A Review of Moneyball: the art of winning an unfair game by Michael Lewis
I’m an American; so even though Moneyball was published in 2003, I was totally unaware of it until 2011, when the movie of the same name was released (yes, I read books sometimes, but I’m still pretty ignorant). Moneyball is one of my favorite movies. It’s about math (which isn’t my absolute favorite) and baseball (which I’m not all of that interested in, except as a way to spend time outdoors with friends, beer, and snacks), but I don’t even care. It’s also about one (or two, or a few) smart human trying to do something intelligent while surrounded by dumb humans who desperately want to thwart them. It doesn’t get any more real or any more dramatic than that.
In Moneyball (the book) we learn, of course, many things which were not revealed to us onscreen, but the most interesting facets of Michael Lewis’s book are the revelations about the people involved. Bill James, who was portrayed on the big screen as a caricature- security guard at a pork and beans factory who is also a genius at analyzing statistics, is given a much more nuanced and thoughtful treatment in print. He is good at math, yes, but is much more interested in big ideas and has an ongoing relationship with his readers that essentially make him the de-facto leader of a revolutionary movement (one that is still to this day not entirely embraced). Billy Beane is revealed to have been an even more incredible and dominant athlete than we might have understood, and is likewise more obviously psychologically unfit for a career as a professional athlete than the audience could have guessed from one broken bat and a knocked-over gatorade cooler. As a GM, he is clearly determined to pursue his own ideas and is willfully iconoclastic, but every once in a while he also seems to proceed with apathy (shrugging off the team’s post-season performance) or even an attitude reminiscent of the clubby insiders whose thinking he is attempting to overthrow (dismissing possible recruits based on a single stat or anecdote).
Heartbreakingly, there is no Peter Brandt in real life. There is a Paul DePodesta, though (from Harvard, not Yale), and several other management team-members, like my fellow Tar Heel Chris Pittaro, who buy into Billy’s ideas. We learn that Ron Washington is more than just a nice guy who makes witty comments; he’s a talented coach who actually helps motivate Scott Hatteberg to become not just a hitter but a decent first baseman.
Fans of the movie will be amused, and I assume, pleased, to find that many of their favorite lines from the script are actually already in the book. The struggle of ideas portrayed on screen as a battle between, largely, Billy Beane, Peter Brandt, and Bill James on the one hand, and everyone else, on the other, is in truth a much more widespread (especially now, a decade or two later) clash between progressive and conservative mindsets. It’s a clash worth reading about and Michael Lewis has a genius for writing non-fiction with gripping stories that read like the best fiction or the most interesting history.
So, how did one of the poorest teams in baseball win so many games? Let Michael Lewis tell you a story…
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