moneyball

It is hard to give up the old ways.  I am not going to do it casually.  You will have to give me a really good reason to change my ways and then I probably still won’t do it.  I might think about it.  But if the way in question is the principal scaffolding of my sense of who I am, I’d have to say your chances aren’t really very good.

I’m going to give you a scene from Moneyball momentarily—the book, not the movie—but I want to stop and reflect on the Greek word metanoia.  I know it from its religious context, where it is usually translated “repent,” but it is a surprisingly cognitive word.  It means “change your mind” or even, “change the way you are thinking.”  That is precisely what  Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane is asking the baseball scouts to do in this scene.

Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, plays this scene for laughs.  It is funny, but I think it is funny because we see it the way Billy sees it.  I want to go around to the other side of the table to see it the way the scouts see it.  Billy and Paul Dipodesta, his computer ace, are trying to line up the players to draft in the coming year.  The opposition is a bunch scouts who have been doing this for a long time and know how it should be done. 

A player, in the scout’s view, should be drafted on the basis of his potential.  Billy and Paul think he should be drafted on the basis of his performance.  Where a player’s performance confirms his potential, Billy and the Scouts will be on the same page.  But so will everyone else in the major leagues, and that unanimity will make that player very expensive to sign if he is available at all.  If he has “potential,” but not performance, he will be affordable and the scouts will love him.  If he has “performance,” but not “potential,” he will be affordable and Billy and Paul will love him.  That’s where this conflict will be fought out, but it isn’t really what the conflict is about.  So what is it about?

For the scouts, it’s about the value of their lives; the value of themselves.  Here’s what scouts bring to the table, the table that has Billy’s computer on it.

In the scouts’ view, you found a big league ballplayer by driving sixty thousand miles, staying in a hundred crappy motels, and eating god knows how many meals at Denny’s all so you could watch 200 high school and college baseball games inside of four months, 199 of which were completely meaningless to you. Most of your worth derived from your membership in the fraternity of old scouts who did this for a living. The other little part came from the one time out of two hundred when you would walk into the ballpark, find a seat on the aluminum plank in the fourth row directly behind the catcher, and see something no one else had seen—at least no one who knew the meaning of it.

A scout like this is someone who can see what no one else has seen; can bring undiscovered talent to the team who has put its confidence in him; can use the discernment that he developed as a player and that he honed to a fine edge in all those hours in the bleachers.  The scout says, “The way I learned the game matters.”  The scout says, “My judgment matters.”  He says, “My life matters; I matter.”  That’s what is at stake.

We’re going to look at Billy Beane next, but let’s go back and remember what metanoia means.  It means “Change the way you think.”  The scouts bring to the table not just a way of thinking, but a way of being.  They stand  for “the old values;” for “the way the game ought to be played.”  This way of contributing to their sport is what they  have to bring to the table.  If it is valuable.  Billy is saying it isn’t valuable.  He’s not just asking them to change their minds; he is asking them to change who they are.

Billy Beane cares about what a new player can do for the team.  Assessing the players’ strengths by ransacking the computer databases is not how Billy grew up.  He grew up the same way the scouts did.  He has repented.  Now he is calling on them to repent.  Let’s look at the decision to draft Jeremy Brown

“Jeremy Brown is a bad body catcher,” says the most vocal of the old scouts.

“A bad body who owns the Alabama record books,” says Pitter [Oakland A’s scout Chris Pettaro, who is working Billy’s side of the table. “He’s the only player in the history of the SEC with three hundred hits and two hundred walks,” says Paul, looking up from his computer.

It’s soft body,” says the most vocal old scout. “A fleshy kind of a body.  A body like that can be low energy.”

The old scout is talking about what he has seen.  Brown has “a bad body.”  But for that to really mean anything, it has to mean what the scout thinks it means.  If it doesn’t mean that, the scout wasted all those hours playing ball and then sitting in the stands.  Pitter says Brown’s performance is very good.

 “Yeah,” says the scout. “Well, in this case low energy is because when he walks, his thighs stick together.

“I repeat: we’re not selling jeans here,” says Billy.

“That’s good,” says the scout. “Because if you put him in corduroys, he’d start a fire.”

 “He’s leading the country in walks,” says Paul.

“He better walk because he can’t run,” says one of the scouts.

“That body, Billy,” says the most vocal old scout. “It’s not natural.” He’s pleading now.

“He’s got big thighs,” says the fat scout, thoughtfully munching another jumbo-sized chocolate chip cookie. “A big butt. He’s huge in the ass.”

“Every year that body has just gotten worse and worse and worse,” says a third.

“Can he hit, though?” asks Billy Beane.

Here are the three scouts, eagerly seconding one another’s “insights.”  His thighs stick together.  He can’t wear corduroys.  He can’t run.  He has a big butt.  Michael Lewis characterizes the scouts this way.

The old scouts aren’t built to argue; they are built to agree. They are part of a tightly woven class of former baseball players.

 Nobody can answer Billy’s question, “Can he hit?”  Yes.  He can hit.  And in 390 at bats, he walked 98 times.  For Billy, singles and walks are just alternative ways of getting to first base.  For the scouts, singles are “the right way to get to first” and walks are “the wrong way.”  For all practical purposes, singles show good character; walks show bad character.  Billy says a player who “earns” that many walks is a player who knows how to “control the plate.”

 Billy is right, of course.  Judging players on their performance is better than judging them on the scout’s instincts, which are really just another form of nostalgia.  And judging them on what they can do for your team—your team particularly—allows Billy to draft players he can actually afford instead of the ones everyone else wants too.  If everyone else wants them, Billy won’t be able to afford them.  There is no way, in fact, to argue that the Oakland A’s should use the judgment of the scouts rather than the judgment of Paul Dipodesta’s computer.  Billy is right and the scouts are wrong.

 But just think what Billy is asking of the scouts.  Think what metanoia means in a case like this.  It cuts deep.   It hurts a lot.  And if the scouts pay this price, their “reward” is that the Oakland A’s win a lot of games.  The outcome of my sacrifice, of my “changing my way of thinking” is that somebody else gets to look really good.

 I know the scouts are wrong.  But, probably more often than not, I have done what they are doing so I don’t take much pleasure in condemning them.

 

 

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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5 Responses to moneyball

  1. rdfeinman says:

    Possibly of interest is my post comparing Moneyball to the crisis in nutrition another example of “how an unscientific culture responds, or fails to respond, to the scientific method.” http://wp.me/16vK0

  2. Bill Teague says:

    Dale,

    Thanks. This is really good. I have not read the book or seen the movie, but am now greatly encouraged to do so.

    The church, of course, is one of the most change resistant institutions in the world and though I am quick to criticize it as such, I, like you, am too often scout-like in my preference for doing things the way they “should be done.”

    If there might be a defense for the scouts, it is in whatever truth is contained by the cliche that it is not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game that counts. Major league baseball, of course, loves the sentiment even if it does not live by it. There are no retro stadiums in the NFL (remember they put a flying saucer inside the columns of Soldier Field), but they abound in MLB. Metal bats would arguably make the game more exciting, but I will not live to see the day wooden bats are used in the big leagues.

    Arguably, congregants might receive better preaching from the live feed on big screen than from the plodder who fills the pulpit week after week, but is that really how to play the game? Others have pointed out that there seems to be some fundamental contradiction in downloading the You Tube video of the seminar on incarnational ministry. Or Happy Meal communion kits: http://www.booksofthebible.com/p70.html

    Any truth in “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you scout the players that counts”?

    • hessd says:

      I’m glad you liked it, Bill, and even gladder just to hear from you. There is nothing personally authentic about what Billy and Paul, the computer guys, are doing. It’s exciting because it is intellectually innovative and it is productive because it allows them to buy useful players cheap, but it doesn’t come out of their hearts. The way the scouts play the game comes from their hearts; from their histories; from their sacrifices.

      But the advice of the scouts goes nowhere. If they were scouting for George Steinbrenner, it would be a different story. The scouts find a good guy and George buys him. For Oakland, they have to find players whose skills are not routinely valued but whose skills are needed in Oakland. That’s the only way for the team to be successful.

      I think about what kinds of contributions I might like to make to a church. If the contribution comes from my heart and if it will help the church to grow and thrive, all is well. But if the contribution I want to make will produce only sterility and failure, someone is going to have to step up to me–that would be you, Bill–and tell me that we can’t do it that way any more. It doesn’t work. THAT, I think, is the lesson of Moneyball

  3. Doug says:

    It’s really funny what people read in the tea leaves of this movie. I saw this on the opening weekend and thought immediately of my time with Circuit City. We were a $12 billion dollar national chain that hadn’t grown into our feet yet (and never would, it turns out). The old guard was still firmly in control, with old ideas of how things should be done. In our case, they weren’t wrong, just wrong for who we had become. Every major change was met with resistance at every level of the company, right down to the stores. Unfortunately, in our case, that resistance wasn’t dealt with very effectively and rather than adapt, we died.

    But I thought it was worth noting that yet again we have found in this movie a Rorschach test.

    -Doug

    • hessd says:

      Perfect! I don’t know enough, being on the outside of the Circuit City decitions, to do more than nod my head at the way you take it apart, but it looks step-by-step tight to me. Wrong about who we had become is the pre-Billy Ball picture of the Oakland A’s. Then the resistance, which I picture not only in the scouts–where it is at least played for laughs–but in the manager who knows whose responsibility it is to fill out the lineup card. In Moneyball, that resistance really was taken care of. Billy traded a bunch of people. This is a very thoughtful piece, Doug, and it has given me a much clearer picture of some of the decisions you had to watch.

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