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The 30: Gone Fishing

Saber Rattler

In search of Mike Gimbel, the Moneyball revolution's forgotten man

There are a lot of useful ideas about justice and democracy exchanged across the hundreds of panel discussions that constitute the Left Forum, a three-day meeting of scholars, activists, and concerned citizens that takes place every year in Manhattan. My main interest was baseball. Another was crocodiles.

I had come to listen to a paper being presented by Mike Gimbel. In the 1990s, Gimbel put together a nice side career advising major league teams on player transactions. He had a day job working for the New York City water department, and in his free time he sat in front of his computer, inputted stats, and came up with what he believed was a unified theory of player value. He talked his way into a part-time gig evaluating talent for Dan Duquette, soon to become the general manager of the Montreal Expos. When Duquette moved to the Red Sox, Gimbel was the only Expos staffer he was allowed to take with him — he was a secret weapon of sorts. But during spring training in 1997, Gimbel sat for an interview with the Boston Globe‘s Gordon Edes. Once word spread of Boston’s “stat man” — itself an epithet back in the pre-Moneyball days — the Sox front office immediately distanced itself from him. Local papers described him as crazy, arrogant, a “homeless computer geek,” an eccentric stats hobbyist. He was ridiculed for his unkempt beard, his yellow teeth, and the heavy coat he wore despite the Florida heat. “I guess Duquette calls him like he would call the Psychic Network,” Jose Canseco joked to the local beat writers. Gimbel’s contract expired at the end of the 1997 season. It was his last formal contact with a major league team.

I found the classroom I was looking for and took a seat along the wall. Gimbel and his co-panelist sat at the front of the room. His arms were folded over a breast pocket bulging with an arsenal of pens. He smiled widely to everyone who walked in and made a joke as a videographer set up in the front of the room next to his wife, Jeri, who was also filming the event. “I’m not shy,” he said. “The more cameras the better!” The room slowly filled up.

He began reading from his paper. It was about Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity — the foundation of contemporary physics — and why it was all wrong.

In 2011, Mike Gimbel published Dialectical Materialism vs. the “New Physics,” his first book since the series of well-received baseball player guides he wrote in the early 1990s. It’s a brief yet dense assault on the assumptions of contemporary physics, full of extended passages from Vladimir Lenin and physicist Georges-Louis Le Sage, line-by-line dissections of Einstein and Stephen Hawking, rhetorical questions and exasperated foot-stamping at our willingness to worship a science based on faith rather than matter.

There’s some baseball in there, too. In the preface, he argues that his view of physics is credible precisely because it is untainted by conventional wisdom, an echo of the outsider’s perspective that served him well during his tenure as a major league consultant. What was remarkable about his time with the Expos and Sox, he writes, “is that I’ve never taken a single course in statistical analysis, yet in my own not very modest opinion, am still the best in the country at doing this analysis.”

The authority of being a proto–Billy Beane type did not serve him well at the Left Forum. He decried today’s physics for relying on abstraction rather than the study of actual, material cause-and-effect. This interpretation of reality had been suppressed, he contended, as part of a century-long assault on leftist thinking and politics. He spoke with strength and conviction, which belied the fact that he was losing his audience with each passing sentence. Sympathetic thinkers or no, this was not a friendly crowd. Loud sighing gave way to disapproving murmurs; finally, people started blurting their protests, many of which revolved around whether the panelists believed in gravity. During the contentious question-and-answer period afterward,1 Gimbel stood firm and bit back. Afterward, people milled around, openly ridiculing him as he chatted with a friend a few feet away. This was nothing new for Gimbel.

“I have never gotten training in anything in life,” Gimbel chuckled to me afterward. He seemed profoundly unfazed by the response to his panel. The room had cleared out and we sat in those chairs with the tablet arm. He wore his nonexpertise with pride. He saw himself as a terminal outsider, blessed to see the fluid, dynamic world that the rest of us freely ignored. “I didn’t grow up with the illusions of other kids,” he explains. “Five years old and the kid downstairs says he believes in Santa Claus. I’m thinking, Oh my god! How do you talk to somebody that believes in Santa Claus!”

Born in 1944, Gimbel grew up in a politically active household in Washington Heights. His mother tried to recruit Harry Belafonte to the Communist Party; his father ran with people like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. While other kids drank in the false consciousness that is Kris Kringle, Gimbel delivered contraband newspapers to fellow travelers, learned about McCarthyism firsthand, and marched with his family. He dropped out of Queens Community College in the early 1960s to devote himself to the antiwar movement. He eventually got a job with the city in the Department of Water Resources and, when nobody else ran, fell into an executive leadership position in his local union.

There was always baseball. He was a massive fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers (and later the New York Mets) and he was a superb athlete. At one point he even attended a tryout with the Mets, one of the few things he recalls with a hint of embarrassment. He was always talking baseball on the job and with friends and, as an early disciple of Bill James and the sabermetrics movement, he had developed some pet theories of his own. “I lived by [James's] Baseball Abstract,” Gimbel remembers. “Then one year, he stops. I thought, I can’t watch baseball this year. What a fucking thing that is. I’m dead!

Gimbel decided to put together a pamphlet shading in his constellation of ideas. It was a sort of prerequisite reading for anyone who wanted to talk to him about baseball. He circulated it to 25 or so friends and coworkers, and the reaction was unanimous: You have to publish this.

There’s a playful modesty whenever Gimbel talks about his infiltration of baseball, a sense that someone must have come up with these provocations before little old me. On one hand, the ease with which he can talk and talk and talk suggests that he truly believes he has something unique to say. But then again, he seems genuinely awed when recalling the day in the early 1990s when he went to a Barnes & Noble and studied every single baseball guide they stocked. Nobody was onto his ideas, the most important of which was Run Production Average (RPA), a one-stop theory-of-everything that captured how many runs a given pitcher or batter was responsible for. He published a few thousand copies of Mike Gimbel’s Player and Team Ratings in 1990. He took out an ad in Baseball America and shelled out for a table at the annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) meeting, again figuring he was just a “rube” with nothing to offer the supposed experts. But after a day of attending research talks, he realized he had a better tool for player analysis than anybody else.2

Veni, vidi, vici,” he gleefully whispered to his wife. “They have to learn from me. Not me from them.”

The fiftysomething Gimbel was convinced that his ideas could change baseball. He wrote the general managers of all the last-place teams, but got nowhere. Stat-driven theorists had cracked front offices in the past, but sabermetric suspicions against traditional baseball card stats or romantically inscrutable indices of “athleticism” could still seem treasonous to many within baseball’s mainstream.

Books Gimbel read an item predicting an expanded role within the Expos for Duquette, who had ordered his first two books. He arranged to meet with Duquette the next time the Expos were anywhere near Brooklyn, where Gimbel lived with his wife. When the Expos visited the Phillies, Gimbel drove to Philadelphia and pitched Duquette on a part-time job. Gimbel would provide Duquette with his formulas, weekly updates on player performance, and input on acquisitions. Duquette agreed.

As he recounted the early days of his partnership with Duquette, Gimbel shed his nutty-professorial air. An untamable energy seized him as he rattled off all the could-have-been trades and waiver-wire pickups, all the belly laughs and triumphant howls he and the famously reserved Duquette shared whenever they fleeced other teams. In Gimbel’s anecdotes, they sound like true buddies, thick as thieves, a like-minded pair who understood and appreciated each other. They spoke the same secret language.

“So we go to the Gold Glove Awards at the Sheraton,” he remembers with a jolly hyperactivity. “I’m there with Dan. He goes downstairs to meet with [Dodgers manager Tommy] Lasorda. He comes back 20 minutes later, slams his hand on the table, and says, ‘We got him.’ I’m watching Lasorda do his shtick in the corner with all the reporters and I’m saying, ‘You don’t know what the hell you did! We just killed you again!'” He’s all sotto voce at this point. “You gave up Pedro Martinez.” His eyes look ready to leap from their sockets; his hands are keeping his brain from exploding out of the top of his head. “I looked at those numbers. What could they be thinking?”

Gimbel’s role with Duquette wasn’t widely known or acknowledged. They interacted primarily over the phone — Gimbel was still working and running his union, after all — and the Montreal press never dug too deeply. There were epic debates over the phone, late-night sessions in which one confided in the other, aggrieved calls in which Gimbel would beg Duquette to push through a trade (“DOOOOOOO IT. DOOOOOOOOOOOOO IT!” he grunts, gripping the sides of the desk) or demand an explanation (“WHATAREYOUDOING? YOU DON’T DO THAT!”). But Gimbel rarely appeared in public, and on the rare occasion he would interact with managers or scouts, they often considered him a bit of a madman. “Oh my gaaaaaaaawwwd,” he whispered to himself, recalling his interactions with former Sox manager Butch Hobson. He covered his mouth with his hand, and his eyes widened. “What do we gotta deal with here?”

Dan Duquette During Gimbel’s time with Duquette, the Expos pulled off a series of visionary trades and groomed one of the greatest talent pools in baseball history. By the spring of 1997, Duquette’s secret weapon was out in the open, walking around the Sox’s spring training facility freely, rocking a coat in the Fort Myers sun and talking to anyone with a question. Duquette described him as a “math wizard” and fondly likened him to Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird. “Tell me this organization isn’t [messed up],” one player said after news of Gimbel’s role within the club broke. “You can’t evaluate this game through a computer or over the Internet,” first baseman Mo Vaughn groused. In one particularly bullying article, a columnist asked a member of the Sox extended family if he would give Gimbel a ride in his car: “I’d take him, but I have only four windows I can roll down.”3

Red Sox executives curtailed Duquette’s power and surrounded him with more traditional baseball minds. There was no sense of outrage as Gimbel recalled all this, and he maintained that his primary concern was the fate of Duquette. “The media wanted to get rid of Dan using me,” he explained somberly. His cadence was slower, more measured. “I didn’t want to make it worse for Dan. The loyalty has not been reciprocated.” He smiled softly, accenting the gray lines under his eyes. “But that’s a separate conversation. I was never mad at him. I protected him. I was loyal. That’s been my problem all along. I don’t care about what’s written.” In November, Gimbel’s contract expired. Afterward, it was reported that his annual salary had been around $25,000. He thought he would get another job in baseball but, with the exception of an informal agreement with the Baltimore Orioles that fell through at the last minute, nothing happened. “My name became mud.”

Gimbel still had his priorities in order — his work with the union, the frequent demonstrations he organized and attended on behalf of various subjugated groups. “The struggle was first,” Gimbel declared. “[Baseball] was a sideline that happened to develop. It was fine and dandy, but in terms of the world — that was more important. The issue first and foremost was the struggle. Changing the world.”

One can only imagine the fallout had the Boston press found out that Gimbel was a communist.4 As it was, he became an object lesson for how not to introduce high-minded analysis to America’s pastime. In Moneyball, author Michael Lewis cited Gimbel’s defaming as an Elephant Man moment — when the local beat reporter “pulled back the curtain on the front office” and horrified the purists with tales of computers and number-crunching nerds. When Alan Schwarz was researching The Numbers Game, his account of baseball’s long-standing fixation with stats, one front-office sabermetrician said it was best to keep as low a profile as possible. “I don’t want to be Gimbelized.” When Bill James accepted a job with the Red Sox in 2002, he clarified his role by assuring everyone of who he wasn’t: “Meaning no disrespect,” he told local reporters, “it would have never occurred to me to compare myself to Mike Gimbel.”

So — the crocodiles.

In October 1994, city officials enforcing the health code entered Gimbel and his wife’s jungle-like loft in Brooklyn and confiscated their family of pets: two iguanas, four turtles, and six crocodiles.5 “We had a de facto permit,” Gimbel told the New York Times the following January, as he fought to get his creatures back. “Whenever anyone couldn’t give them to the zoo, the A.S.P.C.A. would call the New York Herpetological Society, which arranged for us to adopt these animals.”6 Local schoolchildren would make field trips to the Gimbels’ apartment to learn about reptiles.

A couple weeks after the Left Forum, Gimbel invited me to his home in the Poconos. We could play around with his baseball software, he said. We could grill some burgers and he would show me his “menagerie.”

He designed and built the house in the late ’90s as a sort of sanctuary for their community of nonhuman friends. The commute to his job in the city had been brutal but he retired a few years back and, with the exception of marches and rallies, spends most of his time at the house now. A pair of ducks, perched imperiously on a rock, watched and judged me as I drove onto their 1.5-acre property. Rabbits blurred by as I got out of my car. Gimbel and his wife came out to greet me, and he showed me around. The part of the house they live in is essentially one large room. There’s a small kitchen, a workstation with a few computers, a TV and couch. Along one of the walls next to the workstation are dozens of drawings and photographs of crocodiles, posters from demonstrations. There are copies of Gimbel’s old baseball guides on every bookshelf as well as multiple copies of Leon Trotsky’s collected works and reference volumes on crocodiles. In the middle of the room is a skylit pond. In the corner is their bed, and next to the bed is a small, hay-lined stable where a miniature horse sleeps. A small door leads to the outside, for when the miniature horse wants some fresh air.

Mike Gimbel Flanking this main room of the house — the distinction between indoors and outdoors is pretty fluid — are two giant terrariums, each with three ponds. On one side they keep birds, frogs, lizards, and fish. Gimbel explained that he’d had radiant heating installed so these chambers would remain balmy even in wintertime. It was fairly magical. He perched one of the lizards on my shoulder. I knocked it off while trying to take a selfie and it thumped to the ground, retreating into the foliage. I felt like a selfish asshole. We went to the other side of the house, where there were three more ponds and three gigantic (to me) crocodiles. At first, I spotted only two, until I noticed something shift at the bottom of a pond, kicking up a slow cloud of mud. Gimbel explained that his love of crocodiles (see: his gator-themed e-mail address) grew out of a childhood fascination with dinosaurs (see: their awesome T-Rex doormat).

The small dog outside began to seem out of place. Conversely, the other dog — which was as tall as the miniature horse — fit right in. Gimbel and I sat at the workstation and began poring over his software. There were piles of paper everywhere and at one point I noticed that he was wearing a pair of glasses on his face while another pair dangled around his neck.

He hasn’t made many adjustments to RPA but still maintains that it’s one of the best measures of player value around. I asked him about all the new, specialized formulas people had devised over the past decade. “I assume they’ve done some wonderful things. I assume in certain areas they’ve probably outdone me. But I can still see that they’re short.” He checks in occasionally with Baseball Think Factory and writes editorials for Workers World, mostly about issues of social justice within the game. He continues to produce yearly, all-encompassing, RPA-driven evaluations of every player and team, but he hasn’t published a guide since 1995. Mostly he stays engaged by playing in various fantasy leagues.

We sat there for hours, Gimbel asking for player names and me satisfying whatever curiosity I ever had about how good Barry Bonds or Dave Stieb actually were according to his obscure, homemade metric. He punched at his keyboard with delight, sing-songing the names like he was announcing at a ballpark. “Paw-bloo SAAN-duh-vaaaaaal.” “BIP! Roberts.” “Rob Deeeeeer.”7 “Mike Greenwell — the DEVASTATION in left field.” When we get to Josh Hamilton, he groans about how the Reds traded him in his prime: “Dunce move. Dunce move!”

In the afternoon, some of the Gimbels’ neighbors came by for a barbecue. We sat outside amid the rabbits and the dogs — the ducks couldn’t care less — and ate burgers and drank soda. One of his neighbors began rhapsodizing about 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic, and how courageous the Brooklyn Dodgers owner had been to single-handedly integrate baseball. I watched Gimbel, knowing he hated all portrayals of Branch Rickey as a man driven by ideals rather than profits and Cold War politics. “That’s not the full picture,” he hastily interjected with a forced smile, “but I’ll leave it there.”

It was clear his neighbor knew Gimbel only as the guy down the road with all the animals. Gimbel explained that he knew what he was talking about and that he had once worked in professional baseball. “You know the movie Moneyball?” he asked. “I was Moneyball before Moneyball!”

Back inside, we returned to his computer. I asked him if he had read Moneyball. He hadn’t, partly because, he said, he would probably feel overlooked. “You have to understand, I’m like … Wait a minute, I’m the one who did that. Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of what [Billy Beane has] done. But he started in 1997 — that’s when I left.”

I told Gimbel that he actually appears in the book. He was cautiously curious: “What does the guy say about me?” There was recognition of his work, I explained, but there was probably something in there about his eccentricities — he mentions the crocodiles, for example.

“Anybody would. Why not? I was interviewed every year by [Steve] “Homer” True in Milwaukee. He’d always refer to me as the ‘Alligator Man — who the Brewers should hire!'”

Mike Gimbel Letter - Hua Hsu/Grantland Underneath the table was the duffel bag he had received at the Gold Glove Awards back when they scammed the Dodgers out of Pedro Martinez. He still keeps the all-access scouting credentials Duquette gave him in his wallet. It remains a mystery how much influence Gimbel really had on Duquette’s decisions. In the inside back cover of one of his last ratings books, Gimbel reprints an affectionate letter from Duquette, thanking him for his service to the Expos. When I asked via e-mail about his relationship with Gimbel, the generally tight-lipped Duquette, now the executive vice-president of baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles, wrote back one line: “As a consultant to the Expos and Red Sox, Mike Gimbel contributed objective analysis of player personnel.” He later added that the two only ever communicated about baseball, never Gimbel’s political views or organizing work.

Whether RPA actually works as well as Gimbel claims — and whether Duquette has downplayed Gimbel’s role in retrospect — it’s clear that the pair were working ahead of their time. There were clusters of like-minded thinkers throughout the game and, within a few years, they wouldn’t seem so eccentric anymore. “It was stone age baseball,” Gimbel says. “I think the players are better as a result. They have a better idea of what’s required in the game.

“The closer I got to the top, the more contempt I had. These are the guys making the decisions? Hey! Give us your future!”

As we scrolled through his player ratings, year-by-year from 1900 to 2012, the miniature horse grew restless, thrashing against its gate. I eventually grew used to the steady clang, though it was a shock each time I looked up past Gimbel’s bed and remembered that it was the miniature horse causing it. One seemingly infinite scroll of names and numbers. “That’s who the player really is.”

I told Gimbel he seemed comfortable in his own skin, even as he’s been misunderstood and mischaracterized. “I don’t want to make it seem like I’m so blasé about it,” but, he continued, “I have had a charmed life. I do not know anybody who has had a life like me. How many people have that experience in politics, in unions, in baseball, and in physics here? Name me one person. Name me one person!

“This is the way my life has worked. I’ve never taken a physics class. I was the no. 1 guy — I think I still am, but maybe not — but at that time I was no. 1 in statistical analysis in Major League Baseball. What was the background? The advantage was growing up as I did. I didn’t grow up with the illusions of other kids.”

As I got ready to return home, I was still looking for a unified theory of Mike Gimbel — a sort of Gimbel RPA, a way to square “the struggle” with the old ballgame. I asked him how much baseball he still watched, and we somehow got to talking about the NFL, which he’d recently quit watching after seeing one too many players carried off on a stretcher. He seemed to tear up a bit as he went on a tirade against the NFL’s ownership class, how they didn’t give a “fucking shit” about the players. “It’s how big business works,” he roared. “Step on the little guy. Step on the people who actually do the work. The game is the players.”

I realized that it was all the same to Gimbel, whether it was professional sports or city waterworks. Ballplayers were workers, and any worker under siege by management is worth respecting and defending, for what are any of us but grist for the machine? In his eyes, we were all “little guys,” even if we didn’t immediately recognize our collective struggle.

As I pulled out of the Gimbels’ driveway, careful to avoid the ducks, I thought about something he said when I pointed out how weirdly even-keeled he seemed about everything. “You must learn how to lose,” he explained. “Part of playing the game is losing.” I had read a lot about Gimbel’s wild ways before meeting him, and he only grew more radiantly eccentric the more time I spent with him. He was exactly everything all the nasty, condescending articles said he was: a college dropout, a communist romantic, a union leader, a self-taught programmer, a sabermetrician, an amateur physicist, a hectoring writer and steamrolling orator, a friend to crocodiles and all oppressed peoples. He was a winner and a loser. He was undefeated.

Filed Under: General topics, Moneyball, Revolution, Series, TV

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Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College. He is finishing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.

Archive @ huahsu