Say-It-Ain't-So Joe

Why does Joe Morgan -- the best second baseman in history and a prominent TV broadcaster -- hate Moneyball? And Billy Beane and his Oakland A's? And you, too, if you think the statistical revolution that's overwhelmed Major League Baseball has any

There's a good reason for that characterization, though. On the field, Morgan may have been the Moneyball ideal; he may have even been the smartest player of all time. But on the air, or at his keyboard, he has shown an unwavering ignorance of statistics and their application, and, more damningly, a complete lack of curiosity about the revolution for which his career is a sort of standard. "I've read excerpts of things from Bill James," Morgan says. "I've read excerpts of Moneyball. But I don't read either one of those books, because I don't think statistics are what The Game is about, and so I'm never gonna agree with it, and I don't care -- I'm not saying it's wrong. You can look at it that way. I don't look at The Game that way.

"I playedThe Game," he says. "You're reading it from a book. I played. I watched. I see everything. I know what happens out there. ... My baseball knowledge is accumulated over 20 years of playing, 20 years of watching The Game, so that's what I care about. I can't care if next week somebody comes up with a new way to evaluate The Game. Am I supposed to say, 'Aw, that's good. I'll go that way now'?"

It's not just the "new ways" that confound Morgan. He has never been very good with numbers. One egregious example will suffice: He once wrote that a hitter's value is best measured by runs scored and runs batted in (statistics entirely dependent on the performance of the player's teammates and therefore mostly worthless as an individual metric), and a pitcher's by wins and losses (similarly dependent, similarly worthless). "Run production is how you measure hitters," he wrote with the patness of Scripture. "Wins and losses are how you measure pitchers. Batting averages and ERAs are personal stats." This bit was published in a book Morgan co-wrote. Its title: Baseball for Dummies.

Could Joe Morgan be the joke?


Socratic exchange with Joe Morgan No. 3, on the subject of on-base percentage and whether I'm saying the A's "invented" it:

Me:No, I'm not.

Joe:Yes, you are.


Our conversation has continued into the bowels of SBC Park -- an appropriate place, after all -- pulling pretty much anyone in the vicinity into its vortex. "He's a Moneyball guy," Joe informs the elevator as we ride up to the press box. "He wants to know why I don't like it."

Alas, I realize, Morgan will never get it. The only comfort is that this sort of argument will be a relic within a matter of years. Morgan is in the middle of a paradigm shift in baseball, and he doesn't know it. It's how baseball evolves. Every decade has its great debates and controversies, and they all play out in roughly the same fashion. There's much fretting about the state of the game; there's a book or two; there's an ESPN Outside the Lines special; and at some point, inevitably, George Will is summoned from whatever coffin he happens to be inhabiting and deposited in front of a TV camera. But baseball marches on. "This is not something anybody's going to turn around," ESPN.com's Neyer says. "I was just talking to a friend yesterday, and we compared it to the fight over teaching evolution or intelligent design or creationism. We'll always have rear-guard actions, but if something is undeniable, eventually it's going to take over. That's going to happen with sabermetrics."

"And all I'm telling you," Morgan says to me as we approach the broadcast booth, sounding very much like an assembly worker arguing against his own obsolescence, "is that a computer can't tell you what I know about The Game."

It's inevitable: One day, The Game will welcome the nerds; they will use stats like VORP and WARP and BABIP on SportsCenter; there will be new metrics that are as pretty and precisely turned as a 6-4-3 double play, and they will be cheered in similar fashion; Bobby Grich will be in the Hall of Fame; Joe Morgan will be institutionalized, and his roommate will be Tim McCarver (and McCarver's partner, Joe Buck, will simply be neutered); baseball's furious mythmaking will continue apace, but this time they'll be telling half-truths and exaggerations about Bill James' eureka moments in a Stokely-Van Camp pork-and-beans plant. Until then, the nerds will watch Sunday Night Baseball with a finger hovering just above the mute button. They will read Joe Morgan's chats with disgust, then chuckle at him on blogs and in chat rooms and over games of Stratomatic Baseball.

And I'll remember Joe as I see him now, just an hour before the game, tucked into a chair in a booth high above the field, a barber's smock around his neck. Next to him is the inane patter of a former ballplayer carrying on what seems like a radio interview. "You know," Joe begins to say, as a makeup brush is dabbed along his forehead, "why don't you read the --" He catches himself. I'm pretty sure he's going to plug Tony La Russa's book. But Morgan, noticing the interview nearby, just closes his mouth and his eyes and submits to the makeup brush, and for the next few minutes, in this corner of the room, there's a strange and blessed sound: silence.

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