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Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game
By Michael Lewis
W.W. Norton & Company
HC, 288 pg. US$24.95
ISBN: 0-3930-5765-8

Baseball and the art of war

By Jackson Murphy
web posted June 23, 2003

Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair GameWriter Michael Lewis couldn't figure something out. Why did the Oakland Athletics baseball team win so many games? It sounds like an easy question to answer, except that to complicate the equation, he had to figure out how the organization won ballgames while spending considerably less than other competitive teams. At the end of the 2002 season the Athletics spent nearly $42 million to win 103 games. The Texas Rangers spent nearly $107 million to win 72.

Lewis's new book Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game chronicles how an unlikely group of people inside and outside Major League Baseball have quietly challenged the game itself. From baseball fans that spent their evenings coming up with mathematic equations and new statistics that better reflected the game to a new breed of baseball management who wanted a way to beat the big boys, Lewis, gives a glimpse inside the netherworld of the game.

For most of the past decade few teams made a cent of profit. And the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, was convinced that teams that are poor, in small markets like Oakland or Milwaukee, were unable to compete. So he established a Blue Ribbon Panel with former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, Yale president Richard Levin, columnist George Will, and former U.S Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. The body concluded, surprisingly save Volcker, that Selig was right and that some form of quasi socialism was required for the good of the game. Socialize America's pastime was the best these guys could come up with?

While it is a problem, the body's conclusions that sooner or later teams that couldn't buy success might quit playing the game were dead wrong. This brings us to Billy Beane, GM of the Athletics and former big league washout, who informed the panel they were dead wrong. Sure he'd take any equalizing handout the big market teams wanted to hand out, but he was pretty sure he could beat a team comprised of players he had probably developed.

"Win with nobodies and the fans showed up, and the nobodies became stars; lose with stars and the fans stayed home, and the stars became nobodies. Assembling nobodies into a ruthlessly efficient machine for winning baseball games, and watching them become stars, was one of the pleasures of running a poor baseball team."

Lewis describes Beane as, "a human arsenal built, inadvertently, by professional baseball to attack its customs and rituals. He thought himself to be fighting a war against subjective judgments, but he was doing something else, too." Beane was trying to find players completely unlike himself. When Beane was in the process of being drafted the scouts said that he had "the look." But often players, Beane no exception, with the look ended up as huge failures in the sport, while unlikely players who were too short, too slow, or too fat were squandered talent that could be signed for cheap.

The book chronicles Billy Beane's Athletics focusing on the 2002 Amateur Draft and the incredible moves he made during the season unloading players and acquiring new ones with the ruthlessness of a Wall Street pirate. But it also details the strange life of Bill James. If Beane was the Luke Skywalker, James was his Yoda. While working as a night watchman at a pork and beans factory, James discovered that he was a passionate writer on one lone subject, baseball.

In 1977 James self-published his first book of curious baseball statistics and 75 people though that it was worth reading. And the strange art of "sabermetrics" (basically baseball math and numbers) was born. With that book he began to challenge the basic convention upon which many baseball myths are based. The biggest thing James indirectly taught Billy Beane was to never trust conventional wisdom, even if it comes from "some famous baseball player." And when its put that way baseball is a mess of cliché management. The idea of the craft lefty or that good pitching always beats good hitting are not necessary any way to run a business.

It is fascinating to see Beane and his team in action-and the closest thing to a story about tech-nerds conquering over the old school since the end of the internet bubble. The strategy of Beane and some other new baseball managers is crudely described by Carol Knoppes in USA Today as, "Find the best players, sign 'em cheap, trade 'em when they get too expensive." Sounds simple enough right?

The book does its fair share of fawning over Beane. But he is an incredible character who happens to be part chair throwing angry Bobby Knight and part shrewd Jack Welch CEO. An executive who enjoys the art of the deal but can't stomach watching his own team actually play for fear that he'll see something to release his 'David Banner' like rage.

At its core Moneyball finds that outsiders and misfits are generally good at playing on or running baseball teams. The book is refreshing for a game that rewards the reverence for the past which is always seen as the golden age. James and his improbable protégé Beane has basically become the Machiavelli to baseball. Their ode to the Prince demands that baseball must be turned upside down.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

Buy Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game at Amazon.com for only $14.97 (40% off)

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