Michael (Michael M.) Lewis.

Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

. (page 2 of 24)
Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 2 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


performance. We were looking at talent." But in Billy's case, tal-
ent was a mask. Things went so well for him so often that no one
ever needed to worry about how he behaved when they didn't go
well. Blalock worried, though. Blalock lived with it. The moment
Billy failed, he went looking for something to break. One time
after Billy struck out, he whacked his aluminum bat against a wall
with such violence that he bent it at a right angle. The next time
he came to the plate he was still so furious with himself that he
insisted on hitting with the crooked bat. Another time he threw
such a tantrum that Blalock tossed him off the team. "You have
some guys that when they strike out and come back to the bench
all the other guys move down to the other end of the bench," says
Blalock. "That was Billy."

When things did not go well for Billy on the playing field, a wall
came down between him and his talent, and he didn't know any
other way to get through the wall than to try to smash a hole in
it. It wasn't merely that he didn't like to fail; it was as if he didn't
know how to fail.

The scouts never considered this. By the end of Billy's senior
year the only question they had about Billy was: Can I get him?
And as the 1980 major league draft approached, they were given



10 MONEYBflLL

reason to think not. The first bad sign was that the head scout
from the New York Mets, Roger Jongewaard, took a more than
usual interest in Billy. The Mets held the first overall pick in the
1980 draft, and so Billy was theirs for the taking. Word was that
the Mets had winnowed their short list to two players, Billy and a
Los Angeles high school player named Darrvl Strawberrv. Word
also was that Jongewaard preferred BiUv to Strawberry. (He wasn't
alone.) "There are good guys and there are premium guys," says
Jongewaard. "And Billy was a premium premium guv. He had the
size, the speed, the arm, the whole package. He could play other
sports. He was a true athlete. And then, on top ot all that, he had
good grades in school and he was going with all the prettiest girls.
He had charm. He could have been anvthing. "

The other bad sign was that Billv kept saying he didn't want to
play pro baseball. He wanted to go to college. Specifically, he
wanted to attend Stanford University on a loint baseball and foot-
ball scholarship. He was at least as interested m the school as the
sports. The baseball recruiter from the Universitv ni Southern
California had tried to talk Biliv out ot Stanford. "Thev'll make
you take a whole week ott ior tinal exams," he'd said. To which
Billy had replied, "That's the idea, isn't iti"' A tew of the scouts
had tried to point out that Billv didn't actually play football — he'd
quit after his sophomore year in high school, to avoid an injury
that might end his baseball career. Stanford didn't care. The uni-
versity was in the market for a quarterback to succeed its current
star, a sophomore named John Elway. The baseball team didn't
have the pull that the football team had with the Stanford admis-
sions office, and so the baseball coach asked the football coach to
have a look at Billy. A few hours on the practice field and the foot-
ball coach endorsed Billy Beane as the man to take over after John
Elway left. All Billy had to do was get his B in math. The Stanford
athletic department would take care of the rest. And it had.

By the day of the draft every big league scout had pretty much
written off Billy as unobtainable. "Billy just scared a lot of people



THE CURSE OF TALENT 11

away/' recalls scout Paul Weaver. "No one thought he was going
to sign." It was insane for a team to waste its only first-round draft
choice on a kid who didn't want to play.

The only one who refused to be scared off was Roger Jonge-
waard. The Mets had three first-round picks in the 1980 draft and
so, Jongewaard figured, the front office might be willing to risk
one of them on a player who might not sign. Plus there was this
other thing. In the months leading up to the draft the Mets front
office had allowed themselves to become part of a strange experi-
ment. Sports Illustrated had asked the Mets' general manager,
Frank Cashen, if one of the magazine's reporters could follow the
team as it decided who would become the first overall draft pick
in the country. The Mets had shown the magazine their short list
of prospects, and the magazine had said it would be convenient,
journalistically, if the team selected Darryl Strawberry.

Strawberry was just a great story: a poor kid from the inner-city
of Los Angeles who didn't know he was about to become rich and
famous. Jongewaard, who preferred Billy to Strawberry, argued
against letting the magazine become involved at all because, as he
put it later, "we'd be creating a monster. It'd cost us a lot of
money." The club overruled him. The Mets front office felt that
the benefits of the national publicity outweighed the costs of rais-
ing Darryl Strawberry's expectations, or even of picking the wrong
guy. The Mets took Strawberry with the first pick and paid him a
then fantastic signing bonus of $210,000. The Blue Jays took Garry
Harris with the second pick of the draft. Darnell Coles went to the
Mariners with the sixth pick, and Cecil Espy to the White Sox
with the eighth pick. With their second first-round draft pick, the
twenty-third overall, the Mets let Roger Jongewaard do what he
wanted, and Jongewaard selected Billy Beane.

Jongewaard had seen kids say they were going to college only to
change their minds the minute the money hit the table. But in the
weeks following the draft he had laid a hundred grand in front of
Billy's parents and it had done nothing to improve the tone of the



12 MONEYBflLL

discussion. He began to worry that Billy was serious. To the cha-
grin of Billy's mother, who was intent on her son going to Stan-
tord, Jongewaard planted himself in the Beane household. That
didn't work either. "I wasn't getting the vibes I wt)uld like," Jonge-
waard now says. "And so I took Billy to see the big club."

It was 1980. The Beane family was military middle class. Billy
had hardly been outside of San Diego, much less to New York
City. To him the New York Mets were not so much a baseball
team as a remote idea. But that summer, when the Mets came to
San Diego to play the Padres, longewaard escorted Billy into the
visitors' clubhouse. There Billy found waiting for him a Mets uni-
form with his name on the back, and a receiving partv of players:
Lee Mazzilli, Mookie Wilson, Wallv Backman. The players knew
who he was; they came up to him and ioked about how they
needed him to hurry up and get his ass to the big leagues. Even the
Mets' manager, Joe Torre, took an interest. "1 think that's what
turned Billy," says Jongewaard. "He met the big league team and
he thought: I can plav with these guys." "It was such a sacred
place," says Billy, "and it was closed off to so many people. And 1
was inside. It became real."

The decision was Billy's to make. A year or so earlier, Billy's
father had sat him down at a table and challenged him to arm-
wrestle. The gesture struck Billy as strange, unlike his father. His
father was intense but never physically aggressive. Father and son
wrestled: Billy won. Afterward, his father told Billy that if he was
man enough to beat his father in arm-wrestling, he was man
enough to make his own decisions in life. The offer from the Mets
was Billy's first big life decision. Billy told Roger Jongewaard he'd
sign.

What happened next was odd. Years later Billy couldn't be sure
if he dreamed it, or it actually happened. After he told the Mets he
planned to sign their contract, but before he'd actually done it, he
changed his mind. When he told his father that he was having sec-



THE CURSE OF TALENT 13

ond thoughts, that he wasn't sure he wanted to play pro ball, his
father said, "You made your decision, you're signing."

In any case, Billy took the $125,000 offered by the Mets. He
appeased his mother (and his conscience) by telling her (and him-
self) he would attend classes at Stanford during the off-season.
Stanford disagreed. When the admissions office learned that Billy
wouldn't be playing sports for Stanford, they told him that he was
no longer welcome in Stanford's classrooms. "Dear Mrs. Beane,"
read the letter from the Stanford dean of admissions, Fred A. Har-
gadon, "we are withdrawing Billy's admission ... I do wish him
every success, both with his professional career in baseball and
with his alternate plans for continuing his education."

Just like that, a life changed. One day Billy Beane could have
been anything; the next he was just another minor league base-
ball player, and not even a rich one. On the advice of a family
friend, Billy's parents invested on their son's behalf his entire
$125,000 bonus in a real estate partnership that promptly went
bust. It was many years before Billy's mother would speak to
Roger Jongewaard.



1
Chapter Two



HOW TO FT Q Rc



YiARS LATER hc vvoLild s;iv th.it whcn he'd decided to
become a professional baseball player, it was the only time
he'd done something lust tor the money, and that he'd
never do something just tor the money ever again. He would never
again let the market dictate the direction ot his lite. The tunnv
thing about that, now he was running a poor maior league baseball
team, was that his )ob was almost entirely about moncv: where to
tind it, how to spend it, whom to spend it on. There was no more
intensely financial period in his life than the few weeks, just after
the regular season opened, leading up to the amateur draft. There
was also no time that he found more enjoyable. He didn't mind
living with money at the center of his life, so long as he was using
it on other people, and not having it used on him.

He began that day in the summer of 2002 facing a roomful of his
scouts. Billy Beane, now in his fortieth year on earth and his fifth
as the Oakland A's general manager, had changed. He'd lost the
ramrod posture of his youth. The brown mop of hair had thinned,

14



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 15

and been trained, poorly, to part. Otherwise the saggings and crin-
kUngs of middle age were barely discernable on him. The differ-
ence in Billy wasn't what had happened to him, but what hadn't.
He had a life he hadn't led, and he knew it. He just hoped nobody
else noticed.

The men in this room were the spiritual descendants of the
older men who had identified Billy Beane, as a boy of sixteen, as a
future baseball superstar. Invisible to the ordinary fan, they were
nevertheless the heart of the game. They decide who gets to play
and, therefore, how it is played. For the first time in his career
Billy was about to start an argument about how they did what
they did. Calling them in from the field and stuffing them into a
dank room in the bowels of the Coliseum for the seven days before
the draft had become something of an Oakland custom. It was the
point of the exercise that was about to change.

A year ago, before the 2001 draft, the goal had been for the gen-
eral manager of the Oakland A's and his scouts to come to some
mutually satisfying decision about who to select with the top
picks. Billy had allowed the scouts to lead the discussion and
influence his decisions. He had even let the scouts choose a lot of
their own guys in higher rounds. That changed about five seconds
after the 2001 draft, which had been an expensive disaster. The
elite players that Billy and the scouts had discussed in advance
had been snapped up by other teams before the A's turn came to
make their second and final first-round draft pick. All that
remained were guys the scouts loved and Billy knew next to noth-
ing about. In the confusion, Grady Fuson, the A's soon to be for-
mer head of scouting, had taken a high school pitcher named
Jeremy Bonderman. The kid had a 94-mile-per-hour fastball, a
clean delivery, and a body that looked as if it had been created to
wear a baseball uniform. He was, in short, precisely the kind of
pitcher Billy thought he had trained his scouting department to
avoid.

It was impossible to say whether Jeremy Bonderman would



16 MONEYBfllL

make it to the big leagues, but that wasn't the ponit. The odds
were against him, just as they were against any high school player.
The scouts adored high school players, and they especially adored
high school pitchers. High school pitchers were so tar away from
being who they would be when they grew up that you could imag-
ine them becoming almost anything. High school pitchers also
had brand-new arms, and brand-new arms were able to generate
the one asset scouts could measure: a tastball's velocity. The most
important quality in a pitcher was not his brute strength but his
ability to deceive, and deception took many torms.

In any case, you had only to study the history ot the dratt to see
that high school pitchers were twice less likely than college pitch-
ers, and tour times less likelv than college position players, to
make it to the big leagues. Taking a high school pitcher in the first
round — and spending 1.2 million bucks to sign him — was exactly
the sort of thing that happened when you let scouts have their
way. It defied the odds; it defied reason. Reason, even science, was
what Billy Reane was intent on bringing to baseball. He used many
unreasonable nieans — anger, passion, c\cn physical intimida-
tion — to do it, "Mv deep-down belief about how to build a base-
ball team is at odds with mv day-tii-day personality," he said. "It's
a constant struggle tor me."

It was hard to know what Grady Fuson imagined would happen
after he took a high school pitcher with the first pick. On draft day
the Oakland draft room was a ceremonial place. Wives, owners,
friends of the owners — all these people who made you think twice
before saying "fuck" — gathered politely along the back wall of the
room to watch the Oakland team determine its future. Grady, a
soft five foot eight next to Billy's still dangerous-looking six foot
four, might have thought that their presence would buffer Billy's
fury. It didn't. Professional baseball had violently detached Billy
Beane from his youthful self, but Billy was still the guy whose
anger after striking out caused the rest of the team to gather on the
other end of the bench. When Grady leaned into the phone to take



HOW TO FIND R BflLLPLflYER 17

Bonderman, Billy, in a single motion, erupted from his chair,
grabbed it, and hurled it right through the wall. When the chair hit
the wall it didn't bang and clang; it exploded. Until they saw the
hole Billy had made in it, the scouts had assumed that the wall
was, like their futures, solid.

Up till then, Grady had every reason to feel secure in his job.
Other teams, when they sought to explain to themselves why the
Oakland A's had won so many games with so little money, and
excuse themselves for winning so few with so much, usually
invoked the A's scouting. Certainly, Grady could never have imag-
ined that his scouting department was on the brink of total over-
haul, and that his job was on the line. But that was the direction
Billy's mind was heading. He couldn't help but notice that his
scouting department was the one part of his organization that
most resembled the rest of baseball. From that it followed that it
was most in need of change. "The draft has never been anything
but a fucking crapshoot." Billy had taken to saying, "We take fifty
guys and we celebrate if two of them make it. In what other busi-
ness is two for fifty a success? If you did that in the stock market,
you'd go broke." Grady had no way of knowing how much Billy
disapproved of Grady's most deeply ingrained attitudes — that Billy
had come to believe that baseball scouting was at roughly the
same stage of development in the twenty-first century as profes-
sional medicine had been in the eighteenth. Or that all of Billy's
beliefs, at the moment of Jeremy Bonderman's selection, acquired
a new intensity.

On the other hand, Grady wasn't entirely oblivious to Billy's
hostility. He had known enough to be uncomfortable the week
before the draft, when Billy's assistant, Paul DePodesta, had
turned up in the draft room with his laptop. Paul hadn't played pro
ball. Paul was a Harvard graduate. Paul looked and sounded more
like a Harvard graduate than a baseball man. Maybe more to the
point, Paul shouldn't have even been in the draft room. The draft
room was for scouts, not assistant general managers.



18 MONEYBflLL

It was Paul's computer that Grady dwelled upcm. "What do you
need that for?" Grady asked Paul after the meeting, as it he sensed
the machine somehow challenged his authority. "You're sitting
over there with your computer and 1 don't know what you're
doing."

"I'm just looking at stats," said Paul. "It's easier than printing
them all out."

Paul wanted to look at stats hecause the stats offered him new
ways of understanding amateur players. He had graduated from
college with distinction in economics, hut his interest, discour-
aged hy the Harvard economics department, had heen on the
uneasy horder hetween psvcholog>' and economics. He was fasci-
nated hy irrationalitv, and the opportunities it created in human
affairs for anvone who resisted it. He was lust the sort ot person
who might have made an easy fortune in finance, hut the market
for hasehall players, in Paul's view, was tar more interesting than
anything Wall Street offered. There was, for starters, the tendency
of evervone who actuallv played the game to generalize wildly
from his own experience. People always thought then" own expe-
rience was typical when it wasn't. There was also a tendencv to he
overly influenced hy a guy's most recent performance: what he did
last was not necessarily what he would do next. Thirdly — hut not
lastly — there was the hias toward what people saw with their own
eyes, or thought thev had seen. The human mind played tricks on
itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it
played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through
the illusion to the reality. There was a lot you couldn't see when
you watched a hasehall game.

For Billy Beane, it was a little different, a little less cerehral and
a little more visceral. Billy intended to rip away from the scouts
the power to decide who would he a pro hasehall player and who
would not, and Paul was his weapon for doing it.

Grady did not know ahout that. Grady had ignored Paul's prod-
ding to scout the players his computer flushed out. Paul had said



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 19

the scouts ought to go have a look at a college kid named Kevin
Youkilis. Youkilis was a fat third baseman who couldn't run,
throw, or field. What was the point of going to see that^ (Because,
Paul would be able to say three months later, Kevin Youkilis has
the second highest on-base percentage in all of professional base-
ball, after Barry Bonds. To Paul, he'd become Euclis: the Greek god
of walks.) Grady and his scouts had ignored Paul when he said
they ought to check out a college pitcher named Kirk Saarloos.
Saarloos was a short right-hander with an 88-mile-per-hour fast-
ball. Why waste time on a short right-hander? (Because, Paul
would be able to say less than a year later, Saarloos is one of only
two players from the 2001 draft pitching in the big leagues.)

Raw violence had gotten Grady's attention. It was only baseball
tradition that allowed scouting directors and scouts to go off and
find the ballplayers on their own without worrying too much
about the GM looking over their shoulders. And if there was one
thing Grady knew about Billy, it was that he could give a fuck
about baseball tradition. All Billy cared about was winning. A few
days after the 2001 draft — with Billy away and still not speaking
to him — Grady crept into Paul's office. In conciliatory tones, he
allowed as how he still needed to sign a pitcher to fill out the A's
rookie league roster in Arizona. There was this kid Paul had men-
tioned who, along with Youkilis and Saarloos, Grady had ignored.
David Beck was his name. Beck had gone completely undrafted.
Thirty big league teams, each with fifty draft picks, had passed on
him. Oddly enough, Paul's computer had spit out Beck's name
only because one of Beck's teammates at Cumberland University
in Tennessee, a big kid with a 98-mile-per-hour fastball, had made
everyone's list as a potential first-round draft pick. Paul had
noticed that on the same pitching staff as this consensus first-
round pick was this complete unknown, a six foot four left-
hander, who had even better numbers than the first rounder. A
lower earned run average, fewer home runs allowed, more strike-
outs, and fewer walks per nine innings. And Paul just wondered:



20 MONEYBflLL

maybe the kid had something going for him that the scouts were
missing.

He was left wondering. Months passed without any word of
Beck from the scoutmg department. Paul tmally asked Grady
about him. And Grady said, "Oh yeah, I forgot, I'll have one oi the
scouts go have a look." But he didn't do it, at least not seriously.
When Paul asked again, Billy Owens, the A's scout responsible for
covering Tennessee, grudgingly came back to him with the word
that Beck was "a soft tosser." Soft tosser was scoutmg code for not
worth my time. Paul still had the impression that no one had
bothered to scout David Beck.

When he came to see Paul after the draft, Grady was in a differ-
ent mood about David Beck. Should we sign your guy' he asked.

What guy' asked Paul. He'd torgotten about Beck.

Beck, said Gradv.

Grady, he's not my guy, said Paul. I just asked you to check him
out.

Grady was eager to make peace with the front office, and he
thought he could do it by throwing Paul a bone. He ran off and
signed David Beck, sight unseen. A few days later, Beck reported
for duty at the A's training facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. Most of
the scouts, and Paul, happened to be there when Beck warmed up
in the A's bullpen. It was one of the most bizarre sights any of
them ever had seen on a pitcher's mound. When the kid drew back
his left arm to throw, his left hand flopped and twirled maniacally.
His wrist might as well not exist: at any moment, it seemed, his
hand might disengage itself and fly away. The kid was double-
jointed, maybe even crippled. At that moment David Beck ceased
to be known to the scouts as David Beck and became, simply,
"The Creature." A scout from another organization came right up
to Billy Owens, chuckling, and asked how he came to sign The
Creature. Billy O pointed over to Paul and said, "I didn't sign him.
Paul made me do it."

Whereupon The Creature went out and dominated the Arizona



HOW TO FIND R BflLLPLflYER 21

rookie league. He and his Halloween hand and his 84-mph fastball
shut down the opposition so completely that the opposition never
knew what happened. In the short season The Creature pitched
eighteen innings in relief, struck out thirty-two batters, and fin-
ished with an earned run average of an even 1.00. He was named
the closer on the rookie league All-Star team.

The Creature was the first thing to come out of Paul's computer
that the A's scouting department signed. There were about to be a
lot more. The 2002 draft was to be the first science experiment
Billy Beane performed upon amateur players.

It WASN'T QUITE TEN in the morning and everyone in the draft
room except the Harvard graduates had a lipful of chewing
tobacco. The snuff rearranged their features into masks of grim
determination. Anyone whose name wasn't two syllables, or didn't
end in a vowel or a spitable consonant, has had it changed for the
benefit of baseball conversation. Ron Hopkins is "Hoppy," Chris
Pittaro is 'Titter," Dick Bogard is "Bogie." Most were former
infielders who had topped out someplace in the minor leagues. A
handful actually made it to the big leagues, but so briefly that it
almost hadn't happened at all. John Poloni had pitched seven
innings in 1977 with the Texas Rangers. Kelly Heath had played
second base in the Royals organization, and had exactly one major
league at bat, in 1982, after the Royals' regular second baseman,
Frank White, decided in the middle of a game that his hemor-
rhoids were bothering him. As one of the other scouts put it, Kelly
was the only player in history whose entire big league career was
made possible by a single asshole. Chris Pittaro had played second
base for the Tigers and Twins. Back in 1985, during Pitter's rookie
year, Detroit's manager Sparky Andersen was quoted saying Pitter



Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 2 of 24)