Monday, May 19, 2014

No. 17 – Xanadu

Performer: Rush
Songwriters: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart
Original Release: A Farewell to Kings
Year: 1977
Definitive Version: Exit Stage Left, 1982. This is one of the few full versions I’ve heard of this song, although I have about a half-dozen partials in my iTunes.

For anyone paying attention, it probably is no surprise that Xanadu is my favorite Rush song. The surprise, I would imagine, is that my No. 1 Rush song checks in at only No. 17 overall. I don’t listen to Xanadu as much as I used to, and I guess it has faded a bit as a result, but the truth is I just like the other 16 songs better. There’s no shame in being 17th out of some 300,000 songs that are out there.

I’ve never met any of my musical heroes, and it’s probably just as well. I’d be afraid I’d be a spaz and do something stupid, and if it went badly, a la Wilt Chamberlain (good ol’ No. 229), it would ruin their music for me. I suppose Geddy, Alex and Neil probably would be cool, but Pete Townshend seems like he could be a huge ass if you caught him on the wrong day at the wrong time. I’d be afraid to meet him.

I’ve met a number of my sports heroes, including my favorite from childhood, Johnny Bench. He was cool to me in a brief meeting the first time and a bit over it the second, although it wasn’t bad. Interestingly, with the exception of Gordie Howe, the best guys have been guys who have reputations for being not so great, like Rickey Henderson and Steve Carlton.

But my biggest hero, by far, is Bill James. Pretty much how I think about baseball and how I write—finding my voice—has come from reading his various books over the years. Well … I met him. In fact, I not only met Bill James, I broke bread with him once and picked up the check.

Here’s how it happened, in what became my personal Xanadu for several reasons, Cleveland: In 2002, of course, James published his massive statistical work, Win Shares. I, of course, bought the book as soon as it came out and devoured it in massive gulps.

I wrote a two-part book review for in May. In the first part, I posed a number of questions about the formulas that weren’t addressed in the book. As I worked on this review, I received notice that James would be the keynote speaker at a SABR conference in Cleveland. Instead of guessing as to what James was up to, I would ask him myself.

The conference at the Doubletree Hotel downtown was part of a weekend of events that also included a tour of the Cleveland Public Library, which I knew well, so I could pass on that. I just wanted to show up at the conference, ask James a few questions for the second part of my review and split.

I didn’t know what was proper attire for the conference, so I dressed in a suit, and I got there early enough to get a seat up close to ask questions after James’ speech. I needn’t have worried: Maybe 25 people were there.

I expected James to talk about win shares, and he did, although not the system itself but a study he conducted using win shares. The rest of the proceedings involved a long presentation by an author who won a SABR book award. It didn’t lend itself to asking the questions I wanted to ask during the Q-and-A session at the end, so I stuck around to see whether I could just interview James. Hey, I interviewed Mr. Hockey; I can interview Mr. Sabermetrics, can’t I?

After James autographed a couple copies of his New Historical Abstract and Win Shares books for a few folks (including me, ahem), I asked whether I could ask him a few questions about the win shares system. He said sure, and I started firing away. He liked the questions and spoke at length, although he kept being interrupted by others. Finally, he said, “Hey, what are you doing for dinner? We can continue this discussion then.”

Whaaaaaa? Bill James just asked ME to join HIM for dinner? To talk more baseball? HELL YE … umm, yeah, I think I can fit that into my busy schedule.

James was staying at the Doubletree and just wanted to go to the restaurant there. It still was fairly early in the evening (it was more late afternoon, really), so we were the only ones there. I didn’t have a lot of questions, so before long, we were just talking about baseball in general, his work and even mine. My mind was reeling as a voice inside told me to just stay calm. Whatever you do, don’t acknowledge that you’re having a dinner conversation, one on one, with BILL … FREAKIN’ … JAMES.

I was enjoying the moment, but like Crash Davis says, the moment was over all too soon. Three others from the conference showed up, one of whom asked to join our table, so my one-on-one ended all too soon.

One of the three was Frederick Ivor-Campbell, a legendary SABR researcher and author whose knowledge of 19th Century baseball was flat out impressive. The second was the author so honored that day, Tom Melville. Their presence was more than welcome. Unfortunately, the guy who asked to join us wasn’t.

I don’t mean to demean New Yorkers here, but this transplant embodied every negative stereotype about the Big Apple: a loud, know-it-all who would … not … shut … up. Yeah, why bother listening to three of the most widely respected baseball historians in the field when you can just spout your own half-baked opinions? It wasn’t all bad, but it sure wasn’t as good as it could have been.

Still … it happened, and when Bill James, who seemed to have had his fill of our New York friend, asked for the check, I made sure to grab it when it arrived. He was on an expense account and said he’d pick it up, but I wouldn’t hear of it. Mr. James, for all of the joy your work has given me over the years, the absolute very least I can do is pay for your dinner one time.

Then, when we parted, I told him that his work really inspired me, and I thanked him for everything. He was appreciative and in no way indicated that I was being a spaz, which, of course, I was. Sigh.

Nevertheless, I was floating down the street as I walked to my car. I had to tell someone, so I called Scott, who certainly knew the name and the esteem I held him in. Quite simply, there is no without Bill James. Hey man … you’re never going to believe who I just had dinner with. Yes, really.

Sometimes I still don’t believe it myself.

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