4 Writing and Tribe Building Lessons from Moneyball’s Bill James

Bill James Abstracts Covers

Sony will release the DVD for Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, on January 10, 2012.  The 2011 film recounts how Billy Beane, the Oakland A's general manager in 2002, employed sabermetrics statistical analysis and research in his player evaluation and acquisition strategy.

Moneyball's Unsung Hero: Bill James.  Mr. James is the creator of sabermetrics who now works as a Senior Adviser of Baseball Operations with the Boston Red Sox.  His self-published Baseball Abstracts from 1977 to 1988 influenced Billy Beane's decision to operate on a different competitive dimension: identifying undervalued and overlooked talent from non-traditional baseball metrics (i.e., on-base percentage) and data analysis versus traditionally accepted baseball scouting methods and metrics (i.e., batting average).  

However, the 2011 film makes only passing references to Mr. James.  Fortunately, Michael Lewis's book on which the film is based provides a chapter titled "Field of Ignorance" sharing:

  • Bill James's Background (e.g., he wasn't always affiliated with the Red Sox)
  • Why / How He Questioned Conventional Baseball Talent Evaluation
  • His Motivations as a Writer

Inspiring Lessons in Leading, Self-Publishing, and Questioning Conventional Wisdom.  James inspires me as an aspiring blogger because of how he started and cultivated the influential and powerful sabermetrics tribe before the benefits of the modern-day Internet.  And, he continues leading via his work at Bill James Online and several published books.  

His determination, passion, and resourcefulness resembles how today's bloggers, entrepreneurs, consumer advocates, or leaders of a cause now cultivate influential online tribes by:

  • Questioning and disrupting the status-quo establishment 
  • Self-publishing to spread ideas (i.e., social media: blogs, social networks)
  • Writing about and sharing what moves you
  • Leading a tribe that flourishes into an industry-wide movement
  • Ignoring the limits of a "current" full-time job description


1. Write About What You Love 

You Can't Fake Passion.  The Bill James Baseball Abstracts are famous for their quality and quantity of statistical analysis and data.  But, more importantly, James made this new form of baseball knowledge interesting and accessible to all passionate, hardcore baseball fans.  

And, his love of writing and baseball is why he explains both the science and art of sabermetrics better than anyone.  That's why Bill James is the sabermetrics authority.  Here are direct quotes from Moneyball (the book) describing his passion for both writing and baseball:

"I think about baseball virtually every hour of my life."

"I'd probably be a writer if there was no such thing as baseball, but because there is such a thing as baseball I can't imagine writing about anything else."

"I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communications of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say." 

Emotion Drives Content Development.  If you love writing about your subject, readers know it. Readers sense it. In my 2011 recap post, I shared how I struggled regaining my blogging and writing rhythm after my daughter's birth in August 2011. 

Adam Singer defines it best in Lesson #18 from his post: 50 Blogging Lessons To Know If You’re Starting Today:

"If it doesn’t move you emotionally, don’t write it (realize emotion is relative – it doesn’t have to move every member of your audience, but if it moves you then you’ve done it right:  it’s going to impact someone else that way too)."


2. Write Because You Love It (Not to Get Paid for It) 

For Bill James, It Was Never About Getting Paid.  Daniel Okrent interviewed Bill James for this May 1981 Sports Illustrated article: He Does It By The Numbers.  Here's a direct quote from the article explaining how money was NOT THE motivating factor to self-publish:

"The first Abstract, in 1977, sold 75 copies, at $4 a copy.  In 1978 sales edged up to all of 325 copies.  Undaunted, James slogged ahead, checking the boilers, working on his numbers and producing editions of the Abstract.  Sales passed 600 copies in 1979 and 750 last year, but the readership, while small, is enthusiastic, and James has become something of a cult figure.  Esquire magazine assigned him to do season previews, and he even received an order of for the Abstract from Norman Mailer, which left James, a literary hero-worshipper, feeling both honored and abashed.  He sent Mailer a copy but returned the writer's check.  Mailer sent it right back with a note saying, 'If ever an author earned his five dollars, you have.'  The price has climbed since then (to $13 for the 1981 edition), but James has yet to break the $10,000 barrier.  'It's been discouraging." he says, 'but not as discouraging as having to get out of bed in the morning and go off to work.'"

How Are You Going to Monetize Your Blog?  One of my closest and most trusted friends posed this question when I started blogging two years ago.  My response: "I don't know, yet."  

But, after publishing 100+ posts, I know now.  I Plan Making Zero Money (Ever)

Do It For Love.  If you love it, you'd do it for free any way.  Blogging benefits my mind the way exercise benefits my body (and between you and me, I need to increase the latter especially after the holidays). 

Ask these questions about whether or not you really love blogging or writing:

* Are you willing to invest the significant time required to research and write individual posts either before or after putting in a full-day's work at your "real-world" job (and usually at a time when the rest of your family is asleep)?

* How much do you enjoy commenting on other blogs to build relationships and add to the conversation?

* Are willing to confront and push through The Dip after the initial excitement of starting your blog ends (i.e., around the first six (6) months?

* Is getting paid how you'll ultimately measure or determine whether or not you're a successful writer or blogger?

Discipline, Conviction, Belief, and Courage.   If you answered "No," "I don't or not a lot," "I'm not," and "Yes" to any of the aforementioned questions, invest your scarce, valuable, free time in something else.  Why?  Because, blogging or writing is a long haul endeavor.  Individual discipline, conviction, belief, and the courage "to consistently put yourself out there" drive the long-term outcome. 


3. Lead a Tribe by Expressing YOUR Point-of-View

Because That's The Unmet Opportunity.  James's research and scientific sabermetrics analysis challenged major league baseball's conventional wisdom in player and talent evaluation.  But, it's his writing and unique point-of-view (e.g., his art) that distinguishes him as THE trusted sabermetrics authority (aka The Sabermetrics Tribal Leader).

Here's a direct quote from  Moneyball (the book):

"But once again, the details of James's equation didn't matter all that much.  He was creating opportunities for scientists as much as doing science himself.  Other, more technically adroit people would soon generate closer approximations of reality.  What mattered was (a) it was a rational, testable hypothesis; and (b) James made it so clear and interesting that it provoked a lot of intelligent people to join the conversation."

A Tribal Leader Lurks Inside Us All.  Study this Ted Talks Video from Seth Godin.  In February 2009, Godin introduced his ideas on Tribes.  His points describe how James built and led his tribe.  And, how the same leadership opportunity is available to all of us:

  • 6:50 to 12:09 – The Concept of Tribes and Leading One that Becomes a Movement
  • 12:10 to 14:17 – Heretics Look at The Status Quo & Say I Don't Like It
  • 16:00 to 17:27 – The Common Traits of Tribal Leaders
    1. They Challenge Everything
    2. They Build a Culture
    3. They Connect People to One Another
    4. They Commit to The Cause



4. Define Yourself Through Your Art (Not Your Full-Time Job)

A Former Night-Watchman Became Major League Baseball's Foremost Authority in Scientific Sabermetrics Analysis and a Senior Adviser of Baseball Operations With the Boston Red Sox.  When Bill James started self-publishing the Baseball Abstracts, he worked full-time as a night-watchman in a Stokely Van Kamp pork and beans factory in Lawrence, Kansas:   

(From Moneyball (the book) "It was while guarding Stokely Van Kamp's pork and beans that James stumbled seriously into putting his thoughts down on paper, in response to having things he absolutely needed to say that he was unable to convey any other way."

(From Daniel Okrent's Sports Illustrated article) "Later, he worked for a time as a boiler attendant–a watchman of sorts–in a food-packing plant in Lawrence, which turned out to be an ideal job for James. 'I'd spend five minutes an hour making sure the furnaces didn't blow up,' he says, 'and 55 working on my numbers.'"

An Entire Industry Catches Up 25 Years Later.   In this now-famous interview segment from 60 Minutes, Mr. James commented about how major league baseball executives didn't take him and sabermetrics seriously because he was a night-watchman.  But, 25 years after publishing his first Baseball Abstract, The Boston Red Sox hired James as Senior Advisor of Baseball Operations in 2002.

And, The Boston Red Sox ended an 86-year championship drought by capturing World Series Championships in 2004 and 2007.



Technology and The Internet Don't Care About Your Current Job Title.  Anyone reading this blog post has the same opportunity to lead, influence, and access a global audience.  In the following interview, Seth Godin states the case for why technology levels the playing field:


* Your Laptop Is The 21st Century Factory (0:40 – 1:56). 
 Now, you own the means of production. But, the driving question is what are you going to do with your laptop to make something that changes the world?  That "something" could be:

  • A Web Page or Website
  • A Blog
  • An E-Commerce / Online Retail Site

* You Can Globally and Directly Connect (2:17 – 3:54).  The Internet enables your global connections to promote your work and do business (and vice versa).  Marketing is no longer a game of who shouts loudest.  It's a game of competing for and earning "the whisper-time" of your target audience in their social networks.  

* You Can Spread Ideas Via Social Media Connections (3:55 – 4:58).  Developing these connections (or knowing people who have them) is vital.  Why?  Because, social media influencers determine: 

  1. The ideas that get a head start
  2. The ideas that spread 

It's Our Turn To Lead.  We’ve all got something inspiring inside of us.  Share it in your blog, your column, a self-published eBook, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, or Google+.  

Start blogging. Start writing. Start creating. Start self-publishing.  

Start Questioning Conventional Wisdom.

Start Leading.


And, don’t look back.


Link to Photo Credit

2 thoughts on “4 Writing and Tribe Building Lessons from Moneyball’s Bill James

  1. Tony, you always make me think when you write your blog posts and this one is another home run. A few things popped out of the post to me.
    First: “Write or blog because you love it. Not to get paid for it.” Your statement on how you have been asked how or if you plan to monetize your blog and now you know that you will do it for free gave me pause to think about my own blog.
    I have been writing and managing my job seekers blog for over a year now. I started it in October 2010 because I saw a need for a central location where Kansas City area job seekers could go to find the latest networking events for this area. It expanded to include marketing/web job leads in April of 2011. I know this blog has been a tremendous help to many people in the Kansas City area who are looking for a new job.
    I have thought about the potential of monetizing the blog at some point also. It does take a lot of work and time to put together all of the networking events, webinars, workshops, etc. and publish this list each week. In addition, finding the jobs to post each day and structuring them so they are relevant to the audience that reads the blog can be a challenge.
    However, like you stated, writing a blog is a long haul endeavor. Doing it because you love it is what truly matters and in my case, I would have to say that is the truth. I am a natural at loving to see people be lifted up when they find a job that was listed on the blog or they connected with someone at an event that was posted. What drives me to continue the job seekers blog is seeing the difference it makes in the community.
    Also, point number 4 that you mentioned in your post was: “Define Yourself by Your Art and not Your Full-Time Job.” I would hope I am viewed as a leader in the job seeker community in what I contribute via the job seekers blog to help others. Again, it is not my full-time job. I manage the blog outside of my job and most often am updating it late at night. It has also been very encouraging to see how others who I have connected with via Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. who know about the blog will often retweet or send out links to the blog. They are like a mini marketing team who do it because they want to see others get back to work also. Even connecting with people outside of Kansas City who are looking to move to this area is done often. That is the true power and value of social media networks in play.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tony. Made me think and I appreciate that.

  2. Mark, I am highly appreciative of your very thoughtful comment. Thank You! There’s no question your thoughts reveal what a generous and giving person you are.
    In my opinion, your KC Job Seekers Blog is the most important blog in Kansas City. The service and content you provided to help others find employment during these challenging economic times (dare I say sometimes hopeless times) is vital.
    You invest significant time in maintaining / improving your blog in your free time because you want to help others succeed. That’s leadership. And, that makes you the leader of an important tribe.
    You’re the Tribal Leader of The Put KC Back-to-Work Tribe. The folks you mentioned who act as your mini-marketing team are following your leadership (and they’re important tribal members).
    Keep leading my friend. And, keep up the great work!

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