Bill James is not wrong. He struck a nerve. He shot a dead-aim arrow straight at the insecurities most athletes keep hidden. But he was mostly right. The vast majority of baseball players and by extension people paid to play any sport are replaceable. They are just pieces rolling through town on an assembly line.
The exceptions stand out and matter so much largely because they are so exceptional. They are generational icons who transcend time, from Babe Ruth to Michael Jordan to Tom Brady. Every city has a few. Miami has Dan Marino and Dwyane Wade — the present tense intentional even though Marino has now been retired longer than he played, with Wade in his final season before lapsing into the embrace of our collective memory.
The few athletes who reach our heart, we love forever. The other 90 percent-plus are interchangeable parts. It is the little uncomfortable truth about sports and fandom rarely mentioned; now James has invited the conversation.
Miami Dolphins fans are cheering on Sundays for what Don Shula and Marino built, cheering for the uniform, cheering for their city and for themselves. The current players are beneficiaries, but they are incidental. Unless and until they find our heart, they just happen to be there.
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So Bill James, the famous baseball sabermetrics guy, maybe the father of sports analytics and now a Boston Red Sox advisor, got in trouble this week with this Tweet, since-deleted. The context of it was an exchange regarding the value of players relative to their salaries:
“If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them, the game would go on,” he wrote. “In three years it would make no difference whatsoever. The players are NOT the game, any more than the beer vendors are. The entire GAME is the product.”
Likening players’ importance to the guy yelling, “Beer here!” might have been pushing it, but otherwise I thought what James wrote was so obvious and truthful as to almost be benign.
Many disagreed.. Angrily.
Tony Clark of the MLB players union called James’ words “reckless” and “insulting.,” The Red Sox distanced themselves, saying James does not speak for the club. Former pitcher Al Leiter called James’ Tweet “disturbing.” Star pitcher Justin Verlander wondered if the Red Sox would have won the World Series without all of their stars, earning a “Thank you” from Jackie Bradley Jr.
I noticed that Derek Jeter did not join the outraged chorus. Jeter’s actions as the Marlins’ new boss underline James’ point about replaceable players. Jeter is betting that the traded-away Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon are some of those interchangeable parts. Will J.T. Realmuto be the next one?
Jeter is betting that different, cheaper players who win just about as much, plus an enhanced ballpark experience, will be enough for fans. He might be right.
I thought of James’ point again watching the NFL football game Thursday night, as the Steelers won 52-21, once again with substitute running back James Conner filling in so seamlessly for AWOL star Le’Veon Bell. If Bell is so easily replaceable, so unmissed, does James not have a point?
The argument applies to college sports as well, and works against the notion that college football players, for example, should be paid. Say we all agree that Heisman-headed quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is essential to Alabama’s No. 1 ranking and therefore worth a stipend. OK. Then how much do we pay the backup long snapper or the kid being redshirted?
More to James’ point: Alabama attendance is not reliant on Tagovailoa. Crimson Tide fans are cheering for what Bear Bryant built, cheering their tradition and the uniform more than whatever players are passing through.
We are all replaceable. You are at your job and I am at mine. Professional athletes tend to be a bit more sensitive to the idea, though, because most know they are comically overpaid for being good at playing games.. Go and ahead and disagree with that when you see what Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are about to get in free agency. Or when you consider that Bell was to be paid almost $1 million a game by the Steelers for doing something a 23-year-old third-round draft pick is doing every bit as well.
James’ larger point and mine isn’t that star athletes are not important to a particular team in a given year. It is that in the broad view even the greatest, most beloved athletes leave us eventually, and when they do we are right back in our seats the next season, cheering for the uniform and the game, cheering for our city and ourselves.