Michael Lewis and Billy Beane talk Moneyball.
“The fat mortgage traders at Salomon Brothers,” I interject. (Declaration of interest: Liar’s Poker explains so clearly what a bond is that it got me through my job interview at the FT in 1994.)
“Yes,” says Lewis, “who had high-school degrees from New Jersey and traded by their gut. But they are replaced by hairless wonders from MIT.”
Hairless wonders like the young Lewis?
“I wasn’t as bright as they were, but, yes, when I came out of the training programme at Salomon Brothers it was pretty clear I was going into the cutting-edge group filled with the people from MIT, as a lesser light, a salesman rather than a trader.
“The intellectuals had an advantage because the securities had got more complicated. The Black-Scholes options pricing model had been invented [a mathematical formula for pricing options developed by two professors, which helped kickstart trading in derivatives]; the guys from New Jersey didn’t understand it. And so there was never any question about who was going to win. It was quick and ruthless. The old guys just shuffled off to less and less important parts of the business and that sort of person wasn’t hired again.”
In baseball, though, the old scouts did find a new purpose. Lewis says, “I never thought scouts were totally pointless, I thought they were just looking for the wrong things. I told Billy: ‘If I were you I’d hire a bunch of female journalists who go and find out about the lives of these players. Find out if they’re alcoholics, that stuff.’”
To a degree, this happened. Today a laptop evaluates a player’s quality, and the scouts evaluate his personality. They are needed now for their soft skills.
For years Moneyball worked for Oakland. The A’s won more games than they lost every season from 1999 to 2006. Their peak was 2002, the year Lewis hung around the Coliseum, when the unlikely bunch of rejects assembled by Beane won 64 per cent of their games. The movie’s emotional peak is their 20th successive victory.
“Remember?” Beane asks Lewis. “We had a long conversation here during the 20th game.”
“I was there,” says Lewis, pointing around the tiny office, “you were here.”
Lewis had arrived at the Coliseum early in the game, and banged randomly on the building’s locked front door: “He answered the door!” Lewis recalls. “He said, ‘Sshh, come on.’ And we sat right here, we watched the game.”
Beane says, “Well, we didn’t watch it.” Beane never watches A’s games. “The game was on in the background and I didn’t want to pay attention to it. I’m an emotional guy, who has the ability to make emotional decisions, but I want to make rational decisions so I removed the emotional part. Michael became my history tape that night.”
Does Beane really spend games listening to documentaries about history?
“You name it. I think I know Maximilien Robespierre’s life better than he does.”
When Beane first saw the manuscript of Moneyball, he presumed nobody would ever read it. Even so, he was aghast: his character swore! “I come from a military family,” he explains. “I said to Michael, ‘My Mom’s going to read this book.’”
“It was too late to do anything,” sighs Lewis.
But the former ballplayers who then ran baseball were even more aghast. The notion that numbers could trump gut outraged them. Unfortunately for them, a year after the book appeared, the Boston Red Sox, with the 30-year-old Yale graduate Theo Epstein as general manager, won the world series of 2004 using Moneyball methods. In 2007 the Red Sox won again. Other teams began hiring Epsteins and Beanes rather than clubbable ex-players. Last season only three of 30 GMs in the major leagues had played professional baseball, none of them very successfully. Beane has ended up restricting job opportunities in baseball for people from backgrounds like Beane’s.
Simon Kuper is an author who writes about sports "from an anthropologic perspective.