Bill James, steroids, and same-sex marriage

Jim McIsaac

Bill James has an incredible knack for clarifying an idea. Take, for example, the defensive spectrum. Almost every baseball fan intuitively grasps, on some level, that first basemen and right fielders hit more than shortstops and second basemen. But it was Bill who untangled this fuzzy notion and turned it into this:

DH - 1B - LF - RF - 3B - CF - 2B - SS

Bill understood, better than anyone else, and before anyone else, that offense and defense are inextricably linked. What's more, he understood how they were linked, why this was true, and what the consequences of it were. And he explained all this in a way everyone could understand.

Yesterday, Bill appeared on Clubhouse Confidential to discuss the Hall of Fame election:

Brian Kenny: What do you think should happen with where you draw that steroid line?

Bill James: Well, I'm not asking people to set aside what's right and wrong. If you think there's a right and a wrong here, and you want to vote on that, that's great, I don't have a problem with that. But I'm saying, for sake of understanding, set aside what's right and what's wrong. History doesn't coalesce around a compromise. History coalesces only around an extreme position. And there are two extreme positions: (1) the steroid users can't go in, or (2) it doesn't matter. It's impossible for history to coalesce around the position that steroid users can't go in, because, frankly, there's already steroid users in [the Hall of Fame], and as time passes, more and more of us are going to be using more and more steroids for more and more things. It's impossible for history to coalesce around that position, therefore it has to coalesce around the other extreme position, that [steroid use] doesn't matter. And I would argue that [given] enough time, it isn't going to matter, and that all the guys we think are permanently banned, they're actually all going in.

I think this is a brilliant observation, and I immediately tried to think of other instances where this was true, where history coalesced around one of two extreme positions and rejected the compromise position. And it hit me right away that this was true of the gay marriage debate in the United States. The compromise position, that gay couples should be granted the same legal rights as married straight couples with regard to inheritance and hospital visitation and the like, but that we won't call it "marriage," that we'll call them civil unions or some such, or the federalist argument that gay marriage should be legal in California but not in Utah, has basically no traction. Anyone who holds that position is not on solid footing. And as more states and jurisdictions legalize same-sex marriage via the ballot box or judicial rulings, it seems obvious — has been obvious for a long time now — that history absolutely will not coalesce around the position that there won't be gay marriage in the United States. And so therefore there will be gay marriage in the United States.

Brian Kenny: How long do you think that will take? Does that take a whole generational shift?

Bill James: It takes a generation, yes.

It was almost exactly a generation ago that Andrew Sullivan, writing in The New Republic, first argued for gay marriage as a superior alternative to "domestic partnerships." And while same-sex marriage isn't legal everywhere in America, it's fast becoming so. Too fast for some, not fast enough for others; but it is coming, even in Utah.

I think the idea that same-sex marriage is inevitable, precisely because the alternative is practically and politically impossible, is something we've all sort of intuitively grasped, though perhaps only vaguely so. I would bet Bill James figured it out twenty years ago.

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