Rereading Moneyball the day of the Mitchell report.

The stadium scene.
Dec. 14 2007 1:35 PM

Mitchellball

How the steroids report changes the Moneyball story.

Michael Lewis' Moneyball

The purpose of a parable is to convey a deeper truth. Consider (or reconsider) the one at the heart of the most influential book of what's now officially baseball's Steroids Era. In Chapter 3 of Michael Lewis' Moneyball, the author tells the story of how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane became a paradigm-shifting baseball executive.

Before Beane was a front-office revolutionary, Lewis recounts, he was an outfield prospect—a baseball Adonis blessed with unimaginable physical talents but cursed with a mind too tightly wound to handle the pressures of batting. As he made his way through the Mets farm system, Beane was struck by the contrast between himself and a fellow outfielder, a stumpy, unprepossessing player with an unflappable arrogance at the plate. That other guy, Beane told Lewis, was "perfectly designed, emotionally, to play the game of baseball." While Beane was a washout, his teammate went on to be an All-Star and a world champion.

That player, built to thrive in modern baseball, was Lenny Dykstra.

Moneyball, published in 2003, was a rebuttal to one George Mitchell panel report on the problems of baseball: the 2000 findings of the Commissioner's Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics, which concluded that low-revenue teams were operating at a hopeless disadvantage against the top-revenue teams. Oakland gave the lie to that conclusion; it had a meager budget yet was a perennial contender, thanks to the innovations of Beane and his predecessor, Sandy Alderson. Moneyball's subtitle was "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game."

This week's report refers repeatedly to another problem of unfairness. "We heard from many former players who believed it was grossly unfair that some players were using performance enhancing substances to gain an advantage," Mitchell wrote. The Mitchell report makes a mordant appendix to Moneyball's good news about the state of baseball. What Dykstra helped teach Beane, Lewis explains, was that "[t]he physical gifts required to play baseball were, in some ways, less extraordinary than the mental ones." Particularly, the Mitchell report implies, when the mental gifts could get an assist from some Dianabol.

Or, as Beane says elsewhere in the book: "Power is something that can be acquired. ... Good hitters develop power. Power hitters don't become good hitters." Oakland, with its limited funds, wouldn't spend payroll to buy power hitters. Instead, it invested in cheaper, patient hitters. And those hitters, it seems, bought the power themselves.

Did Beane have steroids deliberately or explicitly in mind? He was talking about his hopes of drafting someone who could be the next Jason Giambi. And Jason Giambi, the 2000 American League MVP, was juiced. So was his younger brother and Oakland teammate, Jeremy. So, according to Mitchell, was the A's other MVP, Miguel Tejada, who asked for and received steroids and testosterone from teammate Adam Piatt. And Oakland's veteran pickup David Justice ("an extraordinary ability to get on base was more likely to stay with a player to the end of his career than, say, an extraordinary ability to hit home runs"). The Oakland locker room, the report says, was an open-air drug market.

Not much of this was news to people who had paid attention to baseball's drug scandals. The Giambi brothers had been publicly tied to the BALCO scandal a year after Moneyball came out. Each had made some sort of public apology or semi-apology; Jason, for good measure, had been sidelined by a tumor consistent with a ravaged endocrine system.

But the value of the Mitchell report is not in what it demonstrates about the pervasiveness of steroids. It is in what it demonstrates about the pervasiveness of steroids denial. The preview stories about the report declared that it would include the names of multiple MVPs. This could hardly have been considered surprising news when Jason Giambi, Jose Canseco, and Ken Caminiti were already on the record as admitted users.

For more than a decade, baseball relied on a cycle of collective forgetfulness. A bad report would surface about someone, the player in question would deny it or obfuscate, and the news would get filed away in a dusty cabinet under the presumption of innocence. "Let's keep our asterisks, innuendo, and, perhaps, even a bit of our conscience in the closet," the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell wrote in 1998, rooting in print for Mark McGwire. What Mitchell did was to dump out the whole cabinet (or at least whole drawers of the cabinet) at once: Roger Clemens' seven Cy Youngs, Eric Gagne's 84 consecutive saves, Jose Canseco's 40-40 season, Juan Gonzalez's two MVPs, the startling longevity of Andy Pettitte and Benito Santiago, the whole slugging record book rewritten by McGwire and Barry Bonds. 

Where were the steroids in Moneyball? They were out of sight, where the baseball world wanted them to be. This is not a reflection on Lewis' reporting, even. The book advanced people's understanding of baseball, on the terms in which people were willing to think about baseball at the time. It accurately named and explained the batting approach that defines this era: power hitting channeled through strict strike-zone discipline. This is the engine not only of Oakland's budget offense, but of the bankroll-busting offenses of the Yankees and Red Sox—each of which has included a Giambi brother on its roster (though not necessarily fruitfully).

Of Jason Giambi, whose $120 million move from the A's to the Yankees is a key part of Moneyball, Lewis wrote: "In all of baseball for the past few years there has been only one batter more useful to an offense: Barry Bonds." The plucky Athletics, in other words, were playing exactly the same game as everyone else.

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