Out Of Their Tree The author wrote a book, Moneyball, that drove baseball's clubby traditionalists crazy. They fought back. Now he does too

March 01, 2004

A religious war is taking place in baseball, and it has its fair
share of gurus, zealots, scribes and heretics. The fight, not
unlike the one between PC and Mac, is about belief in different
operating systems.

On one side are the traditionalists, who cling to an old system
that relies heavily on the opinions of "baseball men," such as
scouts and team executives, to divine a winning combination of
players with a grasp of time-honored fundamental baseball. What
was good for John McGraw, manager of the 1903 New York Giants,
is good for Jack McKeon, manager of the 2003 world champion
Florida Marlins.

On the other side are the progeny of the information age, who
view the traditionalists as a flat-earth society and believe in
substituting data for subjectivity whenever possible. These
people have a name, thanks to last year's best-selling book by
Michael Lewis: Moneyball guys.

Lewis's book (SI, May 12, 2003) was about the new operating
system. Specifically, it was about how the Oakland A's, under
general manager Billy Beane, have used the system to run a
successful franchise (October excluded) on a shoestring budget.

Business people hailed Beane as an innovator who took the
romance out of building a team and treated ballplayers as
stocks, with his own prescriptions for managing risk. Many
baseball people, however, bristled at Lewis's depiction of
Beane as an infallible mastermind and of traditionalists as
rubes. Some writers and commentators sympathetic to the
traditionalist school took a similarly harsh view of both Beane
and the book.

What follows is Lewis's response: less an epilogue to Moneyball
than a new offensive in baseball's holy war.

Anyone who wanders into major league baseball can't help but
notice the stark contrast between the field of play and the
uneasy space just off it, where the executives and the scouts
make their livings. The game itself is a ruthless competition.
Unless you're very good at it, you don't survive in it. But in
the space just off the field of play there really is no level of
incompetence that won't be tolerated.

There are many reasons for this, but the big one is that
baseball is structured less as a business than as a social
club. The Club includes not only the people in the front office
who operate the team but also, in a kind of women's auxiliary,
many of the writers and broadcasters who follow the game and
purport to explain it. The Club is exclusive, but the criteria
for admission and retention are nebulous. There are many ways
to embarrass the Club, but being bad at your job isn't one of
them.

The greatest offense a Club member can commit is not ineptitude
but disloyalty. Had he not been an indiscreet writer, Jim
Bouton might have made a second career of scouting and coaching
big league prospects. But because he wrote Ball Four he was as
good as blackballed from the Club.

That's not to say that there are not good baseball executives and
bad baseball executives, or good scouts and bad scouts. It's just
that they aren't very well sorted out. Baseball doesn't subject
its executives to anything like the pressures of playing
baseball, or even of running a business. When a big league team
spends huge sums of money and loses, heads might roll, but not
very far. Club insiders have a remarkable talent for hanging
around--scouting, opining on the game--until some other
high-level job opens up. There are no real standards, because no
one wants to put too fine a point on the question: What qualifies
these people for these jobs? Taking into account any quality
other than Clubability would make everyone's membership a little
less secure.

Last year I published a book, Moneyball, that began with an
obvious observation: Some baseball executives are much better
than others at getting wins for the dollars they spend. The idea
didn't begin with me--Doug Pappas, an excellent writer on the
thought-provoking website baseballprospectus.com, had long
hammered on this idea of efficiency. Pappas had pointed out that
one team, the Oakland A's, had been so much more efficient than
any other team that they appeared to be in a different business.
My book tried to explain how this could be.

To fully appreciate the response to Moneyball from inside the
Club you need a bit of otherwise irrelevant background. When I
began my reporting I didn't know anyone inside the A's; I'd never
even heard of Billy Beane, the Oakland general manager. In the
year I spent studying his organization, Beane showed explicit
interest in my project on just a few occasions, when he said I
shouldn't focus too much on him. He and his assistant G.M., Paul
DePodesta, were never exactly rude, but they made it clear that
they had more interesting things to do than to talk to me. The
only control they had over my project was the power to throw me
out of their offices or the A's clubhouse--which they did, now
and then. The sad truth is that they were somewhat indifferent to
me. As far as they knew, I wasn't even writing a book about the
Oakland A's. I was writing a book about the collision of reason
and conventional baseball wisdom. (They weren't the only ones
whose eyes glazed over when I tried to explain what I was up to.)
The A's would be in the book, but so would other teams. So, for
that matter, would be players whose lives had been changed by the
new value system the A's were introducing. A long section of the
book would be devoted to the spiritual father of their
enterprise, the groundbreaking baseball analyst Bill James.

It was only after I had spoken with front office people at other
teams, and found they didn't have much to add to this odd story
about the rethinking of baseball, that I came to focus on
Oakland. By that time the 2002 baseball season was over, and I
had my material. As always happens when the material is strong,
the story became telescoped in the writing. I felt compelled to
jettison everything that didn't have to do with putting together
a baseball team. The result wasn't anything like the biography of
a man--it was more like the biography of an idea--and it departed
from its main character, Billy Beane, for 35 pages at a time.

Until they saw it, then, the Oakland executives and scouts had
only the faintest notion of what my book was about. They read
it when reviewers read it, about a month before the hardcover
edition hit the stores last May. Each member of the team's staff
had a slightly different reaction. Beane was horrified that so
much of the thing was about him and disturbed that I'd portrayed
him as something of a maniac. I probably should have felt more
guilt about this than I did. I assumed most readers understood
that this wasn't the whole man and that I wanted to capture him
doing what he did so well and so interestingly: evaluating,
acquiring and managing baseball players. And as he did this, in
his most intense moments, he was a bit of a maniac.

That's the background to what happened next, which was something
new in my experience as a writer. Members of the Club flipped
out. Not at me, mind you; at Billy Beane. For the six months of
the 2003 baseball season the sun did not set without some
professional blowhard spouting off about Beane's outsized ego. To
catalog the scorn heaped on the poor man, whose only crime was
not throwing me out of his office often enough, would take even
longer if I had to include the countless examples of front office
executives who condemned Beane anonymously to their friendly
local columnists, but it's worth citing a few examples in which
the columnists carried the water for the Club:

"It was Beane who had a best-selling book, Moneyball, written
mostly about him, in which he bragged endlessly about outsmarting
more wealthy clubs by reinventing the way players are evaluated."
(Art Thiel, Seattle Post Intelligencer)

"The other person being mentioned as Evans' possible successor,
Oakland's Billy Beane, has done a terrific job with modest funds
with the A's, but he's also a shameless self-promoter who wrote a
book about his imagined genius and is despised by scouts around
baseball." (Doug Krikorian, Long Beach Press Telegram)

"Two things are apparent in the recently released book
Moneyball.... Billy Beane's ego has exploded.... " (Tracy
Ringolsby, Rocky Mountain News)

I'll return to the second thing apparent to Mr. Ringolsby because
he speaks for a big faction of the Club: the scouts. But first,
what seemed apparent to me, terrifyingly so, was that baseball
insiders were going to compel my subjects to recant--to say that
this book about their organization was laughably off-target and
safely ignored. If the A's had a dollar for every journalist who
asked Beane or DePodesta if he'd been misquoted, they could have
gone out and bought a proper centerfielder. The pressure from
Club members and the media on Beane, especially, was intense: No
baseball man was ever accused of saying more things he never said
or doing more things he never did. A few insiders took the novel
approach of accusing Beane of lying about being misquoted, even
though he'd never said he'd been misquoted in the first place.
"He was not misquoted for 200 and some pages," Mariners G.M. Pat
Gillick told the Seattle Times, just before swearing that he
"wouldn't buy the book."

But the A's didn't recant, and a phony debate soon heated up. It
wasn't as interesting as a real debate, in which there's an
actual exchange of ideas. It was more like a religious war--or
like the endless, fruitless dispute between creationists and
evolutionists. On one side, parrying insults and half-baked
questions, were the baseball fans who think hard about the use
and abuse of statistics. On the other side, hurling the insults
and the half-baked questions, were the Club members, who felt a
deep, inchoate desire to preserve their own status.

Q: If Billy Beane's such a genius, how come he didn't draft (fill
in the high school phenom)? How come he's paying Jermaine Dye,
who hit .172 last season, $11 million a year?

A: The point is not that Beane is infallible; the point is that
he has seized upon a system of thought to make what is an
inherently uncertain judgment--the future performance of a
baseball player--a little less uncertain. He's not a
fortune-teller. He's a card counter in a casino.

Q: If Beane's so smart and he says that on-base percentage is so
important, how come the A's don't score more runs?

A: They don't score more runs because their on-base percentage is
not, in fact, that great; it's much worse than it used to be. The
market for major league players with a high on-base percentage
has tightened, thanks, in large part, to Oakland's success.
Still, the A's on-base percentage retains one important quality:
It is good for the money. Anyway, the point is not to have the
highest on-base percentage but to win games as cheaply as
possible. And the way to win games cheaply is to buy the
qualities in a baseball player that the market undervalues--and
sell the ones that the market overvalues.

Q: What kind of egomaniac claims that he discovered all these
statistics? On-base percentage! My old buddy (fill in the name of
the old buddy) has known about on-base percentage since 1873.

A: The people in the A's front office never claimed to have
discovered sophisticated statistical analysis. They were merely
ramming it down the throat of an actual big league
organization--their own.

I had gone to some trouble to show that all the ideas Beane had
slapped together were hatched in other people's brains. Indeed,
any reader of Moneyball who had read Bill James, or followed the
work of some of the best baseball writers (Peter Gammons, Rob
Neyer, Alan Schwarz) or the two most sophisticated analytical
websites, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Primer, might fairly
wonder what all the fuss was about: We knew this already. The
fuss, as far as I was concerned, was that the rubber had finally
met the road, and, for putting it there, Beane deserved a lot of
credit. (Or blame, depending on your point of view.) He'd had the
nerve to seize upon ideas rejected, or at least not taken too
seriously, by his fellow Club members, and put them into
practice. But I'd never thought of Beane as a genius. He was more
like a gifted Wall Street trader with no talent for research.

Over and over during the 2003 season I found myself facing one
reaction from the reading public and another from the Club. But
it wasn't until Joe Morgan weighed in that I fully understood the
discrepancy. A Hall of Fame player and ESPN analyst, Morgan,
although he has never held a front-office job, is the closest
thing to Club Social Chairman. And when he talked about
Moneyball, the tone of the discourse, already unhinged, came
untethered from reality. In one of his early season espn.com chat
sessions Morgan was asked what he thought of the book. He wrote:
"It's typical if you write a book, you want to be the hero. That
is apparently what Beane has done. According to what I read in
the Times [The New York Times Magazine had excerpted Moneyball]
Beane is smarter than anyone else. I don't think it will make him
popular with the other G.M.'s or the other people in baseball."

One person pointed out to Morgan, in print, that Beane hadn't
written Moneyball. It had no effect. A week later, during another
chat, someone else asked Morgan what he would do to improve the
A's if he were Beane. To which Morgan replied, "I wouldn't be
Billy Beane first of all!! I wouldn't write the book Moneyball!"

Here was the nub of the problem: Morgan hadn't read the book, but
he was certain Beane had written it. Even people inside the Club
who understood that some other human being had actually scribbled
down the words in Moneyball took the book, at bottom, to be the
work of Beane. He was saying, they complained, that there was
some objective way to measure the performance of a baseball
team--and that he was the best at it. Even worse, he had written
a whole book just to say that a lot of things that Club members
do are ludicrous.

It was, in a perverse way, an author's dream: The people most
upset about my book were the ones unable to divine that I had
written it. Meanwhile, outside the Club, the level of interest
and reading comprehension was as good as it gets. The Oakland
front office had calls from a cross-section of U.S. business and
sports entities: teams from the NFL, NBA and NHL, Wall Street
firms, Fortune 500 companies, Hollywood studios, college and high
school baseball programs. There was even a fellow who ran a chain
of hot dog stands who found a lesson for his business in the
experiment occurring in Oakland. (Don't ask.) Every nook and
cranny of American society, it seemed, held people similarly
obsessed with finding and exploiting market inefficiencies. The
people most certain they had nothing to learn from the book were
in the front offices of other major league teams.

But of course they didn't! They weren't business executives; they
were a Club. In business if someone comes along and exposes the
trade secrets of your most efficient competitor, you're elated.
Even if you have your doubts, you grab the book, peek inside,
check it out. Not in baseball. In baseball many of Beane's
competitors were furious. In the Club there was no need to read
the book, and, with the exception of several owners who took an
interest in the book; baseball executives bragged that they
hadn't read the book because, well, it was offensive. "In poor
taste" was the phrase used by the Grand Pooh-Bah of the Raccoon
Lodge, Pat Gillick.

What baseball did instead was to cast about for reasons to
dismiss what had happened in Oakland--and what was happening in
Boston and Toronto. If the nerve was so raw, it was because the
idea of rational baseball management had begun to spread. The
Red Sox, having failed in an attempt to hire Beane as their
G.M. in late 2002, did the next best thing and hired a bright
young man, Theo Epstein, who viewed Beane as his role model.
The Blue Jays had already hired Beane's right hand man, J.P.
Ricciardi. (And just last week, the Los Angeles Dodgers' new
owner, Frank McCourt, hired Beane's second in command,
DePodesta, as his new G.M.) Epstein and Ricciardi met with
resistance from local media, though the Red Sox press is so
reliably venomous that it was impossible to distinguish the
poison directed at Epstein from the poison aimed at every other
executive who'd had the temerity to pass through Fenway Park.
What was interesting in Boston was the story that never got
written or, rather, the question that never was asked: If we've
been doing things more or less the same way for 80 years and we
are hysterically angry about the results, shouldn't we try
something different? Might not science offer an answer to the
Curse of the Bambino?

Toronto was closer to a pure case study. Ricciardi had done what
every enlightened G.M. on a budget will eventually do: Fire a lot
of scouts, hire someone comfortable with statistical analysis
(Keith Law from Baseball Prospectus--a website, for cryin' out
loud) and begin to trade for value. Ricciardi dumped as many
high-priced players as he could, replaced them with lower-priced
players--and won more games. His biggest problem was finding
teams willing to take bloated contracts off his hands. (His best
day all year, Ricciardi told me, was when George Steinbrenner
watched a Yankees rightfielder drop a fly ball, blew a fuse and
demanded that his "baseball people" buy Raul Mondesi off the Blue
Jays.)

Ricciardi slashed the payroll to $53 million from $82 million. In
an efficient market if you cut your payroll by nearly 40%, you
would expect to lose a lot of games. That's not what happened.
What happened was that the Blue Jays went from being a depressing
group of highly paid underachievers to an exciting team. They
were younger, cheaper and better.

For the most part the baseball fans of Toronto appreciated the
change. But even there, in that gentle and decent place, was that
noisome sound: the miserable squeaks of protest from the Club
members, by way of the media. One morning during the 2003 season
the city woke up to a package of stories in the Toronto Star that
raised alarming questions about the new Blue Jays. the white
jays? read the banner on the paper's front page. Then: "In a city
of so many multicultural faces, Toronto's baseball team is the
whitest in the league. Why?" The baseball writer behind the
articles, Geoff Baker, had found that the Blue Jays averaged 10
or 11 nonwhite players since 1994, but after Ricciardi's wheeling
and dealing they had only six. How sad, how regrettable that the
team no longer reflected the diversity for which Toronto was so
famous. "Ricciardi is at a loss to explain the numbers as
anything beyond coincidence," wrote Baker, who was not similarly
at a loss. He found the explanation in the way Ricciardi ran a
baseball team.

It was an intriguing line of attack, but with a tactical
weakness. By its very nature it provoked a response from the
public, and the public is something the Club cannot control.
Letters from outraged readers poured into the Star, and the
managing editor apologized for the provocative banner. The
National Post ran a withering editorial pointing out that the
Blue Jays' promotional campaign featured two players, Carlos
Delgado and Vernon Wells, neither of them white. It noted that
the city of Toronto was 8% black and 2% Latino, while its
baseball team was 12% black and 12% Latino, and that it was
grotesque to make racial generalizations based on a couple of
front office moves. Wrote the Post: "The story, shot through as
it was with vague hints of racism, comprised a smear job on a
baseball team that has no other agenda than to win games and
please its fans."

But where the anger climaxed was in the Blue Jays' clubhouse: The
players were ticked off. You see, they were laboring under the
impression that they'd been selected for their ability to play
baseball, not for their color. "It was the most stupid thing I've
ever heard," Delgado told The Toronto Sun. "You don't see anybody
writing anything about the Maple Leafs not having a black guy or
the Raptors having 90% black players. [Race] has nothing to do
with it. We don't have any kind of problem in the clubhouse, and
we don't need that s---."

Enter, stage right, Richard Griffin, a second baseball writer on
the Star. Relentless in his criticism of the Ricciardi regime and
its new methods, he never missed a chance to point out where it
was going wrong. Now he explained patiently to the Star's readers
that they should not "shoot the messenger." His colleague's
article hadn't been about racism, he said, but about the
"fluctuating racial mosaic of baseball." Ah! So that's it, the
Toronto newspaper reader must have thought, as he scratched his
noggin. But elsewhere Griffin had clarified his meaning: "Jays
G.M. J.P. Ricciardi along with Oakland's Billy Beane and other
new-wavers believe in building offense through patience at the
plate and taking no chances on the bases. That's pre-WWII style
of play. Under those criteria, Jackie Robinson could not have
played in the majors."

Well, if you want to steer the conversation away from racism
there are safer examples to pick. In fact, Jackie Robinson was
exactly the sort of player Beane and Ricciardi salivate over. He
had the stats they tend to stress--high on-base percentage, plate
discipline, great power for a second baseman--plus he was
undervalued. Indeed, one way of looking at the revolution in
baseball management is as a search for new Jackie Robinsons:
players who, for one irrational reason or another, often because
of their appearance, have been maligned and underestimated by the
market.

By the end of the 2003 baseball season I had learned something
from publishing Moneyball. I'd learned that if you look long
enough for an argument against reason, you will find it. For six
months, inside the Club, there had been a palpable longing for
the A's to fail. Early in the season, after the book came out,
there was some expressed hope this might happen quickly.
Scrambling over the winter to ditch payroll, Beane had traded his
star closer, Billy Koch, to the Chicago White Sox for a pitcher a
lot of people had written off, Keith Foulke. Beane had also lost
his fourth starter, Cory Lidle, who, like Koch, had become too
costly. Worst of all, the Red Sox and the Blue Jays were making
the market for baseball players more efficient. How on earth
could the A's continue to win?

Well, they did win. They won more regular-season games than all
other teams but the Giants, Yankees and Braves. Then they won the
first two games of their five-game playoff series against the Red
Sox. There was real joy in this--not just in watching David beat
Goliath (although Epstein was a Beane disciple, Boston's payroll
was $48.3 million greater than that of the A's) but also in
watching people with an investment in Goliath's lifestyle try to
prepare for what appeared to be David's imminent victory. Each of
the previous three years, after the A's had been bounced from the
playoffs, the Club's media auxiliary had raised a chant: The A's
can't win! Their dislike of the sacrifice bunt, their skepticism
about the stolen base, their bizarre taste in players, their
irreverence toward old baseball wisdom--all these quirks that
worked so well for them during the regular season somehow doomed
the A's in the playoffs. But after Game 2 nobody said, "Ah, the
A's can't beat the Red Sox. They might have taken the first two,
but by the very nature of their enterprise they cannot ever win a
playoff series." What the Club did was cast about for a way to
rationalize the horrible event about to transpire. A consensus of
what that rationale might be began to congeal:

Ramon Hernandez bunted!

The A's had won the first game of the Red Sox series when their
molasses-footed catcher, with two outs, dropped a bunt down the
third base line for a base hit. But the act itself triggered a
chemical reaction in the minds of Club members. Moneyball teams
don't bunt! These little nerds all say that smart managers don't
trade outs for bases. Ha! Look! O.K., they won. But they've
proved our point!

Never mind that the dislike of the sacrifice bunt is a trivial
sliver of the new approach to baseball. It wasn't a sacrifice
bunt! There were two outs. Hernandez wasn't trying to trade an
out for a base. He was bunting for a base hit.

Well, thank God, the A's lost in five. And when the Florida
Marlins (payroll: $50 million) beat the Yankees ($180 million) in
the World Series, it was of course inevitable, the result of the
Marlins' true grit, the special something they possessed that
only Club members could understand. Tracy Ringolsby--by far the
loudest of Beane's critics--was on the scene to pay Jack McKeon,
the Marlins' manager, the ultimate compliment: " ... he certainly
doesn't buy into the theories of the book Moneyball, which
proclaimed teams should draft only college players, particularly
pitchers."

Of course, it didn't matter what McKeon thought about drafting
players, because he hadn't built the Marlins; he'd been dropped
into their midst at midseason. This McKeon guy had that special
something that Ringolsby understands, that piece of manhood that
Beane and all the little nerds will never understand. The bracing
thing that Ringolsby can feel in his bones and you, weak-chinned
outsider, cannot. The special something that wins championships.

The absence of that special something happens to be the second
thing that, to Ringolsby, was instantly apparent in Moneyball.
The problem wasn't just that Beane's ego was out of control. It
was that the author of Moneyball "has a limited knowledge of
baseball and a total infatuation with Billy Beane."

A limited knowledge of baseball--it sounds damning enough, but
what does it mean? It doesn't mean that there's some distinct
body of insider knowledge that he has mastered, or if it does,
Ringolsby produces no evidence of it. It cannot mean the
knowledge that might only come from playing the game, for he
himself never got beyond Babe Ruth baseball. And it most
certainly does not mean that he has some special understanding
of what these people in Oakland are up to, because he has shown
scant interest in interviewing them. Think of it! A guy who makes
his living writing about baseball, working himself into a fine
lather about Billy Beane's radical experiment in Oakland and
never, according to Beane himself, asking for an explanation. A
limited knowledge of baseball: What it means, so far as I can
tell, is that Ringolsby is just another guy who's assigned
himself the job of barring people from the game who, in his view,
have no business inside. He's not a writer. He's a bouncer.

But he has his own moment, this fellow. When he sits down to
write his column he knows in his heart that he speaks for a lot
of people who work just off the field of play. He may belong only
to the women's auxiliary of the Club, but his views of the game
reflect those of the actual members. A lot of people who make the
decisions about building baseball teams think the way he does.
That's why it's possible for a team with no money to win so many
games.

COLOR PHOTO: W.W. NORTON & CO. SIX COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY BARRY BLITT

There are many ways to embarrass the Club, but being bad
at your job isn't one of them.

A phony debate heated up, like the fruitless dispute between
creationists and evolutionists.

In the Club there was no need to read Moneyball, because, well,
it was offensive.

What baseball did was to cast about for reasons to dismiss what
had happened in Oakland.

I'd learned that if you look long enough for an argument against
reason, you will find it.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)