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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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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.R 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.

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