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Diamond Under A Microscope

  • Apr 15, 2006
Rating:
+5
Baseball is a funny game, Joe Garagiola wrote. Also upsetting, thrilling, boring, redeeming, and traditional, often all in one nine-inning stretch. Something you don't hear so often is that baseball is scientific, not at least until Michael Lewis blew the lid off this dirty secret in his 2003 book, "Moneyball."

Lewis follows one Billy Beane, a one-time hot prospect for the New York Mets who unaccountably never found success in the big leagues until he even more unaccountably wound up the GM for the cash-poor Oakland As. There he began looking for bargain players who looked less like he did and more like his onetime teammate Lenny Dykstra, who looked all wrong for the game but was a star all the same.

"In his own mind he ceased to be a guy who should have made it and became a guy upon whom had been heaped a lot of irrational hopes and dreams," Lewis writes of Beane. "He had reason to feel some distaste for baseball's mystical nature. He would soon be handed a weapon to destroy it."

One wants to jump in here and observe that one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. But Beane's apostasy is covered with such unflinching zeal by Lewis it becomes hard to say where the subject ends and writer begins in "Moneyball's" colorful musings about the economic and strategic inefficiencies of the game.

There are arguments to be made for tradition, for keeping players around even at the cost of paying them a market wage. But "Moneyball's" iconoclasm is so enjoyably presented, with Lewis's love for telling anecdotes and drop-dead quotes, it emerges as the first great baseball book of the 21st century, and the best anti-baseball book in its snarky, rebellious way since Jim Bouton's "Ball Four."

First of all, Lewis presents some bracing concepts, such as the importance of on-base percentage above batting average and RBIs, in a way that makes such knowledge fun to learn even if you are not predisposed to learn from it. He shines a light on the arcane science of sabermetrics, which breaks down how baseball works, in such a way you find yourself laughing at what is at heart a statistical analysis.

And he does find a human side to the equation, in the stories of players conventional wisdom has given up on and Beane has rescued with an eye for a bargain:

"The pleasure of rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don't know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired."

Inspiring? I don't think so. But "Moneyball" is certainly illuminating, and if Beane comes across in retrospect as a manic somewhat tied down by his own dogmas, Lewis emerges as the leading practitioner of the New New Journalism, writing about the most arcane facts in a way akin to the breeziest fiction read. Whatever critics may say, fiction this is not.

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Bill Slocum ()
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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Wiki

Billy Beane, general manager of MLB's Oakland A's and protagonist of Michael Lewis'sMoneyball, had a problem: how to win in the Major Leagues with a budget that's smaller than that of nearly every other team. Conventional wisdom long held that big name, highly athletic hitters and young pitchers with rocket arms were the ticket to success. But Beane and his staff, buoyed by massive amounts of carefully interpreted statistical data, believed that wins could be had by more affordable methods such as hitters with high on-base percentage and pitchers who get lots of ground outs. Given this information and a tight budget, Beane defied tradition and his own scouting department to build winning teams of young affordable players and inexpensive castoff veterans.

Lewis was in the room with the A's top management as they spent the summer of 2002 adding and subtracting players and he provides outstanding play-by-play. In the June player draft, Beane acquired nearly every prospect he coveted (few of whom were coveted by other teams) and at the July trading deadline he engaged in a tense battle of nerves to acquire a lefty reliever. Besides being one of the most insider accounts ever written about baseball, Moneyball is populated with fascinating characters. We meet Jeremy Brown, an overweight college catcher who most teams project to be a 15th round draft pick (Beane takes him in the first). Sidearm pitcher Chad Bradford is plucked from the White Sox triple-A club to...

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Details

ISBN-10: 0393324818
ISBN-13: 978-0393324815
Author: Michael Lewis
Genre: Professional & Technical, Business & Investing, Sports
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
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