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  EVERYTHING WE KNOW ABOUT BASEBALL IS WRONG AND MICHAEL LEWIS' MONEYBALL TELLS US WHY.  
   
   
 

In the introduction to revolutionary (and thrilling) new book, Moneyball, Michael Lewis began with a simple question: "How did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games?"

It's a reasonable line of inquiry. Baseball has been perceived as a battle between the haves (the Yankees) and the have-nots (the Expos), and the gulf has been considered so wide, so vast, they actually canceled a World Series over it. But then why, how, can the Oakland A's, with the lowest payroll in baseball, not only compete, but thrive? Lewis' book answers that question, with flair, and with one definitive reason: general manager Billy Beane.

 

 
 

Rather than complaining about fiscal disparity, Beane has built a franchise in Oakland that has changed the way baseball is perceived, applying scientific principles to an unscientific game. He has rebuilt an entire organization, from the bottom up and the top down, and made it into the envy of everyone in baseball.

How? By treating the game of baseball like a ruthless bond trader: recognizing flaws in the structure of a business and exploiting them over and over again. The Yankees want to spend $50 million on a Japanese outfielder with a nifty nickname? Fine. Beane will hire a more efficient performer for $48 million less. It's just a matter of knowing what to look for.

Lewis is a financial writer by trade, and that cold, objective eye serves him well in Moneyball, which argues that the Oakland A's success is less an aberration than a market correction. An inefficient system, Major League Baseball, with an outdated, archaic way of evaluating its employees, is laid to waste by visionaries looking to maximize their resources and reduce their costs.

The wise sage of Moneyball, surprisingly enough is not Beane; it is famed baseball writer Bill James, who, 20 years ago, publishing out of his basement, wrote a book called Baseball Abstract that changed the way people thought about baseball. He did this in the simplest of ways; he simply asked why?

Why do baseball people value statistics like the RBI -- which is more connected to the circumstances a batter faces when at the plate, rather than a measure of his productivity -- more than more efficient stats, like on-base percentage or slugging percentage? Why do baseball scouts prefer unproven prospects still in high school over college players, who have had more years to mature and to apply their trade? Why, exactly, is the sacrifice bunt used so often when, essentially, it's a waste of the rarest natural resource a baseball game has, the out? Why do people actually think that a single is somehow better than a walk?

His work, as sharp and funny as it is enlightening, inspired a whole generation of thinking fans, and it was only a matter of time until someone inside the game started paying attention. That someone was Beane and the Oakland A's.

In the midst of all this analysis, Lewis doesn't forget to tell a story about people, and he has found some gems. A's first baseman Scott Hatteberg had been a catcher cut by the Boston Red Sox and generally considered by baseball insiders to be ready to retire. The A's discover his true talent -- getting on base and not striking out -- and turn him not only into a starter, but the heir to departed first baseman Jason Giambi, gone to the hated and rich Yankees. (Hatteberg had never even played first base before, and learned Beane planned on playing him there after he'd already signed with the A's.) Reliever Chad Bradford barely played for his high school team, but Beane sees gold in his submarining delivery and turns him into one of the finest bullpen specialists in the game.

The A's are a team of misfits and castoffs, and one of Lewis' masterstrokes is to tie them directly to Beane himself, the book's Great Gatsby, its Fitzgeraldian hero. Beane was once a can't-miss prospect mislabeled by overeager scouts, a high draft choice who fizzled in the big leagues. Lewis argues that Beane, who had all the tools to be a star but lacked the focus, discipline and devotion once he stepped on the field. It is through Beane's own failures and deficiencies that he is able to recognize what it takes to succeed. As Lewis writes, Beane is "a man whose life was turned upside down by professional baseball, and, who, miraculously, found a way to return the favor."

Michael Lewis is a treasure. He has now written, in the last 10 years, the most perceptive and entertaining books about Wall Street (Liar's Poker), politics (Trail Fever) and now sports. (It's enough to make you forgive him for marrying Tabitha Soren.) His book leaves in the dust aging literary types prone to waxing philosophic about baseball, the George Wills and David Halberstams, by simply looking at one team that turned the game on its head, and describing why.

While other writers are blathering about the poetry of baseball and the eternal nature of the sacred games, Lewis is rolling up his sleeves and sticking to just the facts, in a style that's as readable as a pulp novel. Lewis has found an incredible story here, and he follows it through to its logical conclusion.

If you're not an Oakland A's fan now, after reading Moneyball, you might just become one. And you'll certainly challenge everything you thought you knew about baseball, which, of course, is the point.

 

*BT*

Will Leitch is the managing editor of the Black Table.