By Mark Hyman
The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
By Michael Lewis
Norton -- 288pp -- $24.95
During three years as a beat reporter covering the Baltimore Orioles, I learned much about the unwritten code that binds big-league baseball players. Among their inviolable commandments: Thou shalt not needlessly humiliate opposing players, coaches, managers, or even batboys. That explains why fans can attend a season of games without seeing a slugger pose at the plate as a grand slam disappears into the upper deck. (The next pitch could be at his temple.) But does the injunction apply to baseball executives? That was the question I kept asking myself while reading Michael Lewis' entertaining account of a season with the Oakland Athletics general manager, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.
Lewis, whose previous efforts include the Wall Street insider's account, Liar's Poker, trails Billy Beane, an executive who is highly regarded within his profession but little known among rank-and-file fans. Trails is the word. Baseball officials are famous for erecting walls of privacy as impenetrable as the Pentagon. But in this book, Lewis is everywhere writers never go.
He sits in Beane's office as the GM dickers over trades with opposing team officials. In a memorable scene, Lewis is closeted with the A's scouting brain trust while a volatile Beane spews expletives and decides which players to select in the annual amateur draft. Throughout the book, Beane is shown playing other GMs for fools and cackling when they bite at his shrewd trade proposals.
At 41, Beane, a handsome, peripatetic ex-ballplayer, has forged baseball's unlikeliest dynasty in the low-budget A's. Unlike the New York Yankees, a team that retools by lavishing millions on expensive free-agent stars, the A's owe their success to a roster of unwanted or undiscovered foot soldiers. Recognizing their hidden talents is what Beane does as well as anyone in the big leagues.
To illustrate Beane's gift, Lewis offers the example of Scott Hatteberg, a journeyman catcher all but discarded by the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies after he developed a chronically sore elbow. Only Beane and his Sancho Panza, Harvard University-educated Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, see the true ballplayer within. At a minute after midnight -- 60 seconds after the Rockies' exclusive rights to Hatteberg expire -- DePodesta is on the phone wooing the player. Today, Hatteberg is the A's first baseman and one of the American League's most reliable batsmen.
As Lewis explains, Beane's deft touch for ferreting out baseball gems is attributable largely to two sources: a new breed of baseball statistician and his own experience. Fans have long worshiped such numerical nuggets as batting average, earned-run average, and runners left on base. Now, those old standards share the stage with new, often-arcane baseball intelligence compiled by wonks for whom every pitch could be the basis for a doctoral thesis. At the head of the class of these statisticians is Bill James, the noted "sabermetrician" whose oddball tale makes up one of Lewis' most engaging chapters.
Then there's Beane's own life. Before becoming a GM, he endured a rocky career as a big-league outfielder. A speedy, 6-foot, 4-inch prospect with sock in his bat, Beane was so prized that the New York Mets pondered drafting him ahead of Darryl Strawberry. The scouts didn't see that Beane lacked the composure and discipline to make a splash in the bigs. His undistinguished career included stops with the Mets, Minnesota Twins, and Detroit Tigers before fizzling out in Oakland, where, in 1990, he talked his way into a job as an advance scout.
Lewis argues that the disappointment of Beane's playing career revealed to the future GM that there's more to a good ballplayer than raw ability. And the stats offered by James and, later, DePodesta -- on-base percentage and slugging percentage among them -- were wonderful clues to what really mattered.
There's no arguing with Beane's record. During his tenure with the A's, he has made a liar out of every major-league Chicken Little, starting with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who says the disparity between rich and poor franchises threatens the sport's survival. If Beane can do it on the cheap, why can't other have-not franchises?
Still, Lewis' relentless bouquet-throwing is a bit much. Is Beane really that exceptional? In fact, there are other baseball Einsteins: Last year, Sporting News named Minnesota Twins GM Terry Ryan Baseball Executive of the Year. All Ryan did was guide a low-budget, small-market franchise to a division title. Then his Twins whipped Beane's bunch in last season's playoffs.
And if we're deducting points for brashness, maybe Beane should fall closer to the back of the pack. Having dropped his guard with the author, he reveals himself, unflatteringly, as the master of the diss. Beane even takes a whack at last season's A's manager, Art Howe, whom Lewis paints as no more than a puppet. Writes Lewis: "Billy had told Art how and where to stand during a game...because when Art sat on the bench, as he preferred to do, he looked like a prisoner of war." Ouch.
Here's my question: If Billy Beane is so brainy, why would he tell that anecdote to a guy writing a book?
Hyman is a contributing editor for Sports Business.