Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

A Life-Changer
New books dissected over email.
June 3 2003 11:40 AM

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

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Jim,

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First, I agree with you about this: Moneyball is a wonderful book. I firmly believe that Moneyball is this generation's Ball Four. Their subjects are completely different, of course. But both books approach baseball with refreshing irreverence and healthy disdain for Conventional Wisdom and the Powers That Be. And more tellingly, Moneyball is simply a book that you have to read if you want to consider yourself an informed baseball fan. (In the interest of moderately full disclosure, I probably should mention that I met Michael Lewis last summer, that he and I shared a wonderful Italian dinner in the North End, and that he asked me to read Moneyball before he submitted the manuscript to his editor. Oh, and that I like him quite a lot.) While it might not outsell hugely successful baseball books like George Will's Men at Work and David Halberstam's Summer of '49, Moneyball has already become a part of the discussion to a much greater degree than either of those books ever did.

Basically, Moneyball is going to change people's lives.

Second, I also agree with you about this: It's easy to misread Moneyball. Most of the media coverage of the book comes down to two things: Billy Beane is a monomaniacal genius (or perhaps just monomaniacal), and the A's win games because they're stat-happy.

Well, no. Billy Beane doesn't spend his days scheming for world domination, and his ego's really no bigger than those of most of the men who guide the fortunes of businesses valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And the Athletics' success has very little to do with statistics and very much to do with how the Athletics think about not only statistics but nearly everything else that comes with running a baseball team.

Now, your questions …

How do we make sense of the inertia that executives have shown when it comes to new ideas? It's easy to understand, really. We can frame baseball within Thomas Kuhn's notion of "paradigm shift," but what it really comes down to is this: Most of the men who make baseball decisions have a vested interest in the status quo, because without the status quo their knowledge isn't as valuable. If you take a man who's spent most of his life predicting the future of 17-year-old baseball players by using his eyes and tell him that it's impossible to predict the future of 17-year-old baseball players with any sort of precision, how is he going to react?

Right. Without much good humor. Actually, many baseball men will admit that it's almost impossible to project the future of a young player, but they'll also argue that it's still worth trying to do, because nobody knows a better way to go about the business.

Will all the positive attention that Moneyball is getting from the mainstream press change that? Sure, but only to a point. I heard a funny story yesterday from somebody who works for a baseball team. This friend of mine was on a team flight and was reading Moneyball. The team's general manager walked down the aisle, saw the book, and said, "What are you reading that &%@$ for?"

He was serious, too. Not only will this executive not read Moneyball; he doesn't want anybody reading Moneyball. So, no; change is not going to happen overnight, which is why this isn't going to affect the A's much over the next few years. Could it cost them a game or two in the standings? Sure, I suppose it could. But you have to remember that 1) the A's have a big head start over everybody but the Blue Jays and the Red Sox, and 2) a game or two generally doesn't make a difference at the end of the season.

Long term? This is going to change everything.

The men who run baseball teams are mostly in their 40s and 50s. But the men—and women, we can all hope—who will run baseball teams are now in their 20s, and it's those men and (we hope) women who are, at this very moment, reading Moneyball for the second or third time. In 15 or 20 years, you'll be extremely hard-pressed to find even one baseball executive—or for that matter, any executive in any professional sport—who didn't consider Moneyball a life-changing event.

And for this reason alone, I think it's the single most influential baseball book ever.

See ya,
rob

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