AKA – My Third Career
I have other interests than computer science. I’ve already mentioned on this blog that I started college as a music major, and since I “quit” after one year, I’ve actually never stopped playing.
When I was a boy, when it was time for all of the other kids to start playing baseball, I was too sick. But I started watching the other kids; the Little League and Pony League park was across the street from my apartment complex. And, although the city we lived in was too small to have a major league team, and there wasn’t even a minor league team despite its size, I watched much as I could on TV. My parents wouldn’t let me stay up and watch on weeknights, so I missed Hank Aaron’s 715th home run. Sigh.
We moved to Houston in 1974, and I became a lifelong Houston Astros fan. I watched games, pored over the box scores in the newspaper, and participated in “Astros Buddies”, which got cheap seats for exciting games against San Diego and Montreal, and some swag.
When I got to high school, I really started to study the statistics. I created my own scoring system, and started tracking stats day-by-day. This is before personal computers, or, at least, before our family had personal computers, so I used a ledger book.
Right about that time, the Astros got good for a couple of years. They led their division most of the year in 1979, won their division in 1980, and went to the playoffs in that weird strike year of 1981.
And calling those games were Gene Elston, Dwayne Staats, and Larry Dierker. Dierker was a former pitcher from Houston, but, as detailed in Jim Bouton’s book, Ball Four, was a cerebral type.
I absolutely fell in love with the low-key style of that announcing crew. Dierker was also ahead of his time – he talked about the importance of on-base percentage, and how the Astrodome distorted players numbers such that you had to make adjustments when comparing them to the rest of the league.
When I got to college, a friend of my father’s gave Dad a book, which he glanced at, and decided that I would enjoy it more that he would, so he gave it to me. It was the 1985 Bill James Baseball Abstract. These books, published by a real publisher from 1982-1988, were seminal works in the advanced stats and metrics movement that has taken over the leagues now, 30 years later. James talked about how awesome Jose Cruz was, how awful Omar Moreno was, the fact that Wrigley Field and Fenway Park favored the hitter, and the Oakland Colisseum, Dodger Stadium, and the Astrodome favored the pitcher. This edition had his first study showing a direct correlation between minor league performance and major league performance, after adjusting for difficulty and ballpark effects.
I ate it up.
This story centers around something in the appendices, however. James was frustrated; he wanted access to the daily play-by-play data that Major League Baseball kept, and had kept for decades. The Elias Bureau is the corporate entity in charge of that data. James offered them as much money as he could to get those accounts, but MLB and Elias would not (and still do not) sell them, no matter what.
So James went open-source. He put together a volunteer organization called Project Scoresheet. This organization would split up the games for all 26 teams existing at the time, and would score them in a system that was easily adapted for computer consumption. He started this call in the 1983 Abstract, and Project Scoresheet started scoring games for the 1984 season.
In the back of the 1985 Abstract, there was a chapter on Project Scoresheet and how one could volunteer. I was too busy for the 1986-1987 seasons, but after I got my act together, I volunteered for the 1988 season.
I did a few games after reading the PS system. However, the Astros regional coordinator decided to host a game at the Astrodome for all of the Houston area volunteers. There were 14 of us there, training for Project Scoresheet.
I had a blast. I scored 12 Astros games in 1988, but had to stop after Claris bought StyleWare, and I moved to the Bay Area.
Project Scoresheet wrote a book of baseball stats after the 1986 and 1987 seasons, called “Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Stat Book”, and of course, I had copies of both.
Some time around December 1988 or January, 1989, I got a phone call from the regional director for Project Scoresheet in Houston. He had been asked to write the Houston chapter introduction and the player summaries for the 1988 book, but he needed help. He asked if I would. I said, “Yes”.
I wrote player summaries for all of the Astros, including one about Nolan Ryan. The gist was that Ryan’s 1988, while not as great as his 1987, was almost that great, especially if one threw his two worst starts out of the mix. I was quite upset that Houston had not signed him again…
So, I got all of that stuff written and sent in. Sherri Nichols was the overall editor for this year, and I was hoping that I would be a published baseball writer.
Unfortunately, Project Scoresheet was no more before the book was published. Stats, Inc opened up shop, and decided to sell the data that Project Scoresheet had collected with volunteer labor to the media and to major league teams. This did not sit well with most of the PS crowd, and the organization fell apart. Some of them ended up working for Stats, Inc., but many, many others hung around on the Internet news group, rec.sport.baseball, which is where most of the advanced work for sabermetrics was conducted until the World Wide Web took over. There is a direct lineage from Bill James, through Project Scoresheet, to rec.sport.baseball, to Baseball Prospectus (and other annuals like it), to Moneyball, to the modern front office.
I continued sending in scoresheets to Project Scoresheet for the next few years, until the fax machine stopped answering. A few years later, David Smith, Sherri Nichols, and a few others got the Project Scoresheet data and started a website called Retrosheet, whose purpose was to create an archive of every game ever played in the major leagues. They have play-by-play data now going back decades. It is the vision of Project Scoresheet realized, and it uses the same scoring system. If you download the data from 1988-1992, I am the official scorer of a handful of games.
This was as close as I got to being on the inside of this world for a very long time.
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