Michael Lewis is the author of Liar’s Poker, The Money Culture, Pacific Rift, Losers, The New New Thing, Next and now Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. He attended Princeton University and The London School of Economics and has been an investment banker for Salomon Brothers. That experience led to his first book, Liar’s Poker. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, a contributor to Slate and a columnist for Bloomberg News, and he has also done work for "Nightline" and "This American Life." Michael Lewis lives in Berkeley, California with his family.
Moneyball is a well-researched, well-written look at the methodology and the people (mainly general manager Billy Beane) who help make a small-budget baseball team (the Oakland Athletics) extremely competitive in the big money world of Major League baseball. It is greatly to Lewis’ credit that he has put together a book about baseball that is appealing to long-time fans as well as those recently attracted by the game’s charms. As he asks (and answers) in what follows, “How many truly original stories does baseball produce?” Moneyball is certainly that and more.
Robert Birnbaum: As long as we are in the belly of the beast, let’s talk about Billy Beane’s courtship by the Red Sox. Were you suggesting he was not really serious about taking the general manager position?
Michael Lewis: I never meant to suggest that. He took the job for a day. He was obviously serious about it. I don’t think he ever really wanted the job, is what I said. There was no reason for him to want the job other than the money. He doesn’t like the East Coast or living on the East Coast. He has a daughter from a first marriage out in San Diego, who is thirteen years old, and he spends a lot of time with her. And the media here around the baseball team [Boston Red Sox] is rabid.
ML: And the media drives Billy Beane crazy. He gets no pleasure from it. He doesn’t like seeing his name in print. It seems odd to say from someone who has just written a book that has him as a main character. The curious thing to me was that he got as close as he did to taking the job. I think what happened was he was just very frustrated. For years they [the Oakland Athletics] have been putting together these ball clubs on a shoestring that have done extremely well, and no one has paid much attention to the fact that it is done on a shoestring. The A’s are held to the standard of the Yankees in a funny kind of way. That if they don’t win the World Series it is regarded as a failure. And so he was feeling a little unappreciated and when John Henry offered him twelve and a half million dollars to come and work for the Red Sox. I think he thought that was a validation–that it would demonstrate to the world that someone understood that he knows what he is doing. I watched it very closely and it was funny what happened. The minute the news got out that he was offered this money, he lost interest. Because that’s all that he cared about, that the news was out. Also, he has this superstition about money. It goes back to his boyhood. He took money from the New York Mets to be their first-round draft choice instead of going to Stanford —which is what he should have done —on a scholarship. He attributes that to a decision he made because of money. He’s promised himself ever since that he is not going to let money influence his life that way. When he looked at the decision that he made to take the Red Sox job he couldn’t think of any reason he was taking it other than the money. And it made him very nervous.
RB: In the New Yorker mention of your book, there was an interesting take on Beane’s decision. Which was that taking the Red Sox job would no longer be challenging since they have a big budget.
ML: (laughs) It’s true there is more long-term glory for him to operate with a smaller budget because what they do that is so extraordinary is find value where no one else can find value. If you have a hundred-million-dollar payroll, you don’t need to do it as much. So in a way it would be a waste to put him with a big-budget team. On the other hand he would be very, very effective because he would have all the benefit of the knowledge and insights that they have at the Oakland A’s and his own natural aptitude for horse swapping and running a ball club harnessed to this big payroll. He would make different kinds of decisions that he can’t make in Oakland. But yes, I don’t think that’s completely unfair. There is in some sense his use value is maximized if he is with small-budget team.
RB: Was the reason you wrote this book this charismatic colorful personality, Billy Beane?
ML: No, I drifted into it because I was curious how they won all these games with no money. I realized it was a book when the assistant GM of the A’s, Paul Podesta, said to me, "You have to understand that for someone to become an Oakland A, he has to have something wrong with him."
ML: "Because if he doesn’t have something wrong with him, he gets valued properly by the marketplace, and we can’t afford him anymore." [Paul Podesta speaking]
RB: You met Paul Podesta before you met Billy Beane?
ML: No, I was already in there and when I realized that this juggernaut that they put on the field was an assemblage of defective parts, I thought, "This is a great story." And the fact that Billy Beane had dimensions as a character was very important because I knew he could carry the story. That’s when I committed to the book and then I realized that the players were central to this thing, that they were the undervalued assets, and I was curious how they coped with that.
RB: Is it the case that you were surprised by the fullness of Billy Beane as a personality? As you said, he seems to be media shy, but it really seems that you were sitting on his shoulder for so much of this story.
ML: It’s because I wasn’t the media. I was this guy who was saying I was going to write this book. After a couple of months, nothing is appearing in print, I am just kind of there all the time, and I became a kind of sidekick, almost. There has been so much noise about this book in baseball and so much noise about this book in his life and it has just been out three weeks. I think if you asked him now, "Would you do it all over again?" I think he would have second thoughts.
RB: You do mention that a couple of general managers are wary of dealing with him because he snookers them in their dealings, continuously. Is the jig up for him with everyone?
ML: You would have thought so. Apparently not. There are some general managers, who because he has gotten the better end of the deal, so many times—they are scared of him. They don’t know why. They think he is a witch. Those people won’t do business with him anyway. I know, because I have been in touch with him since the book has come out, that several general mangers have reassured him that they would still do business. [But] It can’t help his life. It can’t make it easier for him to deal with other baseball teams.
RB: How long are their memories?
ML: Also this question of how long this advantage that Billy Beane has can last. These insights and this knowledge that he is working with isn’t original to him. A lot of it is in the public domain. It’s just a question of baseball teams being willing to understand it. If that happens he is in a little trouble. You can’t put $40 million worth of players against $120 million and compete if you don’t have some kind of advantage. So I think in the long term it’s probably not good for that franchise, but in the short term it creates a lot of interest around him.
RB: Will it be better for baseball?
ML: There are several insights at the heart of the A’s system that I think are wonderful for baseball. One, that it’s a team game. That no one player is going to make that much of a difference to your team, so for god’s sake don’t go blow a quarter of your budget on one guy. And that’s something a lot of owners and general managers don’t understand. They go and spend ungodly amounts for some superstar and my god they are still at the bottom of their division. And baseball is more fun to watch, if it is understood as a team game, to me. The second thing, one of the broad insights that is important to the A’s is that there are guys whose value is not on the surface. It’s difficult to see. This leads to them having a particular affection for pitchers who don’t throw very hard but have crafty stuff. For hitters who don’t hit huge numbers of home runs and have high batting averages but have crafty stuff at the plate. If you like crafty stuff they are going to open the market for crafty people. When Jaime Moyer of the Seattle Mariners pitches, I love watching him. In a way it is a much more interesting game than watching Randy Johnson pitch. You are not only watching a game you are watching a thought process. So to the extent that they open up the game to that, I think that’s kind of neat. On the other hand if baseball doesn’t correct its revenue discrepancies—it’s still 40 million against a 150 million or whatever it is and the intellectual discrepancies vanish–then it’s just going to be rich guys beating up on poor guys, and that won’t be fun to watch.
RB: There are a couple of people besides Beane who understand this Sabermetric approach to baseball—Ricciardi…
ML: Who came out of the Oakland organization who is now in Toronto.
RB: And to some degree, Theo Epstein of the Red Sox.
ML: He more than understands it. Theo Epstein would have preferred that Billy Beane become the GM of the Boston Red Sox and that Theo be his assistant. That’s what Theo wanted. And the Red Sox have gone and hired Bill James who is —in some ways the father of this whole movement. My favorite hire–and it gets no attention in the Boston press–is this fellow Voros McCracken, who is an analyst of pitchers. He is this kid who lives out in Phoenix with his parents because he couldn’t stand his paralegal job, he quit it. He started playing fantasy baseball and asked a very simple question because he wanted to evaluate pitchers for his fantasy baseball team. The question was, "How do you distinguish pitching from defense? What part of what happens on the defensive end is the pitcher’s responsibility?" And he devised this very clever way of looking at pitchers and that in fact that the A’s had come up with. The Red Sox have now embraced it. And he’s a great story because he would seem otherwise unemployable, but he has a gift as a baseball analyst.
RB: One of my favorite moments in your book is when you are describing some theory and then Joe Morgan is not only contradicting it but it is actually happening in the game he is announcing and he just doesn’t acknowledge it.
ML: Right. It’s in the playoffs and this is what happens. When the A’s get to the playoffs—one of the things that it has been very interesting for me to watch up close is the way vested baseball interests don’t want the A’s to succeed. Or are looking for reasons, whatever they are doing—and they don’t understand what they are doing—doesn’t make sense. It is implicitly very condemnatory of traditional baseball. It’s saying, "Look, you must be a moron if you have a $120 million and you are the underdog when you come up against us with $40 million. And you are doing it the traditional way." One of the many things they say is that, "All right, maybe it works during the regular season and whatever they do it gets them to the playoffs, but once they get to the playoffs they can’t compete." Joe Morgan says this. What he was saying in that case was they don’t manufacture runs. They don’t bunt. They don’t steal. There are reasons for that. They figured out what an out is worth and it is worth much more than people who risk it by stealing bases and sacrificing know. So Joe Morgan says they play for the three-run homer and if you play for the three-run homer you are going to lose in the playoffs and as he is saying it, Eric Chavez of the Oakland A’s hits a three-run homer. And no one says anything. The game keeps plugging right along. It’s like the soundtrack and the action are completely out of sync. The fact is they score more runs in the playoffs than during the regular season, but everyone says well they lose because they don’t score runs in the playoffs. I’m telling you people who think they know what they are talking about when they talk about baseball include the announcers and all of the sports press—no matter how much evidence you present them to the contrary they will continue to think that what they think is right. I have done a number of interviews with sports radio types, and that’s the part of the book where they get very upset. The idea that the playoffs has a large crapshoot component, there is a limit to what management can do in the playoffs because it’s a short series and there is a lot of luck in baseball. The point is that what the A’s are trying to do is eliminate the chance and you can do it over a long season because in a large sample, luck evens out. But in the playoffs luck doesn’t even out. One of the sacred truths of baseball is that are some secrets to winning in the postseason that some people mysteriously know. And that the A’s have not had success in the postseason shows that they don’t know something.
RB: Tell me about the subtitle of the book, The art of winning an unfair game.
ML: It’s a patently unfair game that $40 million has to play against $120 million. It just violates all of our notions of fairness that money is one of the determining factors in the outcome of a sporting contest. But there is a double meaning because it is really unfair the A’s know all this stuff about baseball and nobody else does. [laughs] In some cases it’s unfair for the other side, even though they have the money. There is a chapter called “The Science of Winning an Unfair Game,” but I wanted to make it clear with the subtitle it wasn’t just science. Part of what their success is that they had applied the scientific method to baseball and had found these insights and the knowledge that was really valid and objective, but another part of it was how they applied it. And what Billy Beane’s real gift is, and it’s hard to replicate, is imposing it in a big-league clubhouse. If you took some nerd with a computer who knew these things and told him to run a big-league team, he would have no effect. They would just not listen to him.
RB: Does Harvard boy Paul Podesta fit that nerd description?
ML: No, it’s funny. He would count as a jock at Harvard. He played football and baseball. But in the Oakland organization since he went to Harvard he would count as a nerd. But he has kind of the street cred. He’ll probably be running a baseball team. But there are plenty of people who fit that description. If you put Bill James on top of a big league team no one would listen to him. In addition, there is this whole business of how you trade. This guy Billy Beane is a born Wall Street trader. I have seen this. I worked at Salomon Brothers; I worked on Wall Street. If Billy Beane has been at Salomon Brothers he would be a managing partner. He is excellent at walking into a jungle, seeing the opportunities and seeing the threats, and adapting accordingly. He has wonderful antennae. He knows what you want and he is going to give it to you.
RB: Those times you mention when he is calling [Mets GM] Steve Phillips are hilarious—with him joking and talking to his Phillips’ secretary.
ML: [both laugh] It’s very funny. The way he insinuates himself into the minds of other general mangers was fun to watch. This is something you can’t teach. So, that’s the art.
RB: It was impressive that even if he is not looking to make a trade he involves himself in all the talks and he is very aware that something might shake loose. He doesn’t wait until an urgent need appears.
ML: He needs the market information. He is always trying to find who might be shaken loose. Here’s an example. He wanted a pitcher from the Yankees, Ted Lilly, who fit the A’s profile. He was cheap and going to be cheap for a while. He was in the beginning of his major league career. He was not flashy, didn’t throw real hard. But he was very effective in the way they measured pitchers. He found out because he had been constantly rapping with other GMs that the Detroit Tigers were willing to part with their fireballer Jeff Weaver. He had no interest in Weaver. He would cost him ten times what Lilly would cost him. Everybody knew that Weaver was good. He knew that the Yankees would like Weaver. So he baits his hook with Weaver and goes to the Yankees organization and by the time he is done he got Weaver as a Yankee and Billy has Ted Lilly plus 600 grand from the Tigers, in his pocket. And if the Tigers and the Yankees stepped back and asked why was Billy Beane in this at all. This was really a trade between the Tigers and the Yankees; there is no particular reason except that he made it happen. So for that to happen you have to be relentless and you have to be very good at acquiring market information.
RB: The information that you relay in the book implies an impressive and almost intimate kind of access.
ML: I think it is a credit to him the way he handled this. I got in to his offices on the pretext of writing a piece for the New York Times Magazine, and that would have implied a much shorter-term commitment from him. After a few weeks it was clear that it was just a wonderful story. How many original stories about baseball are there? One after the other books about nostalgia. Something very interesting and innovative was happening in baseball and it was right here in that office. And I was particularly equipped to see it because so much of it came out of Wall Street. So many natural analogies with Wall Street —and I had that background. He knew that. He didn’t particularly want a book written about him. In fact, he was resistant at first. He knew how enthusiastic I was. He knew I understood the spirit of it and he just said, "Look, you’re invested. I don’t mind having you around. Don’t make yourself too much of a nuisance. And just tell me what you need to see." I wanted to be a fly on the wall and he let me. He never once said, “Don’t put that on” or “I want to see what you are going to write.” Or any of that stuff. And then the book comes out and he is paying a price. He got a lot of grief in the sports press for letting me in. But it will pass. He has a lot of guts to let it happen, deal with the fallout and move on.
RB: Well, this is clearly a book that even if you are not a baseball person is readable and enjoyable. Janet Maslin [in the NYT] who may never have been to a ballgame made that the thrust of her review.
RB: Certainly a few lines in her review give you that impression. You’re right, there aren’t very many original baseball stories.
ML: I think that’s why he let me in. He understood that I thought of it that way. I thought of it as anybody who wants to see someone walk into a hidebound world and think about the problems differently that’s the story and it could happen in any walk of life—the trials and tribulations of originality. He saw that and he participated in the spirit of the thing.
RB: What is the criticism from the sports press?
ML: It’s easy to summarize. First he was indiscreet. And this is weird coming from reporters.
RB: Right. He was indiscreet to you, not to them.
ML: Yeah, that’s right, so that’s a silly one. What happens is the way they write that is, they get Steve Phillips from the Mets to say, "Books like this are bad ideas." "It’s going to hurt Billy." "This is bad for Billy." "Billy was stupid to do this."
RB: What reasons are given?
ML: Then they go, "Why would he do this?" And it’s because he is arrogant or has a big ego and wants that ego fed. I know the guy better than those guys do and I know, yes, he has a big ego, but this isn’t the way it gets fed. It gets fed when he wins. So, they mistake his motive. It’s more complicated. In fact, if his name was never in the newspapers again for the rest of his life he’d be happy—as long as he was winning. [chuckles] And then what they do is, “Oh this guy has the arrogance to have book written about him.” They don’t actually read the book. What they do is say, "It’s Billy Beane’s book." As if he wrote the book. In it he is set up to be the smartest general manager in the game. "Well, who is this guy to say he is the smartest general manager? He’s never won a World Series." It’s knuckle-headed stuff. The sports world is an echo chamber. All it takes is one quote from a general manager and a thousand sports columns bloom. So that’s the nature of the grief. That’s transitory. There is nothing real about it.
RB: When I talked to Roger Angell, he did say that the baseball people don’t want anyone to shine any light in the darkness of baseball.
ML: [both laugh]
RB: This nostalgia-mongering Field of Dreams stuff is bullshit especially in the face of the baseball business marketing everything from luxury suites to who knows what in the world.
ML: Very cynical. The sentimentality of baseball is very deeply rooted in the American baseball fan. It is the one sport that is transmitted from fathers to sons. What do you do when you have a boy or a girl? You throw a ball with them. And you take them to a ball game. Football and basketball is not quite that way. We learn baseball from our parents, from our fathers. And people get very emotional. I think that’s what is going on when people get caught up in the sentiment of the game. It’s their personal memories of childhood.
RB: Let me ask you what I asked Roger Angell, "Is baseball still the national past time?"
ML: I think it’s too complicated a society to have a national past time. I don’t think there is a national past time. Watching TV is a national past time. Really. If there is a national past time it is watching TV.
RB: A national waste of time.
ML: Watching TV and eating.
ML: So baseball is well behind all of those things. As a sport it is obviously not as popular as football is now. It certainly doesn’t hit the highs of football even basketball. There are a162 bloody games for each team each season. There is a steadiness about it that is —it’s in better shape now than it has been many times in its past. There have been periods in its history where the stands have been empty. I don’t think it’s in any kind of crisis but it should be in a more of a crisis than it is, given how badly it is run. When you ask the question, "How’s baseball doing?" The first thing I think to look at is how is little league doing. That kind of thing. I think they are doing pretty well.
RB: There is a concern about getting kids in —what’s the euphemism?—urban areas.
RB: To play baseball.
ML: Yeah poor black kids don’t think, "I’m going to be a baseball player." There’s lots of reasons for that. The first is that all you need is a ball, a hoop and crummy piece of asphalt to start developing into a basketball player. Baseball requires a social infrastructure. In a way that basketball doesn’t. That explains that, partly. But Michael Jordan wanted to be a baseball player. [laughs]
RB: Will the next big step be the internationalization, that there will be a major American league in Japan? Play in the Caribbean basin beyond a few games in San Juan?
ML: Until they invent a faster method of air travel, the idea of routinely flying to Japan for games would be just be too much. It is happening. The Minnesota Twins very cleverly figured out that Australia has a pretty thriving baseball culture now. And they have picked up a lot of pretty cheap talent by going there in the way that teams went to the Dominican Republic twenty years ago. The Europeans don’t have any particular interest in the game and they have a substitute, the English do in cricket and in the Asian subcontinent that’s true too. I do think there is a future in—you can see this in the Olympics—in international competition. And how that manifests itself I don’t know. It would make complete sense if Major League Baseball could find a city that could sustain it to put a team in Latin America somewhere.
ML: Really that’s not hard to see. Cuba becomes a democracy. Havana is a natural place to put it.
RB: How are the A’s doing this year?
ML: They are doing well. The A’s have the second or third best record depending on what the Yankees did last night. But they would be in the playoffs right now if the season ended. For them that is extraordinary because all they try to do, all they hope to do is struggle into the All Star break at .500. — what Billy Beane does is start buying players on the cheap in the middle of the season. They will be a different team at the back end than the front end.
RB: And what about poor Art Howe [New York Mets manager]?
ML: He’s not doing so well. He’s doing well only in one way.
RB: He can’t be blamed.
ML: No one can blame him for it but they do. The real way he is doing well is that he got a big contract. He got a 10-million-dollar contract or something.
RB: He shouldn’t have gotten the credit in Oakland and he shouldn’t get the blame in New York.
ML: That’s absolutely right.
RB: Which is one of your theses—that middle managers aren’t really affecting the game anymore.
ML: I don’t think anyone could have done anything with that organization. What they need is new front office management.
RB: That would be why Steve Phillips is…
ML: Upset. He’s probably going to lose his job. [Steve Phillips was. before we posted this, fired by the New York Mets] Why shouldn’t he be upset? The thing is that there is a difference between an environment in which people are saying, "Aw, things aren’t going so well with the Mets and they have had some bad breaks and all those guys on the DL, poor Steve Phillips" to an environment in which, here is how you run a baseball team. A fine point has been put on his predicament, so no wonder he is upset. If they clean house and they fire Art, they have to pay him ten million dollars. He has to be happy about that.
RB: This weekend’s deal with Shea Hillenbrand going to Arizona and Byung-Hyun Kim coming here seems like it makes sense for Arizona but is a high risk for the Red Sox.
ML: Hillenbrand is the classic player who Billy Beane would trade. The reason is that he has the attributes that the market values highly. But when it comes to his actual contribution to the offense it’s not as important. He has r.b.i.s and a pretty good batting average and hits with some power. He has poor plate discipline. He doesn’t walk a lot, so his on-base percentage is not so great. That’s the most important thing when you look at how runs are created.
RB: And traditionally he performs worse in the second half of the season.
ML: I didn’t know that. When Bill James was hired by Boston one of the first things he was asked to do was answer this question—which my book deals with—can plate discipline be learned at the major league level? If a guy like Shea Hillenbrand, a young guy has no plate discipline, will he develop it? Any chance? James went and did a study. It was easy. He said basically, "No." The A’s have answered this more fundamentally. They think you can’t even teach it at the minor league level. This is something that it is almost an innate trait in a hitter. The minute they got that answer they sort of thought they want all their hitters to have this quality. He [Hillenbrand] is not going to have it. Other people think he is worth a lot. The Sox think that moving him they lose very little on the offense. And that Kim is a really good pitcher. It’s easy to have opinions about ballplayers, harder to test them against the evidence. Let’s see how he does. They are wheeling him out as a starter aren’t they? That’s interesting.
RB: Yeah, in Pittsburgh.
ML: He was pretty great as a closer for the Diamondbacks except in that World Series.
RB: Sure out in the benign precincts of baseball in the Sonora Desert. Now he is in Boston, which is a shark pool.
ML: Well, that’s another issue. Does it change your performance …maybe one thing he has going, does he read English? If he can’t read the newspapers…
RB: ‘Boo’ is international.
RB: And bum. [laughs] The bad vibes are palpable at Fenway Park when they don’t like a player.
ML: Is it possible that part of the Boston Red Sox problem is its fans?
RB: Yes. New England is an evil place. Starting with those so-called seekers of religious freedom and it hasn’t let up. Unforgiving and mean spirited.
ML: And you live here.
RB: And I live here. I grew up in Chicago, but to quote Johnny Guitar, "I’m a stranger here myself."
ML: I think that fans are always looking for someone to blame. Wouldn’t it be nice if they looked in the mirror? Because baseball is a game of failure, if you treat it like football you are going to get bad results. Even great, well-performing guys are going to have bad stretches. It does not help them in those bad stretches to tell them that they suck. You make a head case out of them. And why the fans do that here—I mean you can explain. I can’t. If you had to point to one thing that made it less likely that the Red Sox would win the World Series, I would say it was those people that go to Fenway Park to watch the games. And then the media around it.
RB: Last year one of the sports writers called Jose Offerman, "a piece of junk or garbage." And then came back a few weeks later and did it again.
ML: That’s awful. In addition the game is hard to play. It’s hard to play.
RB: The American fan …the people who go shirtless in 10-degree temperatures with painted faces…
RB: …who can’t play any game at all. Where does that come from?
ML: People get on TV for looking like that, so they look like that.
RB: Talking about creating head cases, can you imagine what Pedro Martinez may think when has one bad outing every…
ML: Twenty years. That’s out of control. I would think that the sophisticated way to respond to a bad outing, a guy struggling is to cheer him. Because that’s when he needs to be lifted up. That’s when you as a fan can do some good. And when a guy like Pedro Martinez, who is maybe one of the best pitchers to ever pitch, has a bad outing, you acknowledge that this is one time…
RB: Okay, let’s say the Red Sox actually won a World Series?
ML: What would these people do?
RB: And what would actually accrue to them? What would they have?
ML: [both laugh] Well they would lose something. Clearly a lot of the meaning of their lives is premised being able to blame the Red Sox for what ails them. The Red Sox are the local scapegoats. It’s hard enough to play baseball without being the local scapegoat too.
RB: Any sense of the reception of Moneyball beyond the sports press?
ML: It’s hard to know at this point. It hit the bestseller list, so you know it’s out there. I’ve had two interesting institutional responses outside of baseball. One is from the NFL. I gave speech in New York a week before last and someone from the Commissioner’s office came and he said this thing is spreading in the NFL. Bill Parcells is giving it out to the Dallas Cowboy’s organization. Some guy I never heard of who is the GM of the New York Giants is handing it out to his scouts. I thought, "That’s extraordinary." Because the NFL is actually well run. The guy was saying, "The descriptions that you have in the book of the discussions between the scouts and the GM, that was something that died in the NFL thirty years ago. We have become more rigorous the way we think about amateur players and baseball is way behind. The spirit of enterprise is clearly alive in the NFL. People are still looking for a way to get an edge.” The other interesting institutional response has been from Wall Street. The lead investment strategist for Credit Suisse/First Boston, the investment bank, devoted his whole research report a week or two ago to this book. The gist of it was if you want to know how to manage money the Oakland A’s are a good example—if you want to look at allocation of resources and how you think about it.
RB: I thought what you did was to bring your Wall Street experience to bear on the baseball management tactics. So it’s come full circle.
ML: It’s going back into Wall Street. Very funny. It’s gotten around Wall Street in this way. I would expect there is one other natural institutional response and it’s from anybody who is in a business where the employees are talent with a capitol T. Hollywood, music, publishing and just how you manage people who are prima donnas. And how you think about how bad is it if you lose one guy or one band or one star or actor? Do you actually have to lay out all this money up front?
RB: Well, the answer probably should be no in book publishing. As far as I know the mega advances don’t pay out.
ML: Absolutely right.
RB: I’m told the big authors are loss leaders.
ML: Yeah, I don’t know. The movie stars, why pay twenty million dollars to Harrison Ford? I don’t even understand that. They think they have to do it. The broad spirit of what the A’s do is say, "Nobody is irreplaceable." It’s all a team. If someone puts a price on himself that suggests he is irreplaceable, then he better find somewhere else to work.
RB: Football seems to have good access and make use of the parametrics. Understanding the personnel for a third-down play and so forth.
ML: You see baseball —endlessly in the dugouts—[guys like] Tony Larussa numbers crunching and making little notes. What baseball does is use statistics badly. So there this guy is 1 for 6 against this pitcher. But 1 for 6 is just six examples. It’s statistically insignificant.
RB: Especially if you don’t consider other variables.
ML: Maybe he hit six screaming line drives and five of them were caught? There has been this—and it’s reflected in the broadcasts—this moronic use of statistics. Which has suggested to everyone who is intelligent the use of statistics is moronic. There is a whole other way to approach this where it isn’t so moronic. That’s what drove Bill James out of his business. He couldn’t believe the way people misunderstood what he was trying to say.
RB: How widely did you talk to baseball people outside the A’s organization?
ML: I spent a lot more time with other baseball people than Moneyball indicates. I had to get perspective. I spent time in Toronto with the Blue Jays. I spent some time here in Boston with the Red Sox owner, Theo Epstein, Larry Lucchino. Some time in Texas with people in the Rangers organization. I talked to people in the Seattle organization and scouts from the Mets and the Astros and I spent some time talking to the Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro. I got around a lot. Enough to know that what I was seeing was indeed unusual and special. That’s what I needed to know.
RB: Were the others as open as Beane was?
ML: It depended on the circumstance. There were few cases where people said, "Can we have an off-the-record conversation?" Most of the time it was on the record. A lot of it I just didn’t have use for. There is some wonderful material that ended up on the cutting-room floor because the story is a very focused story. There wasn’t room to go into digressions with the Red Sox and the Blue Jays.
RB: What happened to the bad-bodied catcher from Alabama that you mentioned in the book?
ML: Jeremy Brown started his life in rookie ball in Vancouver. Was bounced very quickly to the high Single A team because he was successful and so successful there that Billy Beane had him to the big league Spring training camp and he made it to last the cut before they sent him down. They sent him to Double A. Two kids they drafted in 2002 have gotten as far as Double A, he is one of them. The other one is Steve Stanley who was so small that when he got to the Single A team they didn’t have a uniform that fit him and he had to use the batboy’s uniform.
ML: And the two guys whose bodies were considered by the scouts to be the least well suited to play pro baseball are moving the fastest through the organization. Brown got off to a slow start and now he is doing real well. Stanley has been doing real well from the beginning. The front office of the A’s think they are going to be in the Oakland Coliseum in the next few years. They are both going to be big league baseball players.
RB: Given these two examples of scouting ineptitude what’s going to happen to the scouting part of baseball?
ML: It’s going to change but slowly. If you want to see how—the Red Sox are a curious thing because so much here is media driven. You can’t go fire half your scouts here because they are all friends with the local reporters. Your life is going to hell in the papers. In Toronto JP Ricciardi went in and identified what he called malpractice in the scouting department. The scouts had been on the record about the players in other minor league organizations. And he looked through and just laughed. Eric Hinske, who was their rookie of the year last year, half their scouts said he wasn’t even a minor league player. He went and fired twenty something scouts. You still need scouts, but they need to do something different than what they do. They need to have some understanding of how the numbers work. They need to gather statistics and they need to get to know the kids. That’s what they don’t do. They kind of stare and take the radar gun out and they keep their distance. You need almost journalists out there. I think that’s the way it’s going to go.
RB: How long do you with a book before you move on to the next project?
ML: It depends how well it does.
RB: I had the sense that all your books have done well.
ML: I’ve had one that didn’t make the bestseller list. And a couple that came and went. In this case, five and a half weeks. And after that there are basically constant demands—if I wanted to be on the road for four months doing media, I could do that. I can’t do that. It would drive me crazy. I’ll stop after five and a half weeks and I will give the publisher two or three day windows. A little bit of a mopping-up operation. And then I’ll be done. And then I will try to ignore it, all requests for interviews and get on with my life. Book tours are almost designed to beat out of an author any affection he has for his book.
ML: By the end of it you are just sick of it. And you really don’t want to be that way about it. So you have to cut it short. But there will be a paperback. There is even talk of a movie. So this sort of stuff lingers. As much as I complain it is much worse if it isn’t a success. It’s a joy when it is a success. And this is a particular joy because baseball is this intense subculture that actually doesn’t speak very much for the larger culture. It sounds odd to say. People watch their games, but as Angell said they don’t want the light shined on the dark places. The book is creating a dialogue—it’s just happening —between the larger culture and the subculture. And the larger culture is saying, "How on earth can you run your affairs that way?" and that’s kind of fun. I get a kick out of Wall Street saying read this to learn how to manage money. If Hollywood picks up this and says read this to learn how to put together a movie there’s real pleasure in that.
RB: After every strike, baseball has concerns about fan loyalty. People suggest that both parties are greedy and out of touch. Your book certainly makes the owners guilty of not running their business well.
ML: They are not running their business well. As the same time what drove my interest in it is, it gives you someone to root for. These guys are great. The Oakland clubhouse is a wonderful place. A lot of these guys feel like rejects. They were rejects and they feel —they can tell you how baseball screwed up. Barry Zito can tell you that he had a workout with the San Diego Padres when he was at USC and that he wanted to play for them. The Padres told him that he didn’t throw hard enough to pitch in the big leagues. He throws as hard now as he threw then and he won the Cy Young Award last year. These guys know this and they aren’t over paid and the reason they play for the A’s is they are underpaid. They are paid well but they are not paid hundreds of millions. They are undervalued in some way. That makes them very sympathetic. They are very well run and that side of it is refreshing. To me, that was the story that wasn’t told. Everyone knew there are greedy scoundrels out there who were running their businesses badly but that there was this shining example of how to do it well and that the consequences of how the game was played were kind of wonderful. That’s what made it great to me as a story.
RB: Do you know what you want to do next?
ML: Not really. Not seriously. My judgement is not good when I am on a book tour. I am not thinking about it that much. What happens is I will go back home. I have a four year old and a one year old and a wife who is now taking care of them who is wondering where her husband is. And I will sort through what looks like it might be fun to do. Like this started. I will go wander around and will go see if there is a story. I will do some reporting, see if there is a story in this or that and see if there is something worth pursuing. It would be unlikely that I would start another book for at least six months, maybe a year. I will do some magazine work. There is a film script I am probably going to write. I have many things to occupy my time until I find another book subject. There are enough books in the world. You want to write the ones that are good. The minute you write books because you need the income not because you think you have a good subject, you should just stop. There are sixty thousand books published in this country every year, and most of them are crap. You are making someone make a serious commitment. Not the money but the time, to sit down with a book and enter this world. You want them to be good. You want the book to be special, and they are not always going to be special, but at least you want that to be the ambition. So the only way that happens is if you are not pressing to write a book.
RB: You are clearly in a special position.
ML: Yes, I am very lucky.
RB: Thank you.
ML: Thank you.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing