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OUT OF THEIR TREE
Michael Lewis
March 01, 2004
The author wrote a book, Moneyball, that drove baseball's clubby traditionalists crazy. They fought back. Now he does too
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March 01, 2004

Out Of Their Tree

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

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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 right-fielder 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."

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