Although I like attending the occasional professional game and spent much of my childhood waiting on my brothers’ Little League games to end, I’ve never been that into baseball. What I have liked a lot over the years are the movies like A League of Their Own, Angels in the Outfield, and more recently, Moneyball, and even more recently the Korean drama Stove League. Something about baseball is romantic, what exactly about it is romantic, I’m not sure, but it definitely has a completely illogical, dreamer side to it that other sports just don’t have.
Standing in the middle of right field with a too big glove on my right hand and a too big hat falling over my eyes. The sweet grass, the beautiful sky above, and wham! there comes a ball into my territory. My own experience playing softball I just never understood why the game had to interrupt my daydreaming in the outfield.
But I digress. Moneyball is a good movie and the book is an excellent read if you don’t mind skimming over a lot of statistics. The statistic, the number have an eerie draw in that if one does understand them, one might become obsessed. Michael Lewis takes a rather dry topic and makes some magic out of it. While the book isn’t quite as plot propelled as the movie starring Brad Pitt is, one can see why some screenwriter thought this story would make a good movie. Billy Beans sounds like an amazing person, and maybe a little scary. But those who see things others don’t are all a little scary to some degree.
Although Beane and what he accomplished with the Oakland A’s is the focus of the book, Lewis also delves into the obsession, the romantic obsession that so many have with the game and especially with the statistics and picking the players. He presents the intriguing Bill James, who turned writing about baseball into an art form and first started hashing out the idea that the scouts had it wrong. That how players were picked for the league teams was all wrong.
Lewis follows one obsession to another, as James picks up readers and those readers come up with new ideas and then people are obsessed not only with the game of baseball, but the metrics of it, the statistics. Sabermetrics. It’s a sad tale how these smart, genuine fans come across brilliance, but that the big league teams just don’t see it, as they are blinded both by money and just how it’s always been done. “How it’s always been done” is a curse on the world sometimes and how good it is to shake things up. More than half our stories are about this very thing and this is the great appeal of Beane’s story, except it’s backwards almost. Usually throwing off how things have been done before means getting to know people better not increasing the technology and metrics and measuring of the people. But, here, that’s what’s done, and here it works. Here, the numbers tell more of the story of a player’s worth than do the scouts who are all too often looking at the superficial.
Beane isn’t presented as some kind of saint, and neither is his assistant manager Paul DePodesta. Although both see amazing potential through the number for certain otherwise overlooked players, they are constantly moving on and moving on to the next one. It’s not about the people, it’s about getting wins, getting walks, getting on base. Or is it? A great majority of Moneyball is about the debate: Number vs. Numbers. Which statistics really tell the truth about a player and his potential? One could get obsessed.
The Afterward is the saddest and most interesting part. Writing about real people has real consequences. Even if you’re presenting everything as you see, presenting a whole person, still the readers can misunderstand. In this case, the “readers” are those involved in professional baseball. Lewis insulted them with this work and it seems like they took it out on Beane. No one likes to be told they are wrong, and it is a royal pain trying to convince anyone they are wrong. Often, they take their ire out on the messenger, and in this case, although the messenger was Lewis, they decided to take it out on Beane. Sad for him, but I’m sure he wasn’t surprised and I’m sure he used it to further his very smart antics with the Oakland A’s. I’m sorry the scouts built him up so much for baseball and it didn’t work out, but because it didn’t work out, he and the Oakland A’s changed how the game is done.
Moneyball was a good read and almost pulled me into the obsession. Someday I would like to read Bill James’s writings on the sport and I now have a much better understanding of the people in my life who are rather obsessed with baseball: They are romantics and dreamers, and maybe number people too.