Remember me

Signing with Boston

August 29, 2023
The second time I met Bill James, I was living in Iowa City. He had reached out to tell me that he was driving through on I-80, and asked if I’d like to have dinner. "Pick the best restaurant in town," he said.
He came to our house and met my dog and gave me a check for writing for this site, and then we went to dinner at one of the two decent restaurants in town. There are more decent restaurants in Iowa City now, but back then there were exactly two, each situated directly across the street from the other.
My wife Kelli was in Chicago, or else she would have joined us. When she called to ask how it went, I thought about the check and the fancy diner. "It’s the closest I’m going to get to signing with the Red Sox," I said.
*             *             *
I was late to Bill’s work.
My baseball fandom overlapped somewhat with the years of Bill’s annual Abstracts, but I didn’t read a word of Bill’s writing until I saw the "New Historical Abstract" in a Barnes and Noble in Springfield in 2001. The first thing I checked was his ranking for right fielders. He had Dwight Evans at 22, which felt like a slight.
That became a habit, actually: for a solid year, whenever I found myself in a bookshop with time to kill, I’d wander over and page through that doorstop of a book, just reading up on one player or another.
My life felt uncertain, then. I was finishing college, wrapping up a very terrible thesis on Faulkner and trying to figure out what the hell someone is supposed to do with a degree in literature. And although I had wasted countless hundreds of dollars on secondary source books that tried to explain what that old Southerner was trying to do, I couldn’t bring myself to paying $45 dollars for a book about baseball.
I graduated and got a real job, one with a desk and a computer and business cards. One of the very few forty-hour a week, 9-to-5 jobs I’ve had in my life, as it turns out.

And sometimes – when I found myself at that desk with nothing serious to do – I’d write long e-mails to my brother about baseball. I was reading a lot of Rob Neyer and Bill Simmons, and probably my own writing was in their voices.
It was just something to do, a way to get through the dull parts of the afternoons. That was the start.
*             *             *
I’m not a natural at this writing business.
I tell people this and they do not believe me. They think I am being modest or humble, because of course I’ve written stories and novels, and went to good writing schools, and I have taught writing, and I work as a writer, so I must have some talent at it.
I don’t have any great bedrock of talent. What has carried me is 1) I’ve read a lot, and 2) I’ve engaged in a haphazard process of trying to understand the stuff that I like the most. I’m also pretty dogged.
For those of us who aren’t naturals – for those of us who don’t have the spark of talent that lights the way for luminaries – the act of writing is very much an act of imitation. When I think of everything I’ve done as a writer, I see very clearly where the lines of that imitation are, who it is I am trying to mirror.
*             *             *
The first Bill James book I read was The Baseball Book 1990. I found it in a used bookstore off Central Square, in Cambridge. This was 2002 or 2003: I was worked as an afterschool homework aid for kids in the area, and sometimes, if I had time to kill, I’d scan the stacks of that store, which had thousands of books clustered haphazardly on shelves of unstained wood that they built and sold there. So the store smelled of old books and also fresh-cut wood, a wonderful combination.
My life was still uncertain. I was living, then, in the apartment off Comm. Ave that I had sublet from a friend and I had almost no money. I walked a lot: when I left my work at afterschool program, I walked cross the Charles on the MIT bridge and then went out to where the Green Line came up from the underground tunnels, so I could board for free. At least it was free back then: I haven’t tried to jump on an outbound Green Line trolley in a long time.
I had very little money then but I paid $7.50 for Bill’s book, according to the pencil mark that’s on the first page. I don’t think any of that found its way back to Kansas. Sorry, Bill.
First sentence:
"I will probably never learn to see a baseball game the way that I want to be able to see one.            
Some years ago, it occurred to me that there must be dozens of ballplayers in each generation who leave a mark on the game in one way or another, and that when you go to a game you can therefore see the tracks of hundreds of players. When you see the flap hanging down beneath a catcher’s mask, who are you seeing? Steve Yeager, of course; Yeager developed that flap to protect his neck after he was nearly killed by a flying at handle in the mid-seventies."
Understand: I did not know Bill James wrote like that. I didn’t know anyone wrote like that.
At some point, maybe that year or a year later, I went and bought the doorstop. Bill got his cut.
*             *             *
I still have it, of course.
Just flipping through The Baseball Book 1990 today, I see the imitations. On page 260, Bill predicts that Roberto Alomar will be a great player because he is young, and because he possesses a diversity of skills so wide that any career is open to him. I realize that I wrote nearly the same thing about Ozzie Albies, years later.
That wasn’t intentional, of course. I didn’t cut out that section and keep it in a drawer, just waiting for the moment when an exciting young second baseman came up so I could repeat Bill’s comments. Instead, I was repeating an echo. If you are young and you possess a Swiss Army knife of skills applicable to baseball, you’re worth betting on.
So there is another description for us talentless writers: we are echoers. I’ve been an echoer.
*             *             *
I was living in Iowa City when I started contributing to the site in 2008.
I think that’s what got me the chance: I think that that Bill offered to let me write only because he has a soft spot for Midwesterners. When he found out I was from Massachusetts he asked me not to lean too heavily into the Red Sox. He didn’t want a site with his name on it having too much of an East Coast slant.
I wasn’t any good, not then. The writing of the other contributors was a lesson in how far off the mark I was.
This was not a new lesson: at the time I was wrapping up a degree in a writing program where I was routinely discovering just how far off the mark one could be as a writer, relative to others.
That was another part of my life that felt uncertain. I had recently gotten married – I think I was married the week Bill invited me to contribute to this site – and marriage brought a new exponent to the baseline of uncertainty. I didn’t know where my life was going, and now we didn’t know where our lives were going. There was no roadmap for what came next.
And what happened next was life, of course.
I wrapped up my MFA and got a small fellowship that gave me access to a cabin in the furthest corner of northwest Iowa, where I fished and tried to write a very terrible novel. I came back and worked at a detox in Iowa City and taught at community college. Kelli got a job in Chicago and for a little while she was in that city, and I was stuck with our dog in the prairie. Then we were in Chicago for half-a-year, swallowing up as much as we could of that city because we knew we were moving across the world.
We went to New Zealand and tried sailing; a lesson of uncertainty mixed with velocity. I did a PhD and wrote a bad novel We had a kid and then another one, Kelli doing the bulk of the work both times. I wrote a slightly better novel. We came back. Virginia, this time.
There was uncertainty in all of that, too. We moved across the Pacific with four suitcases and a two-week sublet and figured out how to find a place to live and how to navigate a city and then a country. I feigned – badly – at being an academic. We made a world for ourselves on the other side of the world.
One day we brought a kid back to an apartment with windows that rattled when the buses idled on the road, and it felt like the greatest uncertainty of all of them, to be counted on take care of a human being who wasn’t us. Kelli moved our mattress into the living room so that the bassinet was parallel to the bed and easier for feedings. Every day we were astonished that we were allowed such a life.
We moved seven times in the first two years of parenthood and then scrounged up enough to buy a house as the second was coming along. We were there – far-flung and a family – and then we came back. We found our way. We’re still finding our way.
*             *             *
I brought the doorstop to New Zealand. I had collected most of the Abstracts and the original historical book and any other writings of Bill’s I could find, but all of those were stored away in a container in the attic of my in-law’s house. Only the New Historical Abstract came across the Atlantic.
I paged through that book so many times that the binding and the glue disintegrated, and it turned into a sheaf of pages held between two blue covers. I’d find sections that I had pulled out scattered around my desk and shovel them back into the pile. My kids would pull out pages and crumple them and I’d flatten them out and try to reorder the thing.
It kept me writing. If I was stuck on an article, I’d pull out the Abstract and page through it. If I was short on an idea, I’d do the same thing. This is another part of that imitation game, of course: if you don’t know how to write something, find a page by someone who does and try to do what they did.
That copy of the New Historical Abstract didn’t make it back, though it was one of the last books I considered keeping. I was reluctant to let it go. I had carried it like a talisman into so many apartments and houses, and it had carried me through years where no one around me had any interest in talking about baseball. I thought it merited some great ceremony than tossing in the bin.
Instead, when I landed in the States I purchased a new copy. So Bill got his cut twice. It’s far less than I owe him.
*             *             *
I am coming around to the point, at last.
I’ve been thinking about what to say about what it’s been like to be a part of this site, and to talk to all of you, and to write in the shadow of someone like Bill, and what I keep coming back to is what a gift it has been to have had this place, through all of those other places.
For fifteen years, as I’ve worked to figure out what kind of Writer-with-a-capital-W I was going to be, I’ve known that I can put the anxieties of that aside and dash off a quick article about Joe Mauer, or Jack Morris, or wins.
For that same time, as I’ve bounced from one part of life to another, I’ve always known that there was the BJOL site to duck into for a conversation about some arcane subject or hear the musings of the individuals who have contributed much more to our small community than I have.
This site has been a harbor for me. It’s as simple as that.
My life has reached a point now where uncertainty seems like something that has to be scheduled in, something that has to be planned. I was talking to a neighbor yesterday, and it dawned on me that those many wilderness periods of my youth are further back than I want to admit. They’re further back than they feel.
So maybe that is the blessing in the end of this. Maybe this is an excuse for me to go ahead and chase some new uncertainties. Take risks that I haven’t taken.
I am grateful for all of it. All of you.
Thank you to everyone who has supported my work and argued with me in the comments section and chatted with me on the message boards. Thank you for tolerating my long stretches of silences, and for always welcoming me back.  Thank you for reading everything, including this.
I don’t know, yet, where I will next pop up, but I’m kicking around some ideas. If you’re interested in hearing from me, please shoot me an e-mail and I’ll add you to a list. I’ll let you know where I land when I get there.
Lastly, my thanks to Bill. First, for showing me that it is possible to both love baseball like a fan and think and write about it in a way that is intelligent and engaging, without skipping the humor. Second, for giving me a chance to do my own thinking, and a place to share that effort with others. I’m still not any good, but I’m getting better.
Closest I’ll get to signing with the Red Sox. All I could ask for.
Dave Fleming is a writer who lives in western Virginia. He welcomes arguments about WAR, questions about the state of the Red Sox, or anything else you want to shout at him about at Stay in touch, and thank you.

COMMENTS (17 Comments, most recent shown first)

Thanks for all of the articles over the years, Dave.
11:40 AM Sep 11th
Dave, Thanks for your excellent and enjoyable articles over the past years, and for this one. Best of continued success to you and your family!
1:10 PM Sep 3rd
Fine article, Dave. I've always enjoyed your writing, and hope to read more in the days to come. Since I live in western Virginia as well, we must be neighbors. So let's not be strangers if we can help it. I'll drop you a line on email. All the best to you and yours.
12:58 PM Sep 3rd
I've enjoyed your writing, Dave. You're pretty darned good.
1:43 PM Sep 1st
Thanks for your contribution!! My Abstract has been dragged all over, I kept it near the loo so I could alway read it. It disintegrated also so I bought a new one to read, then repaired the old one for the shelf.
1:35 PM Sep 1st
You are the best, Dave, and you have your own signature style of writing; no need to be self-effacing about it. I think I get what you mean, though ... for me, Bill's work seeped in so much that I'll never write a sentence that doesn't sound like I was trying to sound like Bill James.

The footprints piece was a huge influence on me, too. A lot of my Hall of Fame views come from that idea, the idea that leaving memories behind is more important to the Hall of Fame than anything else. Great players leave greater memories, of course. But it's the memories that count, more than the greatness.

I definitely want to know where you land, and with luck we might be able to keep you annual columns going for us baseball history nerds.

Take care,

Terry (ventboys)
10:06 AM Sep 1st
Tha ks Dave. Hope to read more of you.

By the way, is this you?​pb
12:29 PM Aug 31st
Ya Ox Yoke Inn ... fine place, more wholesome Midwest than fancy, near the tourist trap that is Amana .... did you ever get BBQ at Al and Irene's in Cedar Rapids? Now closed, but great BBQ. Good food in Mt Vernon. Of course, Iowa is meat, corn and soybeans ... you know the old saw, there are 4 vistas in Iowa when you are on the road: corn on the left, corn on the right; corn on the left, soybeans on the right; soybeans on the left, corn on the right; and soybeans on the left, soybeans on the right ..
10:42 PM Aug 30th
Well done. Thank you. Many times over.
6:44 PM Aug 30th
What books have you published?
6:42 PM Aug 30th
I always enjoyed your writing. I hope to read more of it.
5:24 PM Aug 30th
Thanks, all. To answer Tony C:

-The first time we met was in a diner in Lawrence, when we were driving through. A story for another day, maybe.

-Bill has always picked up the bill when we've gotten together, though I hope I can return the favor someday.

-We moved to NZ so I could do a PhD, but we did take up sailing. My partner got it in her head that everyone in Wellington knew how to sail, so it was important that we learn. That was a false assumption, but it was a good stress test of our marriage, trying to un-capsize a sailboat in the frigid water.

Frank D: we DID go to the Ox Yoke: they do the family style dining, right? It was...okay, I guess. My favorite Iowa City food was the falafel at Oasis, the deep dish pizza at the Wig and Pen, anything at all at the Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon, and the Mexican food out in West Liberty.
4:37 PM Aug 30th
I have found your articles interesting, thank you. As for Ia City restaurants: you could have left town and went to the Ox Yoke Inn ......
12:27 PM Aug 30th
Dave, wonderful article, one of the best I've read here. Or if not one of the best, certainly an instant favorite because...

Because of your clear understanding of what it is to aspire to writing, the realization that as much as you (and I) love writing, writing doesn't love us, but merely likes us, usually grudgingly, occasionally with a pat on the back and even a brief smile.

Your publishing success dwarfs mine. I love to write and it comes easily to me, but unfortunately not very well. Occasionally I look back on things I've written and quite often cringe at how poor it is. Sometimes...a sentence here, a paragraph there...relief that I'm not always an insufferable, pompous bore, a plagiarist only two steps short of libel, or even a shallow, mean spirited ass in search of a really good insult.

You're one of my favorite parts of BJOL, Dave. I'm only sorry you didn't appear more often. Good fortune to you and your family.
11:23 AM Aug 30th
I will miss your writing, too, Dave, - or I'll find it elsewhere. I don't find it imitative - or, perhaps, I don't recognize the voices you imitate.

Thank you for your contributions.
7:53 AM Aug 30th
Excellent, Dave.

I think we all have the same questions. I'll start.

When was the *first* time you met Bill?

Who picked up the dinner check in Iowa City?

You moved to New Zealand to sail?
8:28 PM Aug 29th
It's been a pleasure, Dave.
8:20 PM Aug 29th
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