By Erin Sherbert
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Somewhere between the playing field and the sky sits the broadcast booth, a sort of nursing home for former players, or at least for those former players who can get from subject to object without spraining an ankle. The booth is where old ballplayers go to turn senile. There, the utmost commonplaces are dispensed with the air of commandments -- Entertainment Weeklyonce referred to Fox's Tim McCarver as the "Master of the Obvious" -- simply because the head from which they issue once bore the hat of a major-league ball club. It wasn't always so. Time was, the color analyst was brought in just so Howard Cosell would have someone to condescend to; he was comic relief. Today, however, the analyst is regarded as an ambassador of The Game. Not only is he, as a former player, keenly attuned to frequencies no casual fan could ever hear, he is a man with Important Opinions on How The Game Should Be Played.
"The Angels played The Game the way it's supposed to be played," Morgan is saying now. We're standing on the hard pink track skirting the dugout, and in a few minutes Morgan will take the elevator up to the press box and prepare to teach baseball to America; America, if it's smart, will hit the mute button. "They stole bases. They hit and ran. They bunted."
He is talking about the 2002 world-champion Anaheim Angels, but what he's really talking about is the book Moneyball (a book Joe Morgan hasn't read) and why it's bullshit (which is why he'll never read it). I try to point out the contradiction. "I think you should --"
Morgan cuts me off. "No, I shouldn't read the book. 'Cause I don't care about the book."
Moneyball is Berkeley author Michael Lewis' "story of an idea," which profiled the Oakland A's under General Manager Billy Beane and their objective, statistics-based approach -- what's known as sabermetrics, after the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research -- to building a team. The book was a best-seller, a phenomenon in the culture at large -- an investment strategist for Credit Suisse First Boston devoted an entire report to Moneyball; a guy running a hot dog stand found lessons within its pages as well; and now Hollywood wants to turn it into a movie -- which makes it all the more mystifying that it's still so wildly misunderstood.
At bottom, Moneyball is a simple story about a business (in this case, a professional baseball franchise) pouncing on gross inefficiencies in a market (in this case, a long-standing failure of baseball to accurately value its most basic commodity -- the skills of a professional baseball player). The A's payroll regularly ranks near the bottom of the league -- the Yankees pay more in revenue sharing and luxury taxes than Oakland does in player salaries -- and yet, since 2000, the A's have won at least 90 games every season. What they did, initially under General Manager Sandy Alderson and later under Beane, was nothing short of revolutionary in the staid world of professional baseball, that ever-churning bullshit factory in which, Lewis has written, "there really is no level of incompetence that won't be tolerated." The A's approached the game like a science. Their front office was given over to Harvard grads at home in the cells of a spreadsheet, and soon Oakland could put a dollar value on virtually everything -- foot speed ("almost always overpriced," Lewis writes), batting average (not "usually worth what it cost"), on-base percentage ("usually worth a great deal more").
In simple terms, the A's exalted above all else the out, whose value in any given situation can be readily determined (with none on and none out, for instance, it's worth about a fourth of a run). They placed a premium on players who don't make outs (i.e., players who walk a lot and don't gamble on the base paths) and adopted a style of play to match (they rarely sacrifice, hardly ever hit-and-run, and almost never attempt to steal bases, a risk with little reward). These ideas have been around for years, of course; never has a game been so dissected, analyzed, and ultimately revolutionized by its hobbyists. If there's a spiritual father to the sabermetrics movement, it's Bill James, who 30 years ago, as a boiler-room attendant in Lawrence, Kan., began debunking what he called "baseball's Kilimanjaro of repeated legend and legerdemain." By the time Billy Beane was settling into his office with the A's, James was already a legend in his own right, at least to a small but growing community of like-minded people. Oakland, however, represented the stathead revolution's first step into a live clubhouse; the numbers people, at last, had their petri dish.
This was not greeted warmly, at least not everywhere. It was apostasy, after all. It was not How The Game Should Be Played. Even now, all baseball people seem to want to talk about is the supposedly heretical fact that the A's don't steal bases and don't bunt. As a concept, Moneyball was simplified to such a degree that it's now commonly, and wrongly, understood as a playing style in which nine fat men do little but walk, rather than a kind of arbitrage (one of Beane's pet analogies and an apt one, since what sets the A's apart is not necessarily a superior philosophy, but an ability to isolate and capitalize on price discrepancies and inefficiencies). "The book was beautifully understood outside baseball, and by many baseball owners," Lewis says in an e-mail. But in some quarters, he writes, there's still "the inability, or refusal, to grasp the [book's] most basic point -- that it is about using statistical analysis to shift the odds [of winning] a bit in one's favor, not to achieve perfect certainty, which is impossible."