The end of the week brought terrible news that baseball had lost a true friend and a great writer when Doug Pappas died of heat prostration while hiking. He was 43.
You may not have heard of Pappas, but if you’re a thinking baseball fan you’ve no doubt felt his influence. He was a Manhattan lawyer by trade, but his passion was writing about the business of baseball. No one I’ve ever read has a more thorough understanding of how baseball economics work, and no one, anywhere, was a more fierce enemy of commissioner Bud Selig.
As Pappas was fond of writing: Draw your own conclusions.
His writing and research have had a huge impact in the so-called sabermetric community — he was a leader in SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, for which that application of scientific methods to baseball is named. That community in turn has a growing influence within the game. The A’s, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Dodgers are the leaders now in running their organization at least somewhat along sabermetric principles.
His ongoing research into marginal wins per marginal payroll dollars showed that economic efficiency, not piles of cash, translated into winning. It was a simple formula: Pappas figured, based on the performance of players making the big-league minimum, that a team made up of such players would win about 49 games in a year. Then he subtracted the minimum salary amount from each team’s payroll figure to determine how much each team had paid (marginal dollars) for each win after its 49th (marginal wins).
The most efficient team was the Oakland A’s. Michael Lewis cited Pappas and his work in his book about the A’s, “Moneyball,” which is the baseball book of the century so far, and Lewis has said that the question he wanted to answer when he began work on the book was “How did a team with so little money (the A’s) win so many games?”
Pappas was an ace at showing how Selig & Co.’s various arguments about competitive balance, revenue sharing, contraction, the need for a salary cap and new publicly financed stadiums, and other issues were either a pack of lies or the result of a complete misunderstanding of economics. (Draw your own conclusions.)
He also was fond of skewering the annual study by Team Marketing Report about the “average” cost of attending a game for a family of four. Does a family of four really have to eat its dinner at the ballpark and buy two programs and two souvenir hats every time it goes to a game? he would ask, reasonably, before providing more realistic figures.
He wrote for Baseball Prospectus — which has made his author’s archive free to read — and for his own Web site, Doug’s Business of Baseball Pages, which featured a must-read weblog.
Pappas also chaired the Business of Baseball Committee at SABR, which ran an obituary for him on its Web site, and he did pro bono legal work for the organization.
His other passion was traveling and photographing backroads America, as evidenced by the other side of his Web site. He was vacationing in Big Bend National Park in Texas when he died.
Do yourself a favor and browse around the links above if you’re unfamiliar with his work. I would argue that if you haven’t read Pappas’ eight-part series “The Numbers,” written from December 2001 through April 2002 as the last labor negotiation began to heat up, then you have no business discussing the business of baseball. You’re simply uninformed.
Those of us who love baseball had a watchdog in Pappas, someone to let us know about the damage being done to the game by those running it. I hope someone with anything like his smarts, insight and writing ability can take over that role, but that’s asking a lot. He’ll be sorely missed.
You probably came to this column expecting to read about basketball and hockey playoffs as usual, but I thought those could wait a day. Coverage of Pappas’ passing has been nonexistent in the mainstream press. He was too good to go unmentioned.
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