On the Ball


On Sports

Baseball, perhaps because its players spend so much time in stillness, prompts us to say some pretty silly things about it. Grown men go misty and reach for metaphor: “Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, The Sporting News, ladies’ day, ‘Down in Front,’ ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’ and the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’” as Ernie Harwell—genius broadcaster, magician of nostalgia, limited poet—said in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1981. The great appeal of Billy Beane, the general manager, beginning in 1998, of the Oakland A’s, who is played by Brad Pitt in the new movie Moneyball, is that he offers us an antidote to such sentimentality. He embraces innovative statistical metrics (called, with a ring of sharpness, sabermetrics); he is on a ruthless quest for efficiency. More thrilling still, he may not even like baseball all that much. One of the suggestions of the book Moneyball, written by Michael Lewis, and of its movie adaptation, is that Beane is at war with the game itself. As a middling professional in the eighties, he was tricked into thinking that he was good enough to play at an exceptional level, and there are hints that all his subsequent maneuverings have been fueled by a vindictive desire to upend baseball’s traditions, to make its most storied franchises look petty and stupid, and to stamp out its most deeply embedded myths. 

This idea, however, is itself a myth: Beane is deep in the vein of the national pastime. He works with a plug of tobacco in his lip, hides his eyes from games like a nervous fan, and is a talker, a bully, and a swindler—traits that have always made for good baseball executives. And Moneyball certainly is not, despite a vigorous marketing campaign and the narrative’s internal boosterism, a dramatic re-creation of the battle for the heart and soul of the game of baseball. Beane—because he was smart, and because the relatively impoverished circumstances of his employer demanded original thinking—was an early adopter of a technically sophisticated way of predicting baseball success. That allowed for a few years of advantage, before other teams, including the ones with more money to spend, started doing similar things. (The book and movie follow the A’s during the 2002 season, when they tied the big-spending Yankees for the best record in baseball, winning one hundred and three games.)

Though Beane and his supposed enemy, the entrenched old guard, seem miles apart in Moneyball, both actually sought the same ends: to select the best players and to win the most games. Traditional scouts looked for certain traits in young ballplayers: how they swung, how fast they ran, even, in an odd but charming bit of latent homoeroticism, how handsome they were. Statistically minded analysts looked for other traits: on-base percentages, the number of pitches taken per at bat, the numerical impact a player had on runs scored. Both sides were telling stories, and the numbers guys may have been no less interested in aesthetics than the old-time scouts. In the book, Michael Lewis quotes Bill James, who is credited with introducing the value of statistical analysis to a wide audience, and he sounds, bless him, almost like Ernie Harwell:

When the numbers acquire the significance of language they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do: to become fiction and drama and poetry … And it is not just baseball that these numbers, through a fractured mirror, describe. It is character. It is psychology, it is history, it is power, it is grace, glory, consistency, sacrifice, courage, it is success and failure, it is frustration and bad luck, it is ambition, it is overreaching, it is discipline. And it is victory and defeat, which is all that the idiot subconscious really understands.

Moneyball is interested in the complicated story that statistics tell, but it is also a sports movie, and so it also aims for the “idiot subconscious.” The lone moment of victory in the film, however, comes at the end of an early September game, when first baseman Scott Hatteberg, a washed-up former catcher who in the previous off-season was picked up by the A’s because he could get on base at an exceptional percentage, hits a walk-off home run, giving the A’s their twentieth consecutive win, a new league record. It’s a rousing, familiar baseball-movie scene, a cousin to Robert Redford’s light-smashing home run in The Natural but with a difference: while the movie version of The Natural departed from Bernard Malamud’s novel, choosing glory over squalid tragedy, Moneyball has the glory already built into its source. Yet as Hatteberg rounds the bases on screen—backed by meditative guitar riffs similar to the ones that Friday Night Lights used to put the soul in Texas football—the scene feels oddly anticlimactic, despite the cheering crowd and circle of leaping men celebrating at home plate. The game-ending home-run scene in a baseball movie is supposed to be the terminal, redeeming moment of consequence. Here it is a twist that muddies the moral of the fable.

In a perfect statistical world, Hatteberg might have saved the day by seeing twelve pitches and drawing a walk. His home run was an anomaly—given a similar hundred at bats, he might do it again fewer than five times—just as winning twenty straight games involved all kinds of luck. After the game, Billy Beane says with kind of sadness that walk-off home runs make the fans happy, and they help sell tickets and hot dogs and beer. But he notes that a thrilling win in September means as much as the boring one in April. Or it means just as little. And anyway, the win, though history-making, comes about a month early; that October, Oakland would lose in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight year.

Ambivalence is at the center of the story: about the value of baseball and about what outcomes the people associated with it—management, players, and fans—really want. The Oakland A’s are a business operating on tight margins, not a public trust. They play their games in a bland stadium ill suited to host baseball, in front of some of the smallest crowds in the league. If they were a publicly traded corporation, they would be an inarguably smart investment since they outperform their competitors based on rate of return. Moneyball, as an idea, was to get the most wins out of a baseball team for the best value. But within the logic of the game as narrative, fans are not investors, and baseball teams are not businesses. There is one winner each season, and twenty-nine losers—regardless of who had the most deft and efficient organization.

Wins as a commodity, however, are only part of why baseball holds our attention. Fans, the real outsiders in the story of baseball, also want other things. I saw Moneyball on a Saturday morning in Boston, unusually early; the audience consisted mostly of solitary men like myself, many of them wearing some part of the Boston uniform: Red Sox cap, and a Sox T-shirt or sweatshirt. The Sox were in the middle of a miserable late-season swoon—the losses were adding up, and prospects for making the playoffs were growing dimmer. The city had been grumbling about the team for weeks, and it was difficult to remember taking any joy in the game.

Then I recalled a night a few weeks earlier when I’d sat in Fenway Park and had enjoyed the garish pomp and fanfare of the closer Jonathan Papelbon’s arrival onto the field in the ninth inning, with Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” blaring on the sound system and all the fans signing along. (That song plays everywhere in this town and is generally annoying, but not in that moment.) Some advanced stats argue against the usefulness of the closer position and have proven that teams are better off deploying their most reliable relief pitcher at whatever point in the game that the outcome seems the most in play. Maybe the Red Sox would win a couple more games a season if they scrapped the old-school idea of using a closer. Maybe those wins would get them into the playoffs. But maybe the thrill of those two minutes were worth more to me. The truth is that we prefer the walk-off home runs to the easy victories; we want the hot dogs, the national anthem, and “down in front,” too.

Moneyball argues that Billy Beane changed the game, and in terms of the way talent is evaluated, the success of the Oakland A’s certainly did. Yet he isn’t, finally, an angry outsider looking to destroy anything. Late in the movie, he muses to his right-hand man, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”—not so much a question as a resigned admission. By then it’s clear that he’s become just another of baseball’s mythic heroes, an individual in a game that has always celebrated loners. Forty years ago, another supposed outsider, the pitcher Jim Bouton, wrote Ball Four, an insider account of a big-league season that scandalized the sport and left him in an industry exile. As Moneyball closed on the eyes of Brad Pitt, I thought of the epilogue Bouton wrote to Ball Four, twenty years after he caused such a stir. “So, I’m fifty years old but I don’t feel any older, although I think I’m a little wiser,” he writes. “I have some wrinkles, but I’ve been squinting at batters in the sunshine for a lot of years.”

Ian Crouch contributes to The New Yorker’s Sporting Scene and Book Bench blogs.