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Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

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"I repeat: we're not selling jeans here," says Billy.

"That's good," says the scout. "Because if you put him in cor-
duroys, he'd start a fire."

Clutching Jeremy Brown's yellow nameplate, Billy inches



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 35

toward the Big Board with the "Top 60" names on it. The scouts
shift and spit. The leading scouting pubUcation, Baseball Amer-
ica, has just pubUshed its special issue devoted to the 2002 draft,
and in it a list of the top twenty-five amateur catchers in the coun-
try. Jeremy Brown's name is not on the list. Baseball America has
more or less said that Jeremy Brown will be lucky to get drafted.
Billy Beane is walking Jeremy Brown into the first five rounds of
the draft.

"Billy, does he really belong in that group?" asks the old scout
plaintively. "He went in the nineteenth round last year and he'll
be lucky to go there this year." The Red Sox had drafted Brown the
year before, and Brown had turned down the peanuts they'd
offered and returned to the University of Alabama for his senior
year. It was beginning to look like a wise move.

The older scouts all share their brother's incredulity. One of
them, the fat scout, when he returned from the trip Billy made
him take to the University of Alabama, called Billy and told him
that he couldn't recommend drafting Jeremy Brown. Period. There
were fifteen hundred draft-eligible players in North America alone
that he would rather own than this misshapen catcher. Like all
the scouts, the fat scout had the overriding impression that Brown
was fat and growing fatter. He had the further impression that
Brown didn't look all that good when he did anything but hit.
"Behind the plate he's not mobile," the fat scout now says. "His
throws are all slingshot throws." Throws from catchers with a
slinging motion tend not to follow a straight line but to tail off
toward the first-base side of second base.

Billy takes a step toward the Big Board, sticks Brown's name
onto the top of the Big Board's second column, the seventeenth
slot, and says, "All right, push him down, guys." Jeremy Brown is
now a high second-round, or even low first-round, draft pick. If
baseball scouts were capable of gasping, these men would have
gasped. Instead, they spit tobacco juice into their cups. That was



36 MONEYBflLL

the moment when the scouts reahzed just how far Billy Beane was
willing to go to push his supposedly rational and ohjectivc view of
things.

"Come on, Billy," the vocal scout says.

"Finding a catcher who can hit — there's not one of them out
there who can hit," says Billy. "This guy can hit."

Eric looks across the tahle and says, "This guy's a senior with,
like, a huge history."

The scouts don't see the point of historv. In their view historv
isn't terribly relevant when you're talking about kids who haven't
become who they will be.

"Come on," says Eric, "vou guvs have all plaved with guvs who
were bad bodies and good baseball plavers."

"Yeah," says Billy. "1 plaved with Titter." Everyone laughs,
even Fitter. "Another thing about Brown," says Billy, "he walks
his ass off."

"He's leading the country in walks," says Paul. Walks!

"He better walk because he can't run," says one of the scouts.

"That body, Billy," savs the most vocal old scout. "It's not nat-
ural." He's pleading now.

"He's got big thighs," says the fat scout, thoughtfully munch-
ing another lumbo-sized chocolate chip cookie. "A big butt. He's
huge in the ass."

"Every year that body has lust gotten worse and worse and
worse," says a third.

"Can he hit, though?" asks Billy Beane.

"Wanna hear something," says Paul, gazing into his computer
screen at the University of Alabama Web site. "In the past two
years: 390 at batS; 98 walks; 38 Ks. Those numbers are better than
anyone's in minor league baseball. Oh yeah, 21 jacks." Jacks are
home runs. So are dongs, bombs, and big flies. Baseball people
express their fondness for a thing by thinking up lots of different
ways to say it.

The fat scout looks up from his giant chocolate chip cookie and



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 37

seeks to find a way to get across just how unimpressed he is.
"Well," he says, exaggerating his natural drawl, "I musta severely
unnerestimated Jeremy Brown's hittin' ability."

"I just don't see it," says the vocal scout.

"That's all right," says Billy. "We're blending what we see but
we aren't allowing ourselves to be victimized by what we see."

This argument had nothing to do with Jeremy Brown. It was
about how to find a big league ballplayer. In the scouts' view, you
found a big league ballplayer by driving sixty thousand miles, stay-
ing in a hundred crappy motels, and eating god knows how many
meals at Denny's all so you could watch 200 high school and col-
lege 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. You only had to see him once. "If you see
it once, it's there," says Eric. "There's always been that belief in
scouting." And if you saw it once, you, and only you, would know
the meaning of what you saw. You had found the boy who was
going to make you famous.

Billy had his own idea about where to find future major league
baseball players: inside Paul's computer. He'd flirted with the idea
of firing all the scouts and just drafting the kids straight from
Paul's laptop. The Internet now served up just about every statis-
tic you could want about every college player in the country, and
Paul knew them all. Paul's laptop didn't have a tiny red bell on top
that whirled and whistled whenever a college player's on-base per-
centage climbed above .450, but it might as well have. From Paul's
point of view, that was the great thing about college players: they
had meaningful stats. They played a lot more games, against
stiffer competition, than high school players. The sample size of



38 MONEYBflLL

their relevant statistics was larger, and therefore a more accurate
reflection of some underlying reality. You could proiect college
players with greater certainty than you could project high school
players. The statistics enabled you to find your way past all sorts
of sight-based scouting preiudices: the scouting dislike of short
right-handed pitchers, for instance, or the scouting distrust of
skinny little guys who get on base. Or the scouting distaste for fat
catchers.

That was the source of this conflict. For Billy and Paul and, to
a slightly lesser extent, Eric and Chris, a voung player is not what
he looks like, or what he might become, but whdt he Inis done. As
elementary as that might sound to someone who knew nothing
about professional baseball, it counts as heresy here. The scouts
even have a catch phrase for what Billy and Paul are up to: "per-
formance scouting." "Performance scouting," in scouting circles,
is an insult. It directly contradicts the baseball man's view that a
young player is what you can see him doing in your mind's eye. It
argues that most of what's important about a baseball player,
maybe even including his character, can be found in his statistics.

After Billy said what he had to say about being "victimized by
what we see," no one knew what to say. Everyone stared at Jeremy
Brown's name. Maybe then they all understood that they weren't
here to make decisions. They were here to learn about the new
way that decisions were going to be made.

"This IS a cutting-edge approach we're taking this year," says
Eric, whose job, it is increasingly clear, is to stand between Billy
and the old scouts, and reconcile the one to the other. "Five years
from now everyone might be doing it this way."

"I hope not," says Paul. He doesn't mean this in the way that
the old scouts would like him to mean it.

"Bogie," says Eric, calling across the table on the vast moral
authority of the oldest scout of all, Dick Bogard. "Does this make
sense to you?" Eric adores Bogie, though of course he'd never put



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 39

it that way. When Eric announced he wanted to leave the A's
advertising department and get into the baseball end of things,
even though he himself had never played, Bogie not only did not
laugh at him; he encouraged him. "My baseball father/' Eric
called Bogie.

Bogie is not merely the oldest of the scoutS; he is the scout who
has worked for the most other teams. He is a walking map of his
own little world. In spite of his age, or maybe because of it, he
knows when an old thing has died.

"Oh definitely," says Bogie, motioning to Paul's computer. "It's
a new game. Years ago we didn't have these stats to look up. We
had to go with what we saw."

"Years ago it only cost a hundred grand to sign them," says Eric.

The other older scouts are unmoved. "Look," says Eric, "Fitter
and I are the ones that people are going to say, 'What the hell were
you doing? How the hell could you take Brown in the first
round?'"

No one says anything.

"The hardest thing," says Billy, "is there is a certain pride, or
lack of pride, required to do this right. You take a guy high no one
else likes and it makes you uncomfortable. But I mean, really, who
gives a fuck where guys are taken? Remember Zito? Everyone said
we were nuts to take Zito with the ninth pick of the draft. And we
knew everyone was going to say that. One fucking month later it's
clear we kicked everyone's ass. Nobody remembers that now. But
understand, when we stop trying to figure out the perception of
guys, we've done better."

"Jeremy Brown isn't Zito," says one of the scouts. But he is. A
lot of people in the room have forgotten that the scouting depart-
ment hadn't wanted to take Barry Zito because Barry Zito threw
an 88-mph fastball. They preferred a flamethrower named Ben
Sheets. "Billy made us take Zito," Bogie later confesses.

"Let me ask you this," says Billy. "If Jeremy Brown looked as



40 MONEYBflLL

good in a uniform as Majewski [a Greek Kouros who played out-
field for the University of Texas], where on this hoard would you
put him?"

The scouts pretend to consider this. Nohody says anything so
Fitter says it for them: "He'd he in that first column." A first-
round pick.

"You guys really are trying to sell jeans, aren't you?" says Billy.
And on that note of affectionate disgust, he ends the dehatc. He
simply takes Icremy Brown's nameplate and moves him from
the top of the second column on the Big Board to the hottom of
the first, from #17 to #1.S. Jeremy Brown, whose name had some-
how failed to turn up on RascbiiU Amcnca's list of the top twenty-
five amateur catchers, who serious scouts believed should never
be a pro baseball player, is now a first-round draft choice of the
Oakland A's.

"Since we're talking about Brown anyway," says Paul, which
wasn't exactly true, since the scouts were now distinctly not talk-
ing about Brown, "there's a list of hitters I want to talk about. All
of these guys share certain qualities. They arc the eight guys we
definitely want. And we want ciU eight of these guys" He reads a
list:

Jeremy Brown
Stephen Stanley
John Baker
Mark Kiger
Shaun Larkin
John McCurdy
Brant Colamarino
Brian Stavisky

All eight are college players. Most of them are guys the scouts
either did not particularly like, or, in a few cases, don't really
know. A young man rises to put their names on the board. Paul



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 41

quickly organizes them, like a dinner guest who has spilled his
wine and hopes to clean it up before the host notices. When he's
finished, the board is a market but from a particular point of view,
that of a trader who possesses, or believes he possesses, superior
knowledge.

With that, the coup was complete. Paul's list of hitters were dis-
tinctly not guys the scouts found driving around. They were guys
Paul found surfing the Internet. Some of the names the older
scouts do not even recognize. The evaluation of young baseball
players had been taken out of the hands of old baseball men and
placed in the hands of people who had what Billy valued most (and
what Billy didn't have), a degree in something other than baseball.

"There's some serious on-base percentage up there," says Billy.
No one else says anything. The room is filled with silence.

"We got three guys at the top of the board that no one has ever
heard of," Pitter finally says, with just a trace of pride.

"There isn't a board in the game that looks like this one,"
agrees Bogie.

Bogie brought into the draft room something unique: vast expe-
rience to which he had no visceral attachment. He'd been in the
game for nearly fifty years. He'd seen a lot, perhaps everything,
and he was willing to forget it, if asked. As it happened, one of the
things he had seen, back in 1980, was a high school game in San
Diego. That was the year that the Mets took Darryl Strawberry
with the first overall pick in the draft. But that year there was
another high school player, who, in his ability to conjure fantasies
in the baseball scouting mind, rivaled Strawberry. Bogie had gone
to see him at the behest of the Houston Astros. Great body, plus
wheels, plus arm, good instincts, and the ability to hit the ball
over light towers. To top it off, he'd scored higher than any other
prospect on the psychological tests. Bogie had phoned Houston
and told the front office that he had found a better prospect than
Darryl Strawberry: Billy Beane.

When asked which player, on the Oakland A's draft board, most



42 MONEYBflLL

resembled the young Billy Beane, Bogie said, "Shit, man. There is
no Billy Beane. Not up there." When asked why, he'd said, "Billy
was a guy you could dream on," and lett it to you to understand
that Billy Beane, the general manager, had just systematically
elimmated guys "you could dream on." But when asked what
became of those still untorgottcn dreams, Bogie hesitated. He
looked over and met the eye ot the grown-up Billv Beane.

"That's enough!" said Billy. He'd onlv been pretending not to
listen. Bogie just smiled, shrugged, and said no more.



Chapter Three



THE METS had had only the greatest expectations of him.
They'd wanted to hold a big press conference in Dodger
Stadium to announce his signing. Billy asked them not to.
He had a claustrophobic unease with ceremony of any kind, and a
press conference was nothing but a ceremonial event. It'd make
him feel trapped. Plus he didn't want to make a big deal about
becoming a pro baseball player. It was less a decision to celebrate
than a vaguely uncomfortable fact to get his mind around. The
Mets failed to consider the cause or implications of his reticence.
In the belief that Billy was more ready for pro ball than Darryl
Strawberry, they sent Strawberry to the low-level rookie team
with the other high school kids and Billy to the high-level rookie
team, in Little Falls, New York, with the college players. Little
Falls, New York, could not have felt farther from San Diego, Cal-
ifornia. His teammates might as well have been a different species
than the high school kids he was used to playing with. They had
hair on their backs and fat on their stomachs. They smoked before

43



44 MONEYBflLL

games and drank after them. A few had wives. And all of the pitch-
ers had sliders.

The Mets were betting that Billy was better equipped than
Strawberry to deal with the pressures, and inevitable frustrations,
that went with playing against much older players. Roger longe-
waard, the Mets' head scout, fully expected Rillv to rocket through
the minors and into the big leagues well ahead of Strawberry. The
Mets scouting department had badlv misjudged Billy's nature.
They had set him up to fail. If there was one thing Billy was not
equipped for, it was failure. He didn't even begin to know what to
make of a stat sheet at the end oi his first short season in high-
level rookie ball that showed him hitting .210. He didn't know
how to think of himself it he couldn't think of himself as a suc-
cess. When the season ended he returned home, enrolled in classes
at the University of California at San Diego, and forgot that he
played baseball for a living. He didn't so much as pick up a bat or
a glove until spring training the following March. That in itself
should have been an ominous sign, but no one was looking for
ominous signs.

The next year went well enough for him — he was, after all, Billy
Beane — and by the summer of 1982 he had been promoted to the
Mets' Double-A team in lackson, Mississippi. He played left,
Strawberry' played right, and the whole team played the field. For
a lot of the players it was their first exposure to the Southern
female — the most flagrant cheater in the mutual disarmament
pact known as feminism. Lipstick! Hairdos! Submissiveness!
Baseball was a game but chasing women was a business, in which
Billy Beane was designed to succeed without even trying. Billy had
the rap. Billy, said his old teammate J. P. Ricciardi, "could talk a
dog off a meat wagon." Billy was forever having to explain to
another teammate of his, Steve Springer, that when you'd just met
some girl, what you didn't do was tell her you played pro ball. It
wasn't fair to her; you had to give the girl a chance to turn you
down. Billy's way of giving her a chance was to tell her that what



THE ENLIGHTENMENT 45

he did for a living was collect roadkill off local highways. Springer
didn't have Billy's awesome God-given ability with women; he
thought he needed the Mets to stand a chance; and this need of his
led to one of those great little moments that make even the most
dismal minor league baseball careers worth remembering. They
were leaving one of the local burger joints when two pretty girls
called after them, in their fetching drawls: "You boys Yankees?"
Springer turned around and said, "No, we're the Mets."

Off the field Billy was Billy; on the field Billy was crumbling.
The only thing worse than an ambivalent minor league baseball
player was an ambivalent minor league baseball player with a ter-
ror of failure, forced to compare himself every afternoon to Darryl
Strawberry. "People would look at Billy and Darryl and think
about the untapped potential that might be brought out of them,"
recalls Jeff Bittiger, who was the ace of the staff on the same team.
"They weren't just supposed to be big leaguers. They were sup-
posed to be big league all-stars." That year Strawberry would be
named the most valuable player in the Texas League. Billy would
hit only .220. Often they'd hit third and fourth in the lineup, and
so Billy spent a lot of hours in the outfield dwelling on Straw-
berry's heroics and his own failure. "That was the first year I really
questioned if I'd made the right decision to sign," Billy said.

Darryl Strawberry presented one kind of problem for Billy;
Lenny Dykstra presented another, perhaps even more serious one.
Billy and Lenny lived together and played side by side in minor
league outfields for nearly two years, beginning in 1984. In the
spring of that year both were invited to the Mets' big league spring
training camp. With Strawberry now a fixture in the Mets' right
field, the talk in the minors was that Billy was being groomed to
replace George Foster in left, and Lenny was supposed to replace
Mookie Wilson in center. Lenny thought of himself and Billy as
two buddies racing together down the same track, but Billy sensed
fundamental differences between himself and Lenny. Physically,
Lenny didn't belong in the same league with him. He was half



46 MONEYBRLL

Billy's size, and had a fraction of Billy's promise — which is why
the Mets hadn't drafted him until the thirteenth round. Mentally,
Lenny was superior, which was odd considermg Lenny wasn't
what you'd call a student of the game. Billy rememhers sitting
with Lenny in a Mets dugout watching the opposing pitcher warm
up. "Lenny says, 'So who's that big dumb ass out there on the
hill!" And 1 say, 'Lenny, you're kidding me, right' That's Steve
Carlton. He's maybe the greatest left-hander in the history oi the
game.' Lenny says, 'Oh yeah! I knew that!' He sits there for a
minute and says, 'So, what's he got?' And 1 say, 'Lenny, come on.
Steve Carlton. He's got heat and also mavbe the nastiest slider
ever.' And Lenny sits there tor a while longer as it he's taking that
in. Finally he just says, 'Shit, I'll stick him.' I'm sitting there
thinking, that's a magazine cover out there on the hill and all
Lenny can think is that he'll stick him."

The point about Lenny, at least to Billy, was clear: Lenny didn't
let his mind screw him up. The phvsical gifts required to plav pro
ball were, in some ways, less extraordinarv than the mental ones.
Only a psychological freak could approach a lOO-mph fastball
aimed not all that far from his head with total confidence. "Lenny
was so perfectly designed, emotionally, to play the game of base-
ball," said Billy. "He was able to instantly forget any failure and
draw strength from every success. He had no concept of failure.
And he had no idea ot where he was. And I was the opposite."

Living with Lenny, Billy became even less sure that he was des-
tined to be the star everyone told him he would be. He began, in
the private casino of his mind, to hedge his bets. He told team-
mates he might quit baseball and go back to college and play foot-
ball. He might enter politics; everyone said he'd be good at it. He
took to reading some nights — a radical idea for a minor league
baseball player — to compensate for the formal education he now
realized he wasn't getting. Lenny would come home and find Billy
curled up in a chair with a book. "He'd look at me," recalls Billy,



THE ENLIGHTENMENT 47

"and say, 'Dude, you shouldn't be doing that. That shit'U ruin
your eyes.' Lenny's attitude was: I'm going to do nothing that will
interfere with getting to the big leagues, including learning."
Maybe more to the point, Lenny — a thirteenth-round draft pick! —
hadn't the slightest doubt that he was going to make it to the big
leagues and make it big. "I started to get a sense of what a baseball
player was," Billy said, "and I could see it wasn't me. It was
Lenny."

That thought led to another: I'm not sure I like it here. Before
Billy was sent back to the minor leagues in the first cuts of 1984
spring training, he was confronted by the Mets' big league man-
ager, Davey Johnson. Johnson told Billy that he didn't think he,
Billy, really wanted to play baseball. "I didn't take it as a criti-
cism," said Billy. "I took it as 'I think he's right.' I was so geared
to going to college. I was sort of half in and half out."

The half that was in stayed in. He didn't quit baseball. He kept
grinding his way up through the minor leagues, propelled by his
private fears and other people's dreams. The difference between
who he was, and who other people thought he should be, grew by
the day. A lot of people who watched Billy Beane play still thought
what J. P. Ricciardi thought when he played with Billy that first
year in Little Falls. "He was so physically gifted that I thought he
would overcome everything," said Ricciardi. "I remember coming
home from that first season and telling my friends, 'I just played
with this guy who you gotta see to believe. He isn't like other ani-
mals.'" Teammates would look at Billy and see the future of the
New York Mets. Scouts would look at him and see what they had
always seen. The hose. The wheels. The body. The Good Face.

Billy was smart enough to fake his way through his assigned
role: young man of promise. "Billy never looked bad, even when
he struggled, " recalls the scout who had signed him, Roger Jonge-
waard. "He was the most talented player I ever played with," says
Chris Pittaro, who made it to the big leagues with the Tigers and



48 MONEYBflLL

won a World Scries with the Twins. "He had the ability to do
things in a game that ninety-Hve percent ot the people in the big
leagues could not do in practice because they didn't have the phys-
ical ability. There aren't many plays I remember from tifteen years
ago but I remember some ot Billy's. We were in Albuquerque in '87
[in Triple-A ball] and Billy made this play in right Held. He had to
run up and down over the bullpen mound to make a catch, and
then throw a tagging runner out at the plate. I remember being



Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 4 of 24)