Michael Lewis and Billy Beane talk Moneyball.
“But there was a moment,” continues Lewis, “when I thought, ‘Ha, I can work with this.’ We went down to—”
“Modesto, we drove,” says Beane.
“We drove,” continues Lewis. “We were coming back and it was night and dark, because I remember I couldn’t see my notepad. And you started talking about your relationship to the game. I can’t remember what it was now, but it was interesting. I got home, I had notes all over the paper, I was writing over my own handwriting, but I started scribbling. You would only talk to me when the lights were out. But I thought that he could work.”
And so Moneyball became in large part the drama of Billy Beane: the autodidact who gave himself an education. When Beane was 18 years old, Stanford University had offered him a football and baseball scholarship. He and his parents—bright people without much money who had married young and joined the military middle class—were ecstatic. A good college was everything they wanted. But then the New York Mets offered Beane $125,000 to play baseball instead, and he felt he ought to do it. The movie shows the teenager, around the kitchen table with his parents in the simple family home, making the fateful decision. The filmmakers catch the scene well, but, as Beane says, “I’m not sure they could capture the complete horror.”
“Listen,” he adds, “I’m trying not to talk about myself here. I don’t look at life as a bunch of hindsight reviews of your decisions. But that’s exactly what I wanted to do, to attend Stanford University.”
Beane’s life since—his compulsive reading, his discovery of the Moneyball system, his later discovery of soccer—is a long attempt to give himself the university education he never had. Just as Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google partly because they went to Stanford, Beane created Moneyball partly because he didn’t.
“His worst nightmare is that we all sit around talking about what makes him tick,” says Lewis, and then goes right ahead and talks about what makes Beane tick. “It was interesting to me when I met him that someone who had been denied the conventional college path had that hunger. He was reading all kinds of stuff, and kind of indiscriminately. He’s an omnivore: he eats badly and well, and he reads badly and well.
“There’s this horrible thing that happens with fancy educations, that some incurious people will go to Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford and come out and think they know everything. It’s a huge advantage to him that he has some slight anxiety left that he didn’t go to Stanford.”
“I would agree,” adds Beane quietly.
Lewis says, “It keeps him agitated about new things.”
Hang on: Lewis had a fancy education at Princeton and is still “agitated” about new things.
“Yes, but I was a bad student,” replies Lewis. “That curiosity, he’ll lose it eventually because he’s going to get old, and the older you get the harder it is to take an interest in new things. I find it in myself: noticeably, you have to force yourself. And in pro sports you don’t find a whole lot of curiosity. Baseball is a stupid-making enterprise in that nobody wants to be singled out or say something dumb. You wander in the clubhouse and it’s amazing how incurious the players are. One reason I was attracted to Scott Hatteberg [the former A’s player] as a character: he was just curious: ‘What the hell are you doing here, man?’”
Beane never fulfilled the teenage promise the scouts had wrongly seen in him. Perhaps he was too introspective, too self-questioning to succeed as a ballplayer. But he was always curious. Aged 27, a mediocre player for the A’s, he had done what no healthy 27-year-old major-leaguer ever does: he walked into front office and said he wanted to quit playing to become an advance scout. Just around that time, baseball was developing its own revolutionary intellectual movement: sabermetrics, rooted in the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research. The sabermetricians, a grouping of mostly odd-looking statisticians whose dean was Bill James, janitor in a pork-and-beans factory in Kansas, were very much outside professional baseball. When Beane became a scout, James was already a cult hero. He’d shown various age-old baseball strategies to be useless. Yet hardly anyone in professional baseball knew his name.
Sabermetrics enchanted Beane. To this day he keeps some of James’s typewritten, mimeographed Baseball Abstracts in his office. “I’ll never throw them away,” he told me once. He quickly decided he wanted a sabermetrician of his own. In the film, Pitt and Jonah Hill (as the fat geeky statistician) capture the jock-nerd relationship well. It’s love, but it’s mutual. Hill is wowed by the alpha male Pitt, and Pitt loves Hill for his mind.
Anyone in baseball could have pinched James’s ideas, but there are specific reasons—beyond Beane’s personal journey—why the A’s got there first. First, they had no money. As Pitt tells his scouts in the movie, “The problem we’re trying to solve is there are rich teams, and there are poor teams.” He pauses, before adding: “Then there is 50ft of crap, then there’s us.” The A’s needed to find talent cheap. Second, the Coliseum is just a traffic jam away from the US’s most innovative region. “We’re in the shadow of Silicon Valley here,” marvels Beane. It’s surely no coincidence that the hippies, the breakdown of the family, the high five (supposedly invented by the A’s player Glenn Burke), the personal computer, Google, the iPhone and Moneyball all came out of northern California.
Innovation hurts. After Beane began using numbers to find players, the A’s’ scouts lost their lifelong purpose. In the movie, one of them protests to Pitt: “You are discarding what scouts have done for 150 years.” That was exactly right. Similar fates had been befalling all sorts of lesser-educated American men for years, though the process is more noticeable now than it was in 2003 when Moneyball first appeared. The book, Lewis agrees, is partly “about the intellectualisation of a previously not intellectual job. This has happened in other spheres of American life. I think the reason I saw the story so quickly is, this is exactly what happened on Wall Street while I was there. You had the equivalent of the old school…”
Simon Kuper is an author who writes about sports "from an anthropologic perspective.