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.