September 2, 2011
The Moneyball Misperception
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A few weeks ago, I went to a preliminary screening of Moneyball, the movie starring Brad Pitt and a couple thousand pouches of Copenhagen. I believe I'm still duty-bound not to write about the film itself in any detail, but I will say in general that, as Hollywood adaptations go, it's a surprisingly gentle movie whose only real howler is the part where Royce Clayton shows up in the role of a major-league baseball player.
There's one scene that sticks out in my mind, though, if only because it made me realize something about the Moneyball phenomenon as a whole. You'll remember it from the book as the chapter where Billy Beane simultaneously wheedles Ricardo Rincon out of the Indians and leaves Brian Sabean wandering around the Embarcadero wearing a barrel. That moment is the heart of Michael Lewis's book. In the film, it seems almost out of place, as if some poor assistant rushing a latte to Mr. Sorkin had tripped and fallen and gotten his script crossed up with 10 pages from another movie. What to that point had felt a little like, I dunno, The Bad News Bears Learn Microsoft Excel became something else entirely. Pitt works the phones, and Jonah Hill beaches himself in the corner of the screen, and the whole enjoyable hustle unfolds like something out of another movie—Glengarry Glen Ross, maybe. And that's when it occurred to me: Moneyball is, very quietly, a story about a con.
I don't mean the lesser cons that Beane perpetrates on his fellow GMs. I mean the large-scale one that the book never mentions, the one that's central to how baseball teams do business in the Bud Selig era—the one about hopeless cheap-asses like the A's who soak the wealthy clubs on revenue sharing and win just often enough that no one points out they're really just the Pirates with better marketing.
We all know about the bizarro incentives that revenue sharing creates, and the leaked financial documents we obtained over at Deadspin make them plain: it's good business to lose cheaply. Win too many games, draw too many fans, and you risk losing that revenue-sharing check. In reality, that's the "unfair game" of Moneyball's subtitle. It's not that the rich get richer, but that the "poor" are essentially bribed, via revenue sharing, not to try too hard. The Moneyball way, at bottom,is about cleverly not trying too hard.
Few bestsellers have been so misunderstood as Lewis's book. And because the A's have once again absented themselves from the playoff race, it goes without saying that we're in for another fatuous round of "Moneyball is dead" dork-punching when the movie hits theaters. (Joe Morgan is doing solfeggio warmups in front of a mirror as I type this. I figure we're less than a month from watching him get caught in another rundown between subject and predicate.)
The VORP yuks are one thing. The more insidious mistake people make about the book, I'm realizing, is in conceiving of the A's as a victim of baseball's economics, not as the prime beneficiary. (A corollary is the notion, especially post-Moneyball, that the "poor" teams who lose are stupid, rather than cheerful participants in a game they know to be rigged.) Moneyball remains one of the best sports books ever written, but an unintended consequence is that Lewis—in turning a story about cold-eyed, revenue-maximizing bidness into a story about scruffy, yipping, slipper-chewing underdogs—helped consecrate the deeply Seligian idea that there is something inherently noble about being cheap and efficient, that teams like the A's are competing heroically against a stacked deck when in fact teams like the A's want the deck stacked in the first place. Even the little guy can win with the right kind of know-how, the book says.
It's a lie in the long run, albeit a pleasant one. It's what made a book about arbitrage so appealing to so many readers, including a handful of people in Hollywood. It keeps fans from seeing the central fact of baseball under Selig, which is that the fix is in from the moment that $30 million revenue-sharing check lands in a team's mailbox. That's a huge misperception—and a very profitable one for the lords of baseball. Moneyball is the new market inefficiency. How about that?
This is a longer version of a story that will appear in the October issue of GQ