At 40, Rany Jazayerli has established a successful career as a Chicagoland dermatologist. But that’s only one of Jazayerli’s accomplishments. The Kansas native co-founded Baseball Prospectus, a movement widely credited with systemically upending the sports’ relationship to stats. The son of Syrian immigrants and one of the national voices of the Royals fanbase, Jazayerli shared with me earlier this week why he’s increasingly been vocal about his Muslim faith. “For me to have a position where I have a sizable number of people following me who actually have completely different political views than me is an incredible opportunity,” he said, noting that many have siloed themselves off to media that already fits their views. “I don’t want to abuse it by only talking politics because I’ll lose them. But if I talk 95 percent of the Royals, I can probably talk 5 percent of my views as a Muslim, which may be completely contrary to what they are hearing and reading. To me that’s an incredible opportunity that sports provides, so I feel like I have an obligation to take advantage of that.”
Jazayerli and I recently chatted about his favorite team’s “confusing” turnaround, why he thinks he hasn’t personally been hated on for being a Muslim, and how he helped change the way baseball is played and analyzed today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Prior to the past two years, what was your favorite moment of being a Royals fan?
The best answer I can give you is that there really wasn’t one. This is a team that for 29 years not only had never come close to being in the playoffs, but had never been in contention the final week of the season. All of my favorite memories would have been of random games. Once, in 1994, before the strike, the Royals had a walkoff home run in late July which put them on a possible path to contention. But it’s sort of pathetic that this moment happened in July, not even August, let alone September or October.
Before, you had your own personal moment that you liked—like the time you caught a foul ball—but you couldn’t go up to another Royals fan and say, “Remember when x happened?” And now there’s a need to chronicle them because the entire personality of the franchise has changed.
Two years later, what’s the most surprising part?
Everything?! Maybe the most bewildering thing is that the public views the Royals as the bully on the block. Essentially, the fact that they came back this postseason in the late innings over and over again—they are the team that other teams measure themselves against and that everyone is frightened of.
For so long they weren’t even “lovable losers”. They were props. They were there because you had to have 30 teams in the major leagues. Now, they’re the model. As a longtime fan, that’s so confusing! Everyone’s like, “How do we build a team like the Royals?” It’s very hard to get used to it. It’s a fun type of confusion, but it is very confusing.
How did you become a Royals fan? Who are the people in your life responsible for this?
I grew up in Wichita. My parents immigrated here in 1970. My dad is a doctor and found a job in Wichita. I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s when the Royals were one of the model teams of baseball so I guess it was inevitable that I become a Royals fan. Being the child of Syrian immigrants, it’s not like my parents cared about baseball.I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed about baseball. I was reading Babe Ruth biographies when I was five! I was a baseball fan first and became a diehard Royals fan in my early teens.
Since it happened so early, I’m not sure how this happened. Was it from our neighbors playing in the yard? Or friends of family? I seriously don’t remember a time when I didn't love baseball.
What led your parents to immigrate to the US from Syria?
After graduating from medical school in Syria, most Syrians left the country to do their postgraduate training before practicing medicine back home. That was my parents' intention when they left: come to America for five years, get my dad’s training done, stay in Wichita for a couple years and make as much money as possible so that we would have a nest egg, and then return to Syria again.
However, there’s what sociologists call the “myth of return”. New immigrants often believe they will return to their homeland one day, but many never do. The dream is always there, but when their children grow up in the new country, that place becomes their home.
My dad went to visit Syria in 1977 and was astounded by how bad things were there. Some of it may have been forgetting how good things were in America, where everyone had food on the table and freedom to do what you wanted. However, they left in 1970, which is right around the time when Hafez al-Assad—the father of current ruler Bashar al-Assad—had taken over the government in a coup. When my father returned, the country had become a totalitarian state with very close ties to Communist Russia. It was a nightmare. There were secret police, so no one could speak freely. My father said, “There was no future for my children. There was no way I could do that to you.” That’s when he made the decision that we'd stay in America. I, obviously, didn’t know any of this and grew up kind of oblivious to this fact.
Over half of my dad's graduating class in Damascus still lives in America today.
You're very open about your Muslim faith. Was this something that you ever tried to conceal or play down? If so, what changed and why?
Growing up, I wasn't overt about it, in part because I was still figuring out religion's place in my own life. During my undergrad at John Hopkins, I had a great group of Muslim friends. They helped me decide that my religion was an integral part of who I was.
From my earliest memories, Islam has had a skewed perception in America, generally negative even before 9/11, but certainly that’s gotten worse. But more than just a negative perception, the amount of ignorance of basic principles of the religion has really struck me. It would be much harder if Americans had a firm grasp of Islam and still had a negative perception but people say things about the religion that are flatly untrue. It’s distressing but it also presents an opportunity: it shouldn’t be hard to change people’s perception of the religion if I can change their ignorance of the religion.
Also, it’s uncomfortable thing to say, but while I’m Muslim, like most other Syrians, I’m white. I speak English natively. My white privilege means that despite being a Muslim, I have never personally encountered overt bigotry from anyone in America. My very existence completely blows up the paradigm of someone who would be bigoted.
As a sports commentator, fan and Muslim, do you ever find those identities difficult to balance given who you are writing for and talking with?
It’s funny that you say that. I have a much harder time reconciling the fact that I am a sportswriter and a doctor. Sports writing was a happy accident that started at the end of college. I was writing posts on an online bulletin board, where hardcore baseball fans congregated at the time. It was there that I met a couple of likeminded baseball fans and got together with them to write an annual baseball book because we were so frustrated with the way that baseball teams were making decisions. The first Baseball Prospectus (BP) book released in 1996.
At that point, I was in medical school and had found a way to fit writing in with my training and later my dermatology residency. However, I always thought of myself as a doctor first and a sportswriter second. As my profile grew, especially after I started writing for Grantland, and reached an audience leaps and bounds beyond what I had had before, I sort of had to confront that, at least to much of society, I would be seen as a sportswriter first and a doctor second. It’s a continuous challenge to balance my day job as a doctor and business owner with this passion I have on the side which I’m well-known for but doesn’t pay most of the bills but I may identity with a bit more.
Early in my writing career, as someone who was a Muslim who has grown up in America and was well-versed in American culture, I sort of had an obligation on behalf of the community to identify as a Muslim, if for the reason that no one else was in the position to do so. I was part of the first wave of children who were born and raised here but there are very few immigrants from Muslim countries who came to America before Congress passed Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that opened the borders to immigrants from all countries. Really, it was just a trickle of Muslims coming in the late 60s and early 70s; the oldest children of Muslim immigrants that I know are in their late 40s now. I'm 40 and 20 years ago when I was starting out I was in my early 20s, essentially almost no public personalities identified as Muslim who had been born and raised here, aside from the African-American community, like Mohammed Ali. (That said, the perception of those people in American society is predicated on the fact that they were African-American first and Muslim second.)
As someone whose very existence shattered the stereotypes of being a Muslim—I was white, I grew up here, I was a huge sports fan—I felt that it was important to drop hints here and there into my writing that I’m a Muslim because people don’t have very much experience with that.
Today, advanced stats are partially being blamed for increasing the number of white male Ivy League graduates filling up the front office. What should be done here to diversify?
It’s an interesting, unintended consequence of what we did. When we started, nobody listened to us, so the last thing that we talked about was "What voices will be lost if we end up being that successful as we ended up being?” But it’s a problem. Part of the issue is that internships are often used to get your foot in the door in an industry—while at the same time many aren’t paid or only pay a miniscule sum. [Over time,] this leads to an unintentional bias towards people who frankly can afford to work for free for summer. Normally, that’s wealthy white people. Because those people can take the internships, they’re often the people who end up taking the full time job and then running the industry 10 or 12 years later.
From baseball's perspective, they’d like to have a leadership that is as diverse as the players on the field, where minorities are strongly represented. One thing you have to do is provide those initial opportunities, those internships and entry level jobs have to compensate well enough that someone isn't dissuaded from taking it no matter how passionate it there are, simply because they can't afford the salary that is provided. That's one way.
In football, the Rooney rule requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when searching a head coaching position. They are not required to hire the person, but being interviewed makes that person more desirable. If you interview for a job and you don’t get it, the next time a job is announced, your name is not only floated, but also has credibility: “So and so was interviewed with this other team.” It’s one of those unconscious nudges to help minority participation at the highest level and I wonder if there’s someone to do that in baseball with these more entry level jobs that lead to higher level job. [Editor’s note: In 1999, then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig instituted “The Selig Rule,” mandating that teams offer interview at least one minority candidate for managerial positions. Since then, teams have been accused of “making a farce” and “mockery” of this effort.]
Here’s the other thing: teams are just looking for math guys right now and if the pool of math people is skewed to men over women and whites over minorities, I don’t know how you solve that from within the industry. The Royals may be one of the teams that pushes the pendulum back the other way, away from just having math guys and more people skills guys or those who have knowledge or experience playing the game or scouting the game. That’s where you see more for minorities because a lot of ex-players go into scouting and coaching and this population is more diverse than the Ivy Leaguers.
Can you talk more about the intersection of baseball and being an American?
It may not be baseball specifically or sports or popular culture, but as a child of an immigrant, I’ve never felt unwelcome or not fully American. (Some of that, no question, is being white. I have a lot of [brown-skinned] Muslim friends from India or Pakistan and they don’t have the same happy childhood memories that I did.) The fact that I, as the son of immigrants could embrace facets of American culture like baseball or football or television, and had that connection to American culture practically from birth, is one of the ways why immigrants can be assimilated so easily, in comparison to other countries.
We briefly lived in Saudi Arabia when i was a teenager and it [opened my eyes] to the stuff you just take for granted in America. For instance, the idea that if someone who moves to your country and has children, their children can attend American public schools and are considered as American as somebody else That’s something that doesn't exist in other parts of the world, and one of the things that makes America so great is that nobody is judged by their ancestry. Maybe immigrants themselves will always find it difficult to fit in but if you talk to immigrants, you’ll see that they’re not worried about themselves as their children, and once they’ve gotten here, it doesn't matter if their parents arrived off the boat the year before they were born or if their ancestors came year off the Mayflower, if you embrace what America stands for and embrace American culture, you will be accepted as American as everybody else. That’s been true for me and for most people, working around the racial issues that we're still grappling with as a country, but I’m not sure it affects immigrants anymore than anyone else.
What led you to start Baseball Prospectus? What was your initial vision for the BP?
There were so many ideas coming out of the analytics community that the industry was ignorant of. Things like on-base percentage are more important than batting average and minor league statistics could be translated into major league statistics to find minor leaguers who were overlooked. There was a community of us analytics fans online that wanted to expose what teams were doing right and what teams were doing wrong. Our long term goal was that it’d be awesome if we had an impact on the way the game was played and how it is talked about on TV and radio. Retrospectively, it seems naïve that we could really do all of that. And at the same time it’s amazing to me that we’ve basically succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.
The idea that just 10 years after first published Baseball Prospectus that there would be several BP alumni working in Major League front offices—that’s something.
Now the game is such people are lamenting that it’s impossible to get a front office job if you are not a young, Ivy League grads. If you’re a long time baseball scout who maybe played baseball in college or the minors, it’s almost impossible to get ahead in the game. I almost feel that the pendulum has swung too far the other way where where every single team has a full time employee dedicated to just crunching numbers and data. Around 10 of the 30 teams have someone who used to write or work for BP in their front office. The Royals have one: Mike Groopman, the head of their analytics department, was an intern at BP. He’s actually the first BP alumnus to to win a ring. Other alumni are on ESPN or Baseball Tonight like Keith Law and Jonah Keri. I even had the chance to interview with the Chicago Cubs a couple years ago. Ultimately, they realized that I was a doctor, but the fact they even considered me for a job just blows my mind.
You’re very, very fortunate if you can get in on the ground floor of a movement that changes society. Maybe it’s only baseball, but it’s still a $9 billion industry. To have been there on the ground floor of the movement that has changed the game for the better, because of facts and data, makes me sort of optimistic. Think of the Martin Luther King line, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Well, the arc of history is long but it bends towards the facts. So if evidence is on your side, the arc of the universe will bend toward you eventually. “Eventually” may be a long time but it’s another reason why I have become a bit more vocal about my faith and politics. I have the facts on my side and I’ve seen what having the facts on your wide can do in the baseball community. I’m optimistic that that can happen in the general political sphere. The problem though is that the level of political discourse in America is so much worse than the tone of sports discourse. In sports, if you say that Team X is great and somebody else says that Team X is terrible, you can’t spin that. But politics is so full of spin that people with an ax to grind or have an agenda—basically everyone on television to some degree or another—can spin a loss into a win. They can spin lies into the truth. It is much, much more difficult to affect the way that politics is talked about. I know the struggle my old friend and colleague Nate Silver has had at Five Thirty Eight in trying to elevate the level of political discourse the way we did with sports. It’s really, really hard, but I do feel like it’s possible.
It’s much more difficult to elevate the political discourse, but the advantage of what I do is that sports is this arena which bridges politics completely. Baseball is not a liberal sport or a conservative sport .You have fans across the political spectrum. What that means is that as one of the leading voices of Royals fans online, I have a very bipartisan audience which probably leans slightly Republican because of the demographics of Kansas and Missouri. It’s very rare today to have a captive audience that is bipartisan because when it comes to politics, people tend to get their news from sources that they want to do. You have Republicans watching Fox and Democrats watching MSNBC and they rarely talk to each other. For me to have a position where I have a sizable number of people following me who actually have completely different political views than me is an incredible opportunity and I don’t want to abuse it by only talking politics because I’ll lose them. But if I talk 95 percent of the Royals, I can probably talk 5 percent of my views as a Muslim, which may be completely contrary to what they are hearing and reading. Here they may at least listen to it. To me that’s an incredible opportunity that sports provides, so I feel like I have an obligation to take advantage of that.
What is BP’s vision today?
I’m not really qualified to say that. Literally everyone I have worked with has moved on. The company was sold about a year ago and I don’t know what the new owners have in mind.
The greatest success of BP is that we made ourselves obsolete. Not just because we were so successful at getting data analysis accepted by the game, but also because so many people that were at BP actually work in the game, they either for a team or a major media source like ESPN, Grantland, or Sports Illustrated. In some ways we were a victim of our own success. If you are a talented college student who wants to work in MLB, one of the first places you would want to work at is BP because it has such a track record of sending people to the major leagues.
Delay of game.
Basketball—not a contact sport. In Everything-Is-Awful Daily, a Louisiana high school kicked seven girls off the basketball team. Their crime: boycotting a game over concerns that their complaints about their male coach being too "touchy-feely" in their personal space weren’t being addressed. The school dismissed their accusations and soon enough, dismissed the girls. But following interviews with the athletes and background checks, it says it will make an announcement about their reinstatement after the holidays.
The school dismissed their accusations and soon enough, dismissed the girls. And so Stacey May Fowles, regrettably, continues to have a beat.
Dave Roberts stole the second and third base of our hearts. Full disclosure, as a Yankees fan, I opted to "eternally sunshine" the last two weeks of October 2004, so I have no idea why Dave Roberts is so important to Bostonians. [Yes you do. - ed] But from one brotha to anotha, I'm happy to see him getting some managerial shine. What I didn’t expect was the new Dodgers manager offering a sincere exploration on earning a job on merit while acknowledging the need for minority representation:
“To step back and [not] realize it’s much, much bigger than me, this situation, would be completely irresponsible of me. I think there’s a lot of people that paved the way ultimately for me to have this opportunity,” said Roberts at a press conference. “...It goes not just to the opportunity. It goes to the responsibility I feel as the first minority manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That isn’t taken lightly. It’s something I’m going to carry with me forever."
Baseball is hiding from its Ray Rice moment. How do you love baseball while acknowledging the domestic violence allegations surrounding its stars? Baseball Prospectus’ Meg Rowley shreds any air of superiority you and I almost certainly have for enjoying America’s pastime over, say, the NFL, due to the former's cleaner image. When discussing MLB’s new domestic violence policy, Rowley writes:
"I fear the goal of the new policy is not to deter violence, but to receive credit for clearing the depressingly low bar set by other leagues. To appear to take a stand against the monsters, while failing to exorcise the specters haunting us. Relative to its own past, and the recent history of other leagues, I fear that baseball believes all it has to do is avoid letting a Greg Hardy linger. I worry what they’ve really committed to isn’t a policy of change but of doing just enough, while actually doing very little at all. I fear the League’s real concern is that I, as a woman who loves baseball, will stop watching baseball. I worry I’ll want to."
The NFL is still pretty dirty, though. Writing for The Cauldron, retired NFL lineman Eben Britton recalls the intense pressure to perform at any cost. For Britton, this was an Adderall addiction that, ironically enough, terminated his career.
“Playing professional football is hard enough when you’re completely healthy. Add a nagging injury to the mix — meaning roughly 98 percent of all NFL players — and the season can quickly turn into a nightmare of pain and doubt. You’re up earlier than everyone else to get treatment, and up later than everyone else to get some more. A little ice, a little pill, and voila: You’re temporarily healed.
Out the closet, out the limelight. Last spring, Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay NCAA D1 basketball player. When Gordon made his announcement, he was playing for UMass. This summer he transferred to private Catholic University, Seton Hall. After a whirlwind of media attention and exuberant social media posts, Gordon all but vanished from the limelight. ESPN takes up the mystery of Gordon’s disappearance in the latest of its series on “exploring what it means to be an openly gay athlete in the post-acceptance world.”
Next step in the Kobe System? While doing research for day job earlier this week, I (Morgan) read about Cathy Cochran, a judge of the nine-member Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Cochran enrolled at law school at the age of 37, making her basically the same age as retiring Kobe Bryant. As someone who constantly seeks to maximize life, I’m moved by both of their energy to do meaningful work--Cochran is credited for significant reforms in Texas’ criminal justice system--at all chapters of their lives. The journey's not close to over for the broken Lakers' star.
"This may be “the finale of my career,” as he calls it, but he intends to go out as he came in, guns firing. Still, as he prepares for the comeback from his comeback, Bryant has become more introspective. He is interested in his place in the game, in documenting his life. He wants to disseminate what he’s learned. To spread the gospel of Kobe. Which helps explain why he has come to China."
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