It’s been over a month since I last wrote about nerds. I’d be happy not to have to write about them again, but you know how it is; sometimes, the nerds leave you no choice. They are f*cking relentless.
I don’t know much about this Bill James guy, other than having a vague awareness of his status as something of a nerd king. He’s primarily a baseball nerd, which even admitted “baseball fan” Ben Osborne will grudgingly acknowledge — well, he probably won’t, but he should — is the worst kind of nerd. Like all nerds in the context I refer to them here, James appears incapable of appreciating sporting events as anything other than extended math problems.
I understand math is important. One of my best friends from college was a math major.* He now tutors rich New York City kids (including, I believe, Paris Hilton’s little brother’s friend!) for the SAT, which he (my friend, not Paris’ little brother’s friend) re-took a couple years ago and got a 1600 on. But the reason he and I can be friends is because he’s also funny, and because he appreciates sports on an emotional level, not a hyper-logical one.
The same seems not to apply to guys like Bill James.
Anyway, today he wrote this for Slate. At first glance, I was like, “Oh, this is kind of clever.” But then I kept reading, and a nerdy coldness crept over me like Death Itself. To his semi-credit, the guy kind of gets it:
“Why calculate when the lead is safe? The real answer is ‘because I like to.’”
This seems roughly equivalent to saying “Why do I pick my nose and roll the boogers into little balls and line them up on my nightstand? Because I like to.” At least he’s honest, I guess. But then there’s this:
“I like to feel that I understand little things about sports. I like to feel that I can see the difference between a safe lead and a live contest for the same reason that I like to feel that I can recognize a zone defense and recognize a pick-and-roll.”
To which I say: Nerd. Also: That doesn’t even make sense. These aren’t remotely the same thing. Recognizing a zone defense or a pick and roll requires three things that any half-serious sports fan has: 1) eyes; 2) the mental capacity of an adult gray squirrel; 3) having spent a few hours watching and/or playing basketball.
Whereas “recognizing” when a lead is “safe,” requires things like: 1) a calculator; 2) no apparent social life; 3) an utter lack of justification for your continued existence.
The author closes with this moment of familial warmth:
My little formula, over the course of 40 years, has wormed its way into our family’s college basketball experience. Early on in every game, usually once in the first half when the score is about 23-21 and again midway through the second half, I will observe soberly, in my best faux-expert voice, that “the lead is not safe,” and my wife will look at me not only as if I were an idiot, but as if for some reason she is surprised by this. In the closing minutes of a tense game, it gets serious: “Is that it? Is the lead safe yet, Dad? How much more?” They are waiting to exhale, waiting to unbundle their nerves. They know that every time the clock stops, when I should be scoping out the cheerleaders, I am recalculating the lead in the back of my head. I’ve been doing it so long, I can do both at the same time.
The worst thing about nerds? They sometimes defy evolutionary odds and manage to procreate, this giving us yet more nerds. I guess I should give him credit for hanging out with his kids, though.
Oh, and UCLA over Carolina in the final.
*I realized after I wrote it that this is a variaton on what racists say when they’re trying to convince you they’re not racists: “Dude, one of my best friends is black!” This made me laugh at myself. But it’s also a cliche. So, I’ve decided that from now on, if someone accuses me of racism, I’ll say, “Dude, I have all of Jeremiah Wright’s craziest sermons on my iPod!”**
**I don’t actually have an iPod.