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)