John W Henry may be the perfect man to take over Liverpool. After all, he's spent the past eight years running the Boston Red Sox, a team that somehow manages to simultaneously nurse a persecution and a superiority complex. Red Sox Nation, as their fans style themselves, arrogantly believe no other supporters are as passionate about their club, have notions about knowing more about the sport than their rivals, and tend to be a little bit melodramatic when things go awry. After all, these are people who liked to blame their 86-year famine without a World Series on the curse of a dead player. Mawkish Liverpudlians would surely approve.
To understand exactly what Henry might bring to Anfield though, it's necessary to tell the story of him and Bill James. In November 2002, Henry asked James, the doyenne of baseball statisticians, to bring the statistical power known as sabermetrics to bear on the Red Sox. He wasn't the first ambitious owner to think the numbers man might be able to assist his team but he was the first to be so open about it. In the past, others had retained James's services in secret, almost ashamed to let it be known they were buying into the analysis of a lone maverick who started out in the business by self-publishing his theories on the game.
In going public with this appointment, Henry showed the self-confidence of the self-made man and evinced the faith in numbers of somebody who's amassed his own fortune hedging bets in the world of high finance. There was also an implicit admission that since the Red Sox had failed to win a title for the best part of nine decades it was time to try a different tack, a more scientific approach. Less than two years after James' arrival, the Sox would be world champions.
In terms of his baseball CV then, Henry comes trailing an impressive reputation. This, Liverpool supporters should note, is in marked contrast to Tom Hicks. The former Texas Rangers' owner arrived with a tag of being the owner who, in signing Alex Rodriguez, had authored the worst trade in the recent history of the sport. If nothing else, Henry is, befitting somebody with a background in soybean farming, practical and commonsensical in his approach. In Liverpool, as in Boston, where emotions can sometimes cloud better judgment, this will be a boon.
During Henry's stint in charge of the club, the Red Sox have, sometimes over the protestations of their hardcore fanbase, either traded or refused to re-sign some of their most beloved icons of this era. In signing off on the departures of Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, and Pedro Martinez at different junctures over the past few years, Henry showed he is willing to risk short-term popularity for long-term gain. In every instance, the club benefitted from these tough decisions. Gerrard and Torres to go, anyone?
Not everything Henry touches turns to gold. In 2007, he bought into NASCAR's Roush Racing and some argue he may have overpaid for a stake given the sport's popularity had just began to wane. This year, Roush Fenway Racing, as it's now known, went 27 races without a win. When one of its four cars finally broke this streak last month, that took the team's record at that point to two wins in the last 55 tries. Hardly stellar stuff.
"He taught us, among other things, that individual ballparks have a profound effect on a ball player's production, that the largest variable determining how many runs a team will score is how many times the lead-off hitter gets on base, that much of what we perceive as pitching is actually defence," wrote Henry in an article for Time magazine about Bill James. "What James demands is that we take the time to listen to what the game is telling us over and above what we are predisposed to believe."
If nothing else, it will be good to see a man who thinks as deeply as that about sport arriving in a game where Alan Shearer is considered an "analyst".