that point is remarkable and a testimony to the power of being both very smart and very skeptical. He was working at a pork and beans cannery in Kansas in the late 1970s when he started cranking out his annual Baseball Abstracts (he wrote his last in 1988). He wrote it because he didn't understand the way things were in baseball -- didn't understand why on-base percentage was undervalued, didn't understand why wins and losses were looked at as equal to ERA, didn't understand why so many first-round picks were spent on high school players when the return wasn't close to that of college players, didn't understand why home/road splits were generally ignored, didn't understand why managers played hunches, just didn't believe the company line.
If you are under the age of, say, 30, it's hard to explain what it meant to read that kind of stuff for the first time. For a teenager who believed what Joe Garagiola fed me every week, it was finding out the Earth was round. No one else was writing about all this, or had written it. At least not as well as James, who went from being mocked by the baseball community -- Sparky Anderson called Bill James "a little fat guy with a beard who has no knowledge of anything" in 1984 -- to being part of its inner circle over a quarter-century. Billy Beane and Theo Epstein were believers, of course, and so was John Henry, who hired him in 2003.
So it's a Disney movie, right? Tough to cast, sure, but come on -- the ultimate outsider comes in and plays a role in ending the most famous title drought in sports history. James has been an employee of the Sox for nearly a decade now, and it's not clear what moves he's responsible for but it's clear that he has an impact and voice.
And he's still questioning, still doubting what is assumed. There are times -- more times than not -- when that's exactly what should be done. But there are times when it turns out it's OK to go with the consensus. That there is no other answer. So when someone asks you -- as James was asked in his mailbag last week -- about what the Freeh report meant to Joe Paterno's legacy, you don't have to be the lone voice just to be the lone voice. This isn't making the case for Darrell Evans as a great player in 1984, this is defending a man who very obviously played an active role in covering up for a child rapist. Here is James' answer to the question:
The Freeh reports states quite explicitly and at least six times (a) that the 1998 incident did NOT involve any criminal conduct—on the part of Sandusky or anyone else—and (b) that Paterno had forced the resignation of Sandusky before the 1998 incident occurred.
The 1998 incident was perceived AT THE TIME to involve no criminal conduct. The May 3, 1998 incident was very, very, very thoroughly investigated by at least four different agencies (University police, state police, and two different child welfare agencies), all four of which issued written reports stating that no criminal event had occurred. In retrospect, since the actions were part of a pattern of criminal conduct, it may be said that they were criminal conduct in and of themselves, but no one saw that at the time.
In any case, what EXACTLY is it that Paterno should have done? Fire him again? It is preposterous to argue, in my view, that PATERNO should have taken action after all of the people who were legally charged to take action had thoroughly examined the case and decided that no action was appropriate.
This kind of thinking wouldn't fly for Bill James, sabermetrician. It's too selective, doesn't count for what happened after 1998. On its own, as a singular act, part of what he writes about 1998 is accurate. However, that Sandusky wasn't charged with a crime -- though we now know, as does James, that Sandusky apologized to the mother of the 11-year-old child in 1998 and told her that he "wished he were dead" -- doesn't mean that he was innocent. James knows that, too. And if Paterno's inaction in 1998 is forgivable in the eyes of James, what about the next 13 years? Jerry Sandusky was allowed to go wherever he wanted on the Penn State campus, was given a pass to do whatever he wanted to young children by Joe Paterno. For some reason, James ignores the mountain of evidence against Paterno and focuses his hope on an inept (and easily influenced) police department that failed to arrest a serial child rapist in 1998.
OK. Scary stuff. But it gets worse. James appeared on Doug Gottlieb’s ESPN Radio show over the weekend and did a terrific impression of a very smart guy sounding like a complete lunatic. Here's just a couple of his thoughts (thanks to The Big Lead for the trasncript):
"[The thought that] everything revolves around [Paterno] is total nonsense. He had very few allies. He was isolated. He was not nearly as powerful as people imagine him to have been."
“Paterno is one of the very few people who saw Sandusky and saw a coach who wasn’t doing a job any more, rather than a hero. … The people who are responsible for it are the media. The media created this smokescreen behind which Sandusky operated, and then they’re trying to blame Paterno.”
Look, I'm happy to pile on the media when the media is to blame, which isn't an infrequent occurrence. But Bill James sounds completely out of touch here, sounds like one of the old managers or announcers he would pick apart in an old Baseball Abstract. You just can't say the media had a role in helping Jerry Sandusky get away with sexually assaulting children for decades without giving a single example. That's really an incredibly, breathtakingly reckless accusation. You know who did play a role, Bill? Joe Paterno. Read the Freeh report again, and try doing it without your pal Joe Posnanski whispering in your ear. Read Jo Becker's New York Times story -- written last Sunday -- that details Paterno negotiating a $5.5 million buyout from Penn State in 2011 after learning that the boom was about to fall on Sandusky.
Paterno knew everything. He's responsible, Graham Spanier is responsible, Gary Schultz is responsible, Tim Curley is responsible. It all starts with Jerry Sandusky, obviously, but if the other four men weren't cowards it could have been stopped.
And just when you think James is done, has lost all credibility on all things non-baseball-related, Gottlieb asks him if he had ever showered with a boy, if he knew anyone who has ever showered with a boy.
“Yes, that was actually quite common in the town I grew up in. That was quite common in America 40 years ago.”
I'm not suggesting anything about Bill James -- maybe there there was a epidemic of adult males showering with boys in Holton, Kan., 40 years ago (James is 62 years old). Maybe there were three showers in the entire town, I don't know. I don't know just as James doesn't know if it was common for adults to shower with boys in Seattle 40 years ago, or El Paso, or Sedona, or Braintree. It's a cavalier answer James gives to a serious question, and it's the one answer that would give me pause if I'm John Henry and thinking about firing Bill James today.
It's been almost 48 hours since the Gottlieb interview and the Red Sox haven't issued a statement on James. I e-mailed Larry Lucchino and asked for a comment -- he wrote back Sunday night and told me he was traveling and had not seen the full comments yet. The silence of the organization would suggest to me that the Red Sox aren't particularly concerned that a member of the front office went on a national radio program to a) defend Joe Paterno and b) claim that adults showering with boys was common 40 years ago. Guess that wouldn't have fit too well in Luchhino's e-mail to the fans last Friday.
Should Bill James be fired? I don't think so, no, (though I wouldn't blame the Sox if they went in that direction). He's not making the case for Sandusky, he's not saying Paterno would have been right if he had covered it up. James is guilty of not having a clue about this topic and deciding to weigh in on it on a national platform. Should he be suspended, or told that he is never again allowed to talk about anything to the media except baseball? Yup, and I would hope that conversation has already happened. And if he doesn't like that -- and James has been allowed to write books about baseball and other topics while working for the Sox and has made himself available to the media to promote them -- I'd let him walk. And the Sox have to issue a statement acknowledging the right of James to make his comments but let their strong disagreement be known.
Bill James should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He's the author, in my opinion, of the greatest baseball book ever written ("The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract"). He's helped the Red Sox win two World Series.
But he has disgraced himself with an embarrassing defense of a truly evil man, a man who wanted to win games more than protect children. The greatest strength of Bill James -- the inability to believe what he's been told by everyone -- has turned out to be a massive weakness.
And it could cost him his job. Where are the Red Sox on this? Guess it's not as important as sellout streaks and figuring out what adjective applies best to Cody Ross and Mike Aviles.