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Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

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The new pitcher, Ricardo Rincon, gets two quick outs, and
gives up just one run on a sacrifice fly: 1 1-7. With two outs and
runners on first and third. Art Howe walks out yet again. This
time he calls for right-hander Jeff Tam, newly arrived from Triple-
A, to face tlic right-handed Mike Sweeney, who is, at the moment,
leading the American League in hitting.

"Fuck," says Billy. "Why? They all take this leftv-rightv shit
too far. What's wrong with leaving Rincon in?"

Tam had two years in the A's bullpen where he played the role
now played by Chad Bradford. There was a time when Ron Wash-
ington, the infield coach, took to calling Tam "Toilet Paper"
("Because he's always cleanin' up everybody else's shit"). But
something happened, either in Tarn's head or his delivery, and for
the past two years he hasn't been the same guy. "Relievers are like


volatile stocks/' Billy says. "They're the one asset you need to
watch closely, and trade for quick profits."

As his manager and reliever confer, Billy Beane looks at me
apologetically. In under forty-five minutes he's passed from detach-
ment to interest, from interest to irritation, from irritation to
anger, and is now, obviously, on the brink of rage. He's embar-
rassed by his emotions but not enough to control them. "All right,"
he finally says, "you'll have to excuse me, I'm going to have to
pace around here."

With that, he walks out into the clubhouse, closing the door
behind him, and begins to storm around. Past the trainer's room
where poor Tim Hudson, who must be wondering what he needs
to do to get a win, is having heat applied to his shoulder. Past Scott
Hatteberg and Greg Myers, the two lefties on the bench who had
thought they had the night off, rushing back through the club-
house to the batting cage to take some practice swings, in case
they are asked to pinch-hit. And, finally, past the video room
where Paul DePodesta stews on the improbability of the evening.
Paul already has calculated the odds of winning twenty games in
a row. (He puts them at fourteen in a million.) Now he's calculat-
ing the odds of losing an eleven-run lead. ("It may not be fourteen
in a million but it's close.")

In his 1983 Abstract, Bill James had contemplated tonight's
game. James had observed in baseball what he called a "law of
competitive balance." "There exists in the world a negative
momentum," he wrote.

which acts constantly to reduce the differences between strong
teams and weak teams, teams which are ahead and teams which
are behind, or good players and poor players. The corollaries are:

1. Every form of strength covers one weakness and creates
another, and therefore every form of strength is also a form
of weakness and every weakness a strength.


2. The balance of strategies always favors the team which is

3. Psychology lends to pull the winners dcnvn and push the
losers upwards.

More metaphysics than physics, it was as true of people as it
was of baseball teams. People who want very badly to win, and to
be seen to have won, enjoy a tactical advantage over people who
don't. That very desire, tantamount to a need, is also a weakness.
In Billv Heane, the trait is so pronounced that it is not merely a
weakness. It is a curse.

When play resumes, Jeff Tam and Mike Sweeney fight a great
battle. On the tenth pitch of the at bat, after fouling off four
pitches with Superman swings, Sweeney takes a slider from Tam
and golfs it off the 1-800-BAR-NONE sign, just over the left iield


Something big crashes in the clubhouse.

On the TV over Art Howe's desk. Art himself is again on his
way to the mound, to replace Jeff Tam with a lefty named Micah
Bowie. Mike Sweeney enthusiastically explains to his teammates
in the Kansas City dugout how he thought his home run was a
foul ball. The announcers say what a pity it is that Miguel Tejada
"tried to do too much" with the routine ground ball to third. Had
he not, the A's would be out of the inning. Billy bursts back in the
room — cheeks red, teeth black. "Fucking Tam," he says. "He
thinks he's going to fool the best hitter in the league with his
slider." He mutes the television, grabs his tin of Copenhagen, and
vanishes, leaving me to watch the game alone in his manager's

The manager's office is now completely silent. The fifty-five
thousand people outside are making about as much noise as fifty-
five thousand people can make, but none of it reaches this
benighted place. Pity Art Howe. What little he has done to make


the office a home suggests a view of the world so different from

Billy Beane's that it's a wonder he's kept his job as long as he has.

There's a framed aphorism, called "The Optimist's Creed." There

is a plaque containing the wisdom of Vince Lombardi. There is an

empty coffee pot, with a canister of non-dairy creamer. Behind the

manager's white Formica desk is a sign that says Thank You For

Not Smoking. There are photos that hint at a fealty to baseball's

mystique: one of Art standing on the dugout steps, another of Art

and Cal Ripken, Jr. (signed by Ripken). On the television. Art

maintains his stoical expression. Beneath him flashes the news

that no Athletics team has lost an eleven-run lead since the

Philadelphia A's lost one to the St. Louis Browns in 1936. Baseball

has so much history and tradition. You can respect it, or you can

exploit it for profit, but it's still being made all over the place, all

the time.

Micah Bowie gets the final out in the Kansas City eighth, and
the A's go quickly in their half. In the top of the ninth, facing
closer Billy Koch, the Royals get a man as far as second base. With
two outs and two strikes against a weak hitter, Luis Alicea, the
game, once again, looks over. Then Alicea lines a single into left


From somewhere in the clubhouse 1 hear a sharp cry, then the
clatter of metal on metal. I open Art Howe's door to sneak a peek,
and spot Scott Hatteberg running from the batting cage to the
tunnel that leads to the Oakland dugout.

Hatteberg isn't particularly ready to play. He's in the wrong
state of mind, and carrying the wrong bat. After Art Howe told
him he wasn't playing tonight, he'd poured himself a cup of cof-
fee, then another. He'd sat down briefly and chatted with some
guy he'd never met, and whose name he couldn't remember, who
wanted to show him some bats he had handcrafted. Hatteberg had
picked out one of the guy's bats, a shiny black maple one with a
white ring around its neck. He liked the feel of it.


Like most of the players, Hatteberg, as a minor leaguer, had
signed a contract with the Louisville Slugger company, in which
he agreed to use only the company's bats. All but certam that he
would not play tonight, he had taken his contraband bat with him
to the dugout. By the time the score was 11-0, certain that he
would never play, he had the bat between his knees and four cups
of coffee in his bloodstream. He is, by the bottom of the ninth,
chemically altered. He's also holding a bat he's never hit with.

The score remains 11-1 1. The Kansas City closer, Jason Grim-
sley, is on the mound, throwing his usual blazing sinkers. Jer-
maine Dye flies to right for the first out. The television camera
pans the A's dugout and from their expressions you can see that a
lot of the players think the game is as good as lost. In losing an
eleven-run lead, they'd lost more than that. They look as if they
know the last good thing already has happened to them.

Art Howe tells Scott Hatteberg to grab a bat. He's pinch-hitting.
Hatteberg grabs the bat given to him by the anonymous crafts-
man. It violates the contract he signed as a minor leaguer with the
Louisville Slugger company, but what the hell.

He had faced Grimsley just two days before, in a similar situa-
tion. Tie game, bottom of the ninth, but that time there were men
on base. He didn't need to watch tape tonight. With a pitcher like
Grimsley you always know what you'll be getting: 96-mph heat.
You also, usually, know where you'll be getting it: at the bottom
of, or just below, the strike zone. Two days ago Grimsley had
thrown him six straight sinking fastballs, down and away. With
two strikes on him, Hatteberg had swung at the last of them and
hit a weak ground ball to second base. (Miguel Tejada had tollowed
him with a game-winning single up the middle.) As disappointing
as that experience had been, it now served a purpose. He'd seen six
pitches from Jason Grimsley. He's gathered his information. He
knew that, if at all possible, he shouldn't fool around with Grim-
sley's low sinkers.

Tonight, as he steps mto the box, he promises himself that he


won't swing at anything down in the zone until he has two
strikes. He'll wait for what he wants until he has no choice but to
accept whatever happens to be coming. He's looking for some-
thing up — something he can drive for a double, and get himself in
scoring position.

He settles into his usual open stance, and waggles the shiny
black contraband bat back and forth through the zone, like a golfer
on the first tee. As Grimsley comes into the stretch, his face con-
torts in the most unsettling way. He actually grins as he pitches,
and it's not a friendly grin. It's the grin of a man who enjoys
pulling wings off flies. The effect on the TV viewer is unnerving.
But Hatty doesn't see Grimsley's face. He's gazing at the general
area where he expects the ball to leave Grimsley's hand. He needs
to see just one pitch, to get his timing down. He's thinking: if I can
lay off the first pitch I might get a pitch up in the zone. Over and
over he's telling himself: lay off the first pitch. The man who will
this year lead the entire American League in laying off first pitches
feels he needs to give himself a pep talk to lay off the first pitch.
It must be the caffeine.

He lays off the first pitch. It's a ball, just low. Another round of
horrible facial expressions, and Grimsley's ready again. The sec-
ond pitch is another fastball, but it's high in the strike zone. Hatty
takes his short swing; the ball finds the barrel of his bat, and rock-
ets into deep right center field.

He leaves the batter's box in a crouching run. He's moving just
as fast as he does when he hits a slow roller to the third baseman.
He doesn't see Grimsley raging. He doesn't hear fifty-five thou-
sand fans erupting. He doesn't notice the first baseman turning to
leave the field. He doesn't know that there's a fellow from Coop-
erstown following him around the bases, picking them up, and
will soon come looking for his bat. The only one in the entire Col-
iseum who does not know where the ball is going is the man who
hit it. Scott Hatteberg alone watches the ball soar through the late
night air with something like detachment.


The ball doesn't just leave the park; it lands hi,i;h up in the
stands, fitty feet or so beyond the 362 sign in deep right eenter
tiekl. When he's finally certain that the ball is gone for good, Scott
Hatteberg raises both hands over his head, less m triumph than
disbelief. Rounding first, he looks into the Oakland dugout. But
there's no one left inside — the players are all rushing onto the
field. Elation transforms him. He shouts at his teammates. He's
not saying: Look what I just did. He's saying: Look what we just
did! We won! As he runs, he sheds years at the rate of about one
every twenty feet. By the time he touches home plate, he's less
man than boy.

And, not five minutes later, Billy Beane w^as able to look me in
the eye and say that it was just another win.

chapter Twelve

I 8

BILLY BEANE ncvcr allowcd himself sentimental feelings
about a game, or a player, or his own experiences. He'd
walled himself off from his finer feelings, or tried to. He
defined himself by his distaste for, rather than his romance with,
his ballplaying past. This set him apart from most people who
made their living in the game. Former big league ballplayers usu-
ally have friendly ghosts.

The sympathy most former ballplayers had for their own pro-
fessional experiences — for the way they played the game — was
nevertheless a problem for the anti-traditional Oakland A's. They
needed to employ men with experience, but with that experience
came the usual feelings and hunches and instincts. Billy often felt
as if he were having to fight the past in his players and coaches —
that Paul DePodesta was the only person in the entire organiza-
tion who drew the same conclusions from the same data as he did.
And, as the play-offs approached, this problem always intensified.
One day before the end of the regular season, Ron Washington



and Thad Bosley, the A's infield and hitting coaches, came
together in a hatting cage, just ott the visitors' clubhouse in The
Ballpark in Arlington. Their talk began innocently enough. The
team was about to play its second to last game ot the regular sea-
son, against the Texas Rangers. Ray Durham was getting in some
extra hacks, with Wash and Boz looking on, less coaches than con-


Wash and Boz were having one last, soulful look at Ray Durham
before Durham went the way of all of Billy Beane's rent-a-stars.
There was little chance Billy would re-sign Ray Durham for next
season. There wasn't enough wrong with him. There wasn't any-
thing wrong with him. Durham had what every general manager
in the game had always prized: pop in the leadoff slot, speed on the
base paths, and a reputation, less deserved now than five years
ago, as a good second baseman. In the free market Durham proba-
bly would be overpriced; but even if he was fairly priced, Billy
wouldn't keep him. There was nothing inefficient about the mar-
ket for Ray Durham's services.

"Look at Ray," says Wash.


"That little sonofabitch got some juice in that body," says
Wash. "He will hurt you, you throw the ball in the wrong place."

"Swings like a man," says Boz. "And that man's a menace."

"He stands up there like some little Punch and Judy/' says
Wash. "But he can hurt you."

Crack! It's unclear whether Ray is listening to any of this.
"You know what impressed me the most about Ray when he
first came over?" says Boz. "The way he runs down the first-base

"He's the only base stealer we got," says Wash. "You know
what a base stealer is?"

I assumed I didn't.


"A base stealer is a guy who when everyone in the goddamn
yard know he gonna get the bag, he gets the bag."


Wash had been recruited to play baseball by the Kansas City
Royals in the early seventies, at a time when the Royals were try-
ing to take track stars and turn them into baseball players. Those
Royals had made a fetish of speed, and Wash, a speedster, was the
beneficiary. The way Wash tells it, with the first pitch of every
game he and his teammates started running, and they didn't stop
until the last. "There was sometimes you didn't run," he says, but
then he has to think hard about what times those might be. "You
didn't run on Nolan Ryan," he finally says, "because when you ran
on Nolan Ryan all you did was piss Nolan Ryan off. You'da kept
your ass on first base, the hitter might have done something."

Not thinking where it might lead, I ask Wash how many bases
he stole in his youth.

"I stole fifty-seven one year," he says.

Ray Durham turns, slightly, and cocks his head in mock amaze-
ment: no shit^

Wash is looking straight at Ray when he says, "Boz stole

Boz just nods.

Ray drops his bat in wonder. "You stole ninetyV he says.

Boz just nods again, like it's no big deal.

"Damn!" Ray's now engaged. He's like an American tourist
who has just discovered the German on the train next to him is a
long-lost cousin. "It's different here, huh?" he says.

The question is rhetorical. Ray Durham knows firsthand just
how different it is here. Two months ago, freshly plucked for next
to nothing by Billy Beane from the Chicago White Sox, Durham
was seated in a dugout before his first game with his new team.
The Oakland beat reporters swarmed around him. Their second
question was, "How do you feel about Billy Beane putting you in


center field?" That was the first Ray Durham had heard of Billy's
quixdtic plans for him. He hadn't played in the outfield since hi,i;h
school. Purliam dutifully said that he was willing to consider any-
thing to help the team, a statement his saucer eyes translated
beautifully into a question: Are you fucking kidding mel In nano-
seconds Durham's agent was on the phone to Billy to explain that
his client, an All-Star second baseman, was a free agent at the end
of the year. While happy to perform the usual offensive services
for this low-rent team that, by some miracle, had got their sweaty
peasant hands on him for half a season, Ray Durham did not
intend to jeopardize his financial future by making a spectacle of
himself in center field for the Oakland A's.

Ray had put an end to that particular stab at baseball efficiency.
But when the A's coaches told him to stop trying to steal bases, he
had stopped. His whole career Ray Durham had been hired to steal
bases; the moment he arrived in Oakland, his coaches told him to
stay put wherever he was until the ball was hit. Billy had traded
for Ray not because Ray stole bases but because Ray had a talent
for getting on base — for not making outs. And so, for the first time
in his career, Ray mostly played it safe on the bases. From the aes-
thetic point of view, this was a pity. Let Ray Durham do what he
pleased on the base paths and he became a human thrill ride. The
other night in Seattle, after a passed ball, he went from second to
third in a heartbeat and then, instead of stopping like a sane per-
son, )ust flew around the bag and headed toward home. The entire
stadium suffered a little panic attack. The Seattle catcher dove
and spun, the Seattle pitcher felt his sphincter in his throat, and
forty thousand Seattle fans gasped like they'd just reached the first
crest on a giant roller coaster. A millisecond later Ray screeched
to a halt, trotted back to third, and chuckled. Ray knew how to
use his legs to fuck with people's minds.

Not running is about as natural to Ray as not breathing, but
until now he's bottled up not just his speed but his feelings. Now
he says, "It's different here, huh?"


Wash snorts. "It's the shit/' he says. "We have twenty-five
stolen bases all year. Eight were guys going on their own and get-
ting it. Ten were 3-2 counts. Seven, Art gave the green light." One
hundred and sixty games into the season Art Howe has given base
runners the green light a grand total of seven times. It's got to be
some kind of record.

"Ray, how many bags you got this season?" asks Wash.

"Twenty-five," says Ray.

"When he came over, he had twenty-two," says Wash. "So he
got three bags here. Two of those he took on his own."

"You run on this team and you're on your own," says Boz, omi-

"Yeah," says Wash. "There's a rule on this club. It's okay if you
get it. If you don't, you got hell to pay." That would cast Billy
Beane as Satan.

Ray shakes his head in wonder, and goes back to taking his cuts.


"If you say base-running isn't important, you forget how to run
the bases," says Boz.

"You wanna see something funny," Wash says. "Come sit with
me in the third-base box and watch that shit comin' at me.
Nobody on this club know how to go from first to third." In addi-
tion to being the infield coach on a team that can't afford to waste
money on defense, Wash is the third-base coach on a team that
can't afford to waste money on speed. Whenever a ball goes to the
wall, he's required to make these weirdly elaborate calculations to
take into account the base-running talents Billy Beane has pro-
vided him with. He doesn't want to hear that foot speed is over-

Ray can no longer concentrate on his hitting. "Cautious doesn't
work in the play-offs," he says.

Wash and Boz don't say anything to that. Ray's got three weeks,
at most, before he's a free agent deciding which multi-million-
dollar offer to accept: Ray can say whatever he wants about Billy


Beanc's approach to baseball. In a few days the Oakland A's will
face the Minnesota Twins in the first round of the play-offs, and
all the noise on the television and in the papers is about how the
play-offs are different from the regular season. How the play-offs
are about "manufacturing" runs. The play-offs were all about
street cred, and science didn't have any.

"I don't see a lot of play-off games where the score is 8-5," says
Ray. "It's always 1-0 and 2-1."

"The fact of it is," says Wash, "Billy Beanc hates to make outs
on the base paths."

Ray shakes his head sadly and resumes taking his cuts.

I've stumbled upon a revolutionary cell within the Oakland A's,
three men who still believe in the need for speed. These aren't stu-
pid men. Ray's obviously as shrewd as a loan shark. Ron Wash-
ington can't open his mouth without saying something that
belongs in Bartlett's. Boz had succeeded in more than just base-
ball. After thirteen seasons in the big leagues, he'd spent seven
more writing and producing music. Boz had something of the cmt-
sider's perspective — which is why Billy had hired him. Boz
embraced his unusual role with the Oakland A's, not "hitting
coach," but "on-base instructor." He didn't mind the front office's
indifference to batting average. Their indifference to the running
game was another matter.

"Ray was bred on being aggressive running the bases," says
Wash. "Until he got here he never got chastised for being aggres-
sive on the base paths."

Crack! Ray lines a pitch off the foot of bullpen catcher Brandon
Buckley, who has been pitching to him from behind a screen. As
Brandon hops around and tries to figure out if he's broken some-
thing, Ray turns and says, "The White Sox always told us an
aggressive mistake is not really a mistake."

Wash IS overcome with fellow feeling. Here they have this spec-
imen of base-running prowess and no one gives a shit. He says,
"Ray, what you thinkin' about when you put the ball in play?"


"Second base."

"As long as the ball is rolling?"

"I'm runnin'."

"You runnin'."

"A single is a double," says Ray.

"A double is a triple," says Wash.

Nobody says anything for a minute. Then Wash says, "Differ-
ent situation here. Somebody on this team runs and get his ass
thrown out and you got all kinds of gurus who tell you that you
just took yourself out of the inning."

"I never seen anything like it," says Ray.

i wo THINGS happened toward the end of every season, after
Billy Beane's Oakland As have secured a play-off spot. The first
was a slightly unseemly attempt by a small handful of staff mem-
bers to use the newspapers to create pressure on the GM to
improve their standard of living. The most transparent of these
was an interview given by manager Art Howe to the San Jose Mer-
cury News, on the subject of a long-term contract for himself.
"With all the years I've been here and with what we've accom-
plished," he said, "I would think I deserve it. My thinking is, if I
don't get it here, I'll get it somewhere else." After Art's wife con-
fessed that she, too, was befuddled by Billy Beane's unwillingness
to secure their retirement years. Art mentioned how struck he
was by how different baseball teams arrange their pecking order.
"Down in Anaheim," he said, "all they talked about is the man-
ager. I don't think most people even know who the general man-
ager is down there."

The other thing that invariably happened was an unsystematic
rethink in the engine room about this quixotic course the captain
has set all season long. Coaches, players, reporters: everyone at
once starts to worry that the Oakland As don't bunt or run. Espe-
cially run. Billy Beane's total lack of interest in the stolen base —


which has served the team so well for the previous 162 games — is
regarded, in the postseason, as sheer folly. Even people who don't
run very fast start saying that "you need to make things happen"
m the postseason. Take the action to your opponent. "The atavis-
tic need to run," Billy Beane calls it.

The regular season is all hut forgotten, hut it shouldn't he. Any
way you looked at it, it had heen a miracle. In all of Major League
Baseball only the New York Yankees won as many games as the

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Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 22 of 24)