January 25, 2013
As of last weekend, Earl Weaver is gone, passing away at the age of 83.
You do not need me to tell you that we will not see his like again. The job in the dugout has changed, the responsibilities of a skipper have changed, and perhaps most fundamentally, the game itself has changed. But however mechanically I might mound up that kind of obviousness risks missing something equally obvious: In his work, Earl was a teacher, and the lessons he offered to all, big and small, inside the game and out, remain as valuable today as they were 30 or 40 years ago.
It would probably do most of us in the sabermetric field some good to remember this. However cool it is that we get to make new discoveries and new observations, utilizing new tools and new metrics, we owe all of you some measure of modesty as well, because a lot what we're working on really isn't rocket science. Earl was a reminder of that in the flesh, that some lessons had already been learned long before sabermetrics came along to document their measure. For me, meeting the man drove home one of the most important lessons any of us might learn in this field: Sabermetrics often simply documents the previously observed, because as much as delving into the data is compelling, a lot of what's there isn't lost on the people who are there, inside the game, both in Earl's day and today.
The pleasure of my meeting the man was the product of a novel chain of unlikelihoods. It's something that Baseball Prospectus gave me, a chance that, like so many other unusual opportunities afforded to we happy few across BP's long history, leaves me deeply grateful. Life affords each of us a slender skein of opportunity and chance, tissue-thin vagaries that depend not just on the abilities each of us possesses or whom we may or may not know. Sometimes, accident has its place. One of life's little ironies is that such a well-worn notion of chance could be directly related to one person's experience of Earl, a man whose name was made trying to leave nothing to chance.
Consider the world a little less than 20 years ago. Back then, the internet was still a semi-coagulated notion clotting into coherence. Back then, an editor from a big-time New York publishing house gave a guy in the old pre-web usenet discussion group rec.sport.baseball a nudge, encouraging him to write a baseball annual. If you've been here long, you can probably guess the identity of the nudgee: eventual Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay, who decided to put together a team instead of going alone, creating the opportunity that launched dozens of careers, not least my own as one of his co-founding five.
But the nudger? That was Jeff Neuman. Jeff's role in changing the face of baseball writing is one of those things not many of you may know about, assuming you have the good fortune to know about him in the first place. Jeff was one of the guys who put ideas in front of you back before there was an internet, back in the '80s, when the mainstream media was very much a dopeocracy providing page after page of dry tinder to a dissatisfied baseball market set alight by the ideas of Bill James, Pete Palmer, Craig Wright, and others. It was an audience just beginning to be fueled by the desire to know, and simultaneously finding a practical outlet for this newfound knowledge in the equally new realm of fantasy baseball.
So in his way, Jeff was one of the firestarters, going back to the very first title that he acquired and published: Weaver on Strategy, by Earl with sportswriter Terry Pluto, published by Collier in 1984. By strange coincidence, it was the first serious baseball book I read—well before I'd been introduced to Bill James' Abstracts in college, and certainly before learning that there was such a thing as sabermetrics.
The glory of that book was and remains that it's a practical guide to running a team on every level, from managing a roster and the people on it, to in-game tactics and full-season strategy. As books went, it was short, smart, and no bullshit, a perfect reflection of Earl himself.
At one of BP's early organizational meetings, the first one we had in San Diego more than a decade ago, back when it was the five of us plus Dave Pease, Keith Woolner, and Michael Wolverton, I remember a point when we sort of idly kicked around the question of who was our inspiration, whose ideas had propelled us to this point. As I remember it, only one person said Bill James; Clay Davenport cited Pete Palmer, while Keith gave props to David Tate, a leading light from our early-'90s rec.sport.baseball heritage.
Me? I said Earl Weaver. Earl taught me first and taught me the most about how to think about baseball, not just from a game-theory perspective, but also on the practical side of things. Most of all, what Earl had to say about baseball was accessible, with answers whose wisdom did not depend on how far you went past the right side of the decimal point, but who still engaged those of us who did and do. That was tied to one of BP's founding principles: Engage folks with the writing and the ideas. Earl's books did that, and still do.
It wasn't long after letting my compadres know whom I had on a pedestal that I was able to bring one of Earl’s books back into print, back when I was running Brassey's Sports. One of the first goals I set for myself was reprinting Weaver on Strategy. It wound up being easier said than done: Finding out which publisher held the rights (Collier having long since disappeared) while haggling with Earl's agent over getting to interview the man himself took months to sort out.
All of that eventually put me in front of Jeff Neuman, now with Simon & Schuster, which held the rights. We both took and still take some delight in the fact that his first book as an editor would get a second coming as my first book as an editor... a contretemps born out of BP's founding and the opportunity that had given me, which may not have happened at all if Jeff hadn't nudged Gary years before.
So, I finally got the agreements lined up, haggled over, and signed. A check went to Simon & Schuster for the right to reprint. And a check went to Earl for an interview to do a brief epilogue, because as his agent had warned me up front, Earl took any shot at making some extra cash very, very seriously. I assigned myself the fun of doing the interview after checking with Terry Pluto to make sure he wasn't interested. With everything inked and everyone paid, the agent let me know that Earl would be in my neck of the woods for a card show. Earl agreed to give me three hours—tops—over breakfast beforehand.
So, one spring day I'm driving out to a golf resort in suburban Virginia outside the Beltway. No biggie, just a Hall of Fame manager in the flesh. I pop into the restaurant, and there's the man himself at the table, fidgeting and looking to get this show on the road. A gruff introduction, that quick internal moment of “boy, I hope I don't screw this up” to myself, and we start right in.
The plan was just to go over each of “Weaver's Laws” from the original 1984 edition and get into whether or not they still had any utility within baseball as it was being played in 2002. Earl was still more than willing to argue for the four-man rotation, still passionate about maximizing the use of all 25 roster spots, still deriding one-run strategies, still harping on the importance of defense—often forgotten in the Weaver canon—in short, providing a full-throated defense of all of his ideas and their relevance to the present day.
But in no time flat we were also just flat-out enjoying ourselves, getting sidetracked into any number of stories, like what went so wrong for Eddie Murray in Baltimore in the mid-'80s—through no fault of his own—or the pride that Earl took in the former players from his teams who had gone on to be successful managers, and how much they did or didn't owe to him. He was modest about himself, and particularly about his reliance on notecards with matchup data on them to inform in-game tactical decisions, stressing that he didn't really think he was doing anything that Casey Stengel or John McGraw weren't simply doing in their own heads as far as anticipating platoon advantages or favorable matchups, but that between expansion, better competitive balance, and the expanded schedule, there were so many guys to keep track of that he simply had to start writing stuff down.
It was one of those baseball conversations that goes everywhere and nowhere, with no real beginning, middle or end, just an excuse to talk about something you love with someone who loved talking about baseball almost as much as he simply loved the game itself.
And then we'd burned through our three hours in no time. I hurriedly started going over my checklist to see if I was missing anything major, because he had the card show to get to. Fortunately, we seemed to be as good as done in terms of the task at hand. But even more fortunately, the idea of cutting this short didn't seem to appeal to Earl much now, even after he'd haggled so fiercely up front to limit his commitment. Now he paused, then said, “Fuck the three hours. Want to come sit with me at the show? We can keep talking while I sign stuff.” He didn't have to ask me twice.
So I spent the afternoon with Earl as well. Before we were seated, he quickly ran me through introductions to the other VIPs for the show (I remember Dave Parker, Luis Aparicio, and Wade Boggs), and then we were parked at the table in front of a roped-off alley full of fans eager to see the man himself. Through it all, we just kept on talking, and as a result Earl's line wound up crawling, because everyone who wanted his autograph pretty much couldn't help but want to get sucked into a baseball conversation too. Can you blame them?
I like to say that one of the best things about Baseball Prospectus is that it gives people coming in the opportunity to go where they want to go. That was meant to be true in the literal sense, looking around at where so many of us have gone on to—in media, within baseball, you name it. But with all of the things I've gotten to do in my career so far thanks to the opportunities that sprang from working for and with Baseball Prospectus, my day with Earl remains my single favorite “work” day in baseball. I owe Gary, I owe Jeff, and most of all I owe Earl, and I could not be more glad of the debt. In the case of this one perfect day with the person I looked up to the most within the game, it took a string of happy accidents to put me where perhaps I had always wanted to go, but had never known or dared to ask.