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November 11, 2011 5:41 pm
The moment you see Michael Lewis and Billy Beane together, you realise how Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game got written. The book that changed baseball – and then most other ballgames – isn’t so much a book. It’s more a conversation. This morning the writer and the baseball executive meet in the tumbledown Oakland Coliseum, where it all began, and pause only occasionally to answer a question. Most of the time they just continue their decade-old conversation.
Lewis, who lives around the corner in Berkeley, noticed in about 2001 that something strange was going on at the Coliseum. The Oakland A’s baseball team were routinely beating teams with several times their budget. Clearly they must be doing something clever. The pre-eminent business writer of our times came to visit.
The A’s’ general manager, Beane, let him in. He had read Lewis’s debut book Liar’s Poker, and he was curious. He cautiously told Lewis how the A’s were using new statistics to find good players ignored by other clubs. For instance, baseball teams had spent a century focused on a hitter’s “batting average”. It turned out that something called “on-base percentage” was much more telling. Beane was increasingly letting his twentysomething Harvard-educated statistician Paul DePodesta choose players on his laptop. The gnarled old A’s’ scouts didn’t like that.
Today, Beane recalls: “Michael said within three minutes: ‘I know exactly what you guys are doing. You’re arbitraging the mispricing of baseball players.’” When Lewis mentioned his own experience of arbitrage on Wall Street in the 1980s, Beane got interested. “We really were looking to Wall Street as a guide,” he says.
Michael said, ‘I know exactly what you guys are doing. You’re arbitraging the mispricing of baseball players’
- Billy Beane
The two men kept talking, sometimes about baseball, often not. Out of their conversations came Moneyball, the book, which has sold more than one million copies worldwide. Moneyball the movie, starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, is released in the UK on November 25. But “Moneyball” is also a phenomenon, which after changing baseball is now sweeping almost all ballgames, from British soccer to Australian rules football. And it’s a phenomenon that reaches beyond sport. With hindsight, what Lewis captures in his book – the triumph of the highly educated over the lesser educated – is exactly what happened in the American economy.
At 49, Beane still sports something of the Charles Atlas physique that once lured half the country’s baseball and football scouts to his parents’ house in San Diego. This morning he also sports a fresh coffee stain on his shirt, timed just right for the FT’s photo session, “because I’m me”. Lewis has an imperfectly tamed southern accent, a pink preppy shirt and an expensive watch befitting a journalist who reputedly earns $10 a word. We settle into one of the Coliseum’s poky offices – Bulgarian ministry of transport, c1976 – and they reminisce about how they met.
“It was in spring training of ’02,” says Lewis, whose articulacy will drive the conversation.
“March of ’02,” says Beane, who is happy to play backup. Like many autodidacts, he feels his lack of formal learning, and his conversation is peppered with phrases such as, “I wish I had a better term for this….”
Lewis says: “What triggered it was I had been thinking about doing a piece.”
“A newspaper article,” adds Beane.
At first Beane still didn’t want to give much away. However, the two men had scarcely begun their conversations when Lewis’s daughter Dixie was born, and the writer disappeared for weeks. That reassured Beane: “We figured, we were not that interesting.” He was right. Lewis wasn’t even intending to make the A’s the focus of his article. He certainly wasn’t planning to focus on Beane himself. “He’s problematic as a character,” analyses Lewis, “because he’s not that interested in himself, and deflects that sort of attention.”
“I was never a great character,” puts in Beane.
“But there was a moment,” continues Lewis, “when I thought, ‘Ha, I can work with this.’ We went down to –”
“Modesto, we drove,” says Beane.
“We drove,” continues Lewis. “We were coming back and it was night and dark, because I remember I couldn’t see my notepad. And you started talking about your relationship to the game. I can’t remember what it was now, but it was interesting. I got home, I had notes all over the paper, I was writing over my own handwriting, but I started scribbling. You would only talk to me when the lights were out. But I thought that he could work.”
And so Moneyball became in large part the drama of Billy Beane: the autodidact who gave himself an education. When Beane was 18 years old, Stanford University had offered him a football and baseball scholarship. He and his parents – bright people without much money who had married young and joined the military middle class – were ecstatic. A good college was everything they wanted. But then the New York Mets offered Beane $125,000 to play baseball instead, and he felt he ought to do it. The movie shows the teenager, around the kitchen table with his parents in the simple family home, making the fateful decision. The filmmakers catch the scene well, but, as Beane says, “I’m not sure they could capture the complete horror.”
“Listen,” he adds, “I’m trying not to talk about myself here. I don’t look at life as a bunch of hindsight reviews of your decisions. But that’s exactly what I wanted to do, to attend Stanford University.”
Beane’s life since – his compulsive reading, his discovery of the Moneyball system, his later discovery of soccer – is a long attempt to give himself the university education he never had. Just as Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google partly because they went to Stanford, Beane created Moneyball partly because he didn’t.
“His worst nightmare is that we all sit around talking about what makes him tick,” says Lewis, and then goes right ahead and talks about what makes Beane tick. “It was interesting to me when I met him that someone who had been denied the conventional college path had that hunger. He was reading all kinds of stuff, and kind of indiscriminately. He’s an omnivore: he eats badly and well, and he reads badly and well.
“There’s this horrible thing that happens with fancy educations, that some incurious people will go to Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford and come out and think they know everything. It’s a huge advantage to him that he has some slight anxiety left that he didn’t go to Stanford.”
“I would agree,” adds Beane quietly.
Lewis says, “It keeps him agitated about new things.”
Hang on: Lewis had a fancy education at Princeton and is still “agitated” about new things.
“Yes, but I was a bad student,” replies Lewis. “That curiosity, he’ll lose it eventually because he’s going to get old, and the older you get the harder it is to take an interest in new things. I find it in myself: noticeably, you have to force yourself. And in pro sports you don’t find a whole lot of curiosity. Baseball is a stupid-making enterprise in that nobody wants to be singled out or say something dumb. You wander in the clubhouse and it’s amazing how incurious the players are. One reason I was attracted to Scott Hatteberg [the former A’s player] as a character: he was just curious: ‘What the hell are you doing here, man?’”
. . .
Beane never fulfilled the teenage promise the scouts had wrongly seen in him. Perhaps he was too introspective, too self-questioning to succeed as a ballplayer. But he was always curious. Aged 27, a mediocre player for the A’s, he had done what no healthy 27-year-old major-leaguer ever does: he walked into front office and said he wanted to quit playing to become an advance scout. Just around that time, baseball was developing its own revolutionary intellectual movement: sabermetrics, rooted in the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research. The sabermetricians, a grouping of mostly odd-looking statisticians whose dean was Bill James, janitor in a pork-and-beans factory in Kansas, were very much outside professional baseball. When Beane became a scout, James was already a cult hero. He’d shown various age-old baseball strategies to be useless. Yet hardly anyone in professional baseball knew his name.
Sabermetrics enchanted Beane. To this day he keeps some of James’s typewritten, mimeographed Baseball Abstracts in his office. “I’ll never throw them away,” he told me once. He quickly decided he wanted a sabermetrician of his own. In the film, Pitt and Jonah Hill (as the fat geeky statistician) capture the jock-nerd relationship well. It’s love, but it’s mutual. Hill is wowed by the alpha male Pitt, and Pitt loves Hill for his mind.
Anyone in baseball could have pinched James’s ideas, but there are specific reasons – beyond Beane’s personal journey – why the A’s got there first. First, they had no money. As Pitt tells his scouts in the movie, “The problem we’re trying to solve is there are rich teams, and there are poor teams.” He pauses, before adding: “Then there is 50ft of crap, then there’s us.” The A’s needed to find talent cheap. Second, the Coliseum is just a traffic jam away from the US’s most innovative region. “We’re in the shadow of Silicon Valley here,” marvels Beane. It’s surely no coincidence that the hippies, the breakdown of the family, the high five (supposedly invented by the A’s player Glenn Burke), the personal computer, Google, the iPhone and Moneyball all came out of northern California.
The reason I saw the story so quickly is, this is what happened on Wall Street while I was there
- Michael Lewis
Innovation hurts. After Beane began using numbers to find players, the A’s’ scouts lost their lifelong purpose. In the movie, one of them protests to Pitt: “You are discarding what scouts have done for 150 years.” That was exactly right. Similar fates had been befalling all sorts of lesser-educated American men for years, though the process is more noticeable now than it was in 2003 when Moneyball first appeared. The book, Lewis agrees, is partly “about the intellectualisation of a previously not intellectual job. This has happened in other spheres of American life. I think the reason I saw the story so quickly is, this is exactly what happened on Wall Street while I was there. You had the equivalent of the old school…”
“The fat mortgage traders at Salomon Brothers,” I interject. (Declaration of interest: Liar’s Poker explains so clearly what a bond is that it got me through my job interview at the FT in 1994.)
“Yes,” says Lewis, “who had high-school degrees from New Jersey and traded by their gut. But they are replaced by hairless wonders from MIT.”
Hairless wonders like the young Lewis?
“I wasn’t as bright as they were, but, yes, when I came out of the training programme at Salomon Brothers it was pretty clear I was going into the cutting-edge group filled with the people from MIT, as a lesser light, a salesman rather than a trader.
“The intellectuals had an advantage because the securities had got more complicated. The Black-Scholes options pricing model had been invented [a mathematical formula for pricing options developed by two professors, which helped kickstart trading in derivatives]; the guys from New Jersey didn’t understand it. And so there was never any question about who was going to win. It was quick and ruthless. The old guys just shuffled off to less and less important parts of the business and that sort of person wasn’t hired again.”
In baseball, though, the old scouts did find a new purpose. Lewis says, “I never thought scouts were totally pointless, I thought they were just looking for the wrong things. I told Billy: ‘If I were you I’d hire a bunch of female journalists who go and find out about the lives of these players. Find out if they’re alcoholics, that stuff.’”
For years Moneyball worked for Oakland. The A’s won more games than they lost from 1999 to 2006
To a degree, this happened. Today a laptop evaluates a player’s quality, and the scouts evaluate his personality. They are needed now for their soft skills.
For years Moneyball worked for Oakland. The A’s won more games than they lost every season from 1999 to 2006. Their peak was 2002, the year Lewis hung around the Coliseum, when the unlikely bunch of rejects assembled by Beane won 64 per cent of their games. The movie’s emotional peak is their 20th successive victory.
“Remember?” Beane asks Lewis. “We had a long conversation here during the 20th game.”
“I was there,” says Lewis, pointing around the tiny office, “you were here.”
Lewis had arrived at the Coliseum early in the game, and banged randomly on the building’s locked front door: “He answered the door!” Lewis recalls. “He said, ‘Sshh, come on.’ And we sat right here, we watched the game.”
Beane says, “Well, we didn’t watch it.” Beane never watches A’s games. “The game was on in the background and I didn’t want to pay attention to it. I’m an emotional guy, who has the ability to make emotional decisions, but I want to make rational decisions so I removed the emotional part. Michael became my history tape that night.”
Does Beane really spend games listening to documentaries about history?
“You name it. I think I know Maximilien Robespierre’s life better than he does.”
. . .
When Beane first saw the manuscript of Moneyball, he presumed nobody would ever read it. Even so, he was aghast: his character swore! “I come from a military family,” he explains. “I said to Michael, ‘My Mom’s going to read this book.’”
“It was too late to do anything,” sighs Lewis.
But the former ballplayers who then ran baseball were even more aghast. The notion that numbers could trump gut outraged them. Unfortunately for them, a year after the book appeared, the Boston Red Sox, with the 30-year-old Yale graduate Theo Epstein as general manager, won the world series of 2004 using Moneyball methods. In 2007 the Red Sox won again. Other teams began hiring Epsteins and Beanes rather than clubbable ex-players. Last season only three of 30 GMs in the major leagues had played professional baseball, none of them very successfully. Beane has ended up restricting job opportunities in baseball for people from backgrounds like Beane’s.
There are two silly objections often made to Lewis’s book. The first is that if Moneyball works so well, then why haven’t the A’s had a winning season since 2006? We meet on a sunny October morning, mid-playoffs, a perfect day for baseball, but the team’s season has long since ended.
However, the people who make this objection don’t seem to grasp the basic principles of imitation and catch-up. Once all teams are playing Moneyball, then playing Moneyball no longer gives you an edge. Indeed, the richer clubs have the means to play it smarter. The New York Yankees recently hired 21 statisticians, Beane marvels.
The other common snipe is that Beane should never have spilled his secrets to Lewis. That ruined the A’s, the critics say. But Lewis dismisses the charge. First, he notes, Beane had never imagined their conversations would spiral into a book. Lewis says, “I was going to do something little. By the time I thought I was going to do something big I’d hung around so much it would have been socially awkward to ask me to leave.”
Second, notes Lewis, by 2002 Moneyball was already spreading. The book ends with the Red Sox offering Beane the highest GM’s salary in baseball history. Only when Beane turned them down, having decided after Stanford that he’d never do anything just for money again, did the Red Sox hire Epstein. “The market was moving already,” says Lewis. “The teams that wanted to do it were going to do it anyway, so no book was going to make any difference. My view is the only effect of the book was to give them [the A’s] the credit. If no book had been written, Theo would have been branded the man who reinvented baseball.”
Do books never make any difference? The bestselling author chuckles. “The Blind Side [also by Lewis] caused a number of white people to adopt black people. I got letters about that. Liar’s Poker caused any number of young people to go work on Wall Street. I’ve had thousands of letters from people who’ve said, ‘I’m on Wall Street because of you.’ I always think, ‘I’m so sorry I’ve had that effect on your life.’ So I have shifted individual decisions, but I don’t have a sense of having changed the culture.”
At least books beget films. Ten years ago, Beane could not have foreseen that one day Brad Pitt would be sitting in the A’s changing room (which looks more like a junk room) eating pizza and trying to figure out Beane’s psyche. Pitt and his twins also visited Beane and his twins at home, much to the excitement of Beane’s wife and nanny.
The movie was made chiefly because Pitt wanted it made. That begs the question of why he cared so much. When I ask Beane, he squirms: he hates talking about Pitt because it makes him sound like a wannabe celebrity. He is midway through a long garbled answer when Lewis interrupts: “I think he [Pitt] saw himself in Billy.”
Why? “At the core of the book,” explains Lewis, “is misperception of value of people. It resonated with him because of his own acting career. Because he’s constantly on the receiving end of other people’s evaluations. At the beginning of his career, he’s thought to be a pretty actor. His skill is not judged, it’s his looks. And you could tell, he’s weary of being judged by his looks. ‘Is this the way people get screwed up ideas of other people and their value?’”
When Lewis first saw a rough cut of the movie, he said his gut reaction was, “Thank God it doesn’t suck.” But after he left the cinema, satisfaction crept up on him. He felt the director Bennett Miller had “got” the same core theme that had attracted Pitt: the misperception of people’s value. Lewis says, “What he did that was so clever: at every level of that film he echoed that theme. So Jonah Hill’s misperceived as just this bawdy, comic actor. Jonah Hill’s value is discovered as a serious dramatic actor. The Coliseum, perceived as a shithole, is gorgeous in that movie. I thought, he’s figured out that that’s the thing he needs to reprise in different ways.”
We both turn to Beane: what was his gut reaction? He reflects: “For the first two minutes I feel like I’m watching a Brad Pitt movie. Until you hear your name and you squirm.” But it wasn’t the film that worried Beane. “The most stressful part of this whole thing was the idea that I was going to have to walk the red carpet. I said, ‘How quickly can we run across this thing?’”
Lewis breaks in: “To be totally fair to Billy, he likes attention less than anybody who’s got as much attention as he has. You’re shy, that’s what it is! You just hide it well.”
Actually, admits Beane, the film did give him one good celebrity moment. Unusually for anyone in professional sport, Beane counts among his many obsessions punk and indie music. (The Clash poster on Pitt’s office wall in the movie is strictly accurate.) When the film came out in north America, Beane found himself at a table at the Toronto film festival organised by Moneyball’s producer, Sony Pictures. He says, “I was sitting next to the Sonys. Brad and Angelina Jolie were over there. And right there was this guy, and the whole night I kept thinking, ‘Man, that guy looks just like Chris Cornell from Soundgarden.’ So the guy gets up to leave and I turn round and say, ‘That guy’s trying too hard because he’s trying to look just like Chris Cornell.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, that is Chris Cornell from Soundgarden.’ I went, ‘What? I’ve been asking him to pass the scallops all night!’ And off I go and introduce myself to him. That was my closest lookie-me moment.”
At this point Lewis exits the Coliseum to plug his newest bestseller, Boomerang, about the global financial crisis. The interview is over. However, ending any conversation with Beane is a struggle. He starts talking about how with the movie finally out, he can get back to the important things: family, work, and obsessing about soccer. The other day he was in London, at a conference at Chelsea Football Club, thronged by soccer people trying to learn Moneyball methods. Beane has come to love London. “I even like coming in from Heathrow,” he admits. “Hammersmith, and I think of the Clash song. The Kings Road – this is where the Sex Pistols started. Then I start thinking, ‘Where did that darn fire start, during Samuel Pepys’ diary?’ Just going on a cab ride is fascinating for me.”
We chat about Moneyball’s inexorable spread through all sports. I tell him about the England cricket team’s recent victory in the Test series with India. England’s coach, Andy Flower, is a devotee of Moneyball. Before the series his statistician, Nathan “Numbers” Leamon, carried out a Moneyball-style analysis of India’s great batsman Sachin Tendulkar. “Numbers” discovered that Tendulkar struggles early in his innings to score runs on his “off side” – that is, when the ball is bowled on the side of his bat rather than his legs. In the 22 years that Tendulkar has played Test cricket, nobody had previously spotted this. England bowled to Tendulkar’s off side early in his innings, and repeatedly dismissed him cheaply.
Beane is amazed that cricket has only just started doing this analysis. On the shelf behind him, he finds the A’s’ statistical file for their recent routine series against the Detroit Tigers. The file is perhaps 40 pages thick. Beane leafs to the pages for one of the Tigers’ batters, Alex Avila. A chart shows exactly how Avila has fared in each tiny section of his strike zone, and how that varies depending on the phase of his at-bat. The chart looks, as Beane likes to say, like a piece of analysis done at a hedge fund.
That’s Moneyball. Beane puts the file away. He still likes this stuff, but there’s so much else to think about. He walks me to the car park, where he engages the friend who drove me here in a 15-minute conversation about growing up in San Diego.
‘Moneyball’ is in cinemas from November 25
Simon Kuper’s book ‘The Football Men’ is published by Simon & Schuster (£16.99). To comment, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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