With the advent of Opening Day in Major League Baseball, I read a great, great piece in Slate this week, excerpted from a Mister Bill James's new book Solid Fool's Gold. That's Bill James of Moneyball and "Baseball Prospectus" fame; the man who popularized the science of baseball statistics, and who revealed the vital impact that near-ignored standards of performance had on success in America's great summer pastime. (Incidentally, if you haven't read Michael Lewis's account of Bill James and the revolution that his discovery effected on Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, you could do much, much worse.)
In the excerpt, James gives a pretty compelling account of just why our country has so perfected - and, ahem, imperially implemented - the science of athletic cultivation and recruitment while simultaneously neglecting what would almost certainly prove an equivalently successful science of (say) literary cultivation and recruitment. And he's no pessimist. He argues that there are valuable lessons to learn from our success in the field of athletics that could be equally well-applied to any field in which we presently perceive a dearth of successful participants. And it is an analysis not dissimilar from the one I gestured at a few posts ago when I discussed the constant (relative to other genres) level of excellence of classical music.
Anyway, I'll leave James to make his own points, but it's worth wondering just what sort of background conditions are necessary in order for us to start, say, nationally valuing some activity as we have football or basketball. For if James thinks that sports utilizes a process that's generalizable to other areas of human activity, why are sports one of so few human activities to utilize it - and perhaps more importantly, what we would have to do to shift those conditions to another activity entirely?