Open Letter to Moneyball author Michael Lewis on Billy Beane and the A’s

by Irv Muchnick on May 30, 2004

Dear Mr. Lewis:

My boys and I finally caught up with the entirety of “Moneyball” (in paperback, a year after reading the Times Magazine excerpts), and what a wonderful read it is. To paraphrase what Bill James once wrote about Joe Morgan (the brilliant ballplayer, that is, not the pompous social chair of the baseball ladies’ auxiliary), you tower over baseball literature like Babe Ruth in a Babe Ruth League. Your general insights are as brilliant as your specific turns of language are pitch-perfect. One of my favorites: “Baseball players share with airline pilots the desire…to live in sensory deprivation chambers.” So Nate, Jake, and I forgive you for picking on our favorite player, Miguel Tejada.

I do think *Moneyball* sometimes confuses your world with
*the* world. This is characteristic of the fast-talking, adrenaline-rush, testosterone-driven Lewis oeuvre; indeed, one of its delights. But your wrapup is glib and defensive, too self-satisfied with knocking down straw men. After spending hundreds of pages asking the question “Why?”, you’re suddenly and mysteriously content to swallow Billy Beane’s rationalization that the postseason is just a crapshoot.

I submit that zero wins in nine games, across four years, with the chance to advance to the next round represent a significant statistical sample. Especially when the pattern involves six different starting pitchers (Heredia, Lidle, Lilly, Zito twice, Mulder twice, Hudson twice), two different field managers, and replication of dumbbell baserunning (Jeremy Giambi, Byrnes, Tejada) and porous defense (the Minnesota series especially). Winning 90 to 100 games every regular season is impressive. More impressive would be demonstrating a sense of progress.
Beane is quite the hedgehog, who knows one big thing. It’s time for him to become more of a fox, who knows many things. Or at least, like any good short-sighted general, to successfully fight the last war. He’s a smart man and I suspect he will.

More problematic is the issue of star retention in the Athletics’ ecosystem. Turning Jason Giambi into a sum replaceable by the efficient acquisition of one of his most important parts worked. Viewing Tejada as such a cold-blooded asset, I fear, will prove an organizational Waterloo. By preemptively not even pretending to participate in the Tejada bidding, Beane and Steve Schott
crossed the fine line between treating talent like chattel and self-consciously claiming to make a virtue out of necessity. This is as much a marketing matter as a winning-percentage one. The A’s do OK-enough attendance-wise when they’re consistently contending and giving away seats with Dollar Wednesdays and other gimmicks. By no stretch of the imagination, however, have they created a transformative fan base. (I can’t shake the memory of Game 5 in 2002 against the Twins, the stands only two-thirds filled, in part because of ridiculously overpriced tickets, and all those grotesque ThunderStiks — the off-field equivalent of the bunt, the hit-and-run, and the steal.)

Finally, please don’t pose as shocked, *shocked*, over the
possibility that the publication of the book presented
Beane with a bit of an … image challenge. All right, so Morgan stupidly misidentified *Moneyball* as Beane’s book rather than yours; that’s common shorthand for non-literary types. Nor do your protestations that parts of the book diverged from Beane’s agenda hold water; as Janet Malcolm has noted, the author-subject relationship always includes treacheries. The point is that he granted you extraordinary access and it came at a price. As wise observers of finance and trade, both of you should just own up to the transaction.

Becoming a thorn in the side of the fat cats? This the A’s have accomplished to a fare-thee-well. Beating the stuffings out of the fat cats? Naw — that’s what the Angels pulled off two years ago. Before getting too full of himself, a GM has to pop an actual championship once in a while. Sorry, those are the rules of the game.

Irvin Muchnick

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