So I’m assuming reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis will open my eyes to Sabermetrics and also give me more to do when someone mentions the book other than laugh when everybody else does. Check out part one. Hopefully I’ll be caught up with every other baseball blogger in no time.
Chapters 1-2 (The Curse of Talent, How to Find a Ballplayer)
Track and Field Day, St. Leo the Great Elementary, 1998
The anarchy of the school’s entire student population–all 280 of us–is lassoed under control by the shrill penetration of Mrs. McMasters’ whistle. Time for the seventh grade boys 400 meter dash, she says. All of you shut up and get on the line.
16 bright yellow (or “gold” as the student handbook referred to their color) gym t-shirts stand in a row. We all know the likely victors. You’ve got Jack, the dashing born athlete, easily identified by the cluster of jump skirts following him from room to room. There’s Matthew, the kid who just moved here from Poland and learned how to be inclined athletically before he even had to stop visiting the speech therapist four times a week. There’s Yancy, the kid whom no one had ever successfully convinced to stop picking his nose, but for a bizarre, frustrating reason, he ran like a deer with one of its hooves crammed in a nostril.
I stand there, festering in the throes of my awkward stage, giant glasses and freakishly long limbs dangling in the breeze. I wonder if the girls will notice if I win. The only way you win this thing is if there’s a horrific pile-up on the freeway, my brain reminded me. See, it already started and you’re still just standing here.
Yup, I’m looking at everybody’s backs; but through sheer lanky, squeaky-voiced determination, I catch up with the pack and keep pace. I graze Yancy on my way by and he spirals downward into the grass, where a(nother) bloody nose and no dates for the next decade await him.
It’s just me and Jack now, and he is suddenly coming to grips with the fact that I am an actual threat in this foot race. He starts actually trying and smokes me, easily 100 meters ahead of me. The girls cheer as he comically stops, pretending to be tired, and even hops into a nearby port-a-john to really drive his point (that I am jokingly incompetent) home.
It’s time to close this gap. Your lungs are going to implode, my brain casually reminds me, flipping the page of a magazine. I ignore it and try to move faster than Jack thinks is possible.
I’m almost at the toilet myself, and I know if I can sneak past at a faster clip than Jack could have envisioned, I will make him look the fool, and I, the kid who once did jumping jacks of joy in front of the entire school after winning the LEGO basket at a basket auction, will finally be coo–
The plastic bathroom door ka-chunks open and Jack’s last laugh slaps me across the face as he runs across the finish line into the arms of a promising future of stardom and sex, sex, sex, whatever that is.
When I read about guys like Jack; guys like Billy Beane, who sort of drift magically through the competitions of their lives, blowing the minds of witnesses and instilling hope for a financially secure future for the family, I think of this moment. I think of this terribly suburban, totally pubescent moment in my life, and how hard it was for me to summon the will power to finish second in a race that didn’t matter. I gave all I had, only to get a “participation” trophy and a kickball to the face later in the afternoon.
Billy Beane, it seems, never had to suffer through tripping over his own legs while running up and down a basketball court like a newborn fawn. He just had it from day one, and while I the memories to make me resent his natural ability, I’ve also got the awareness to know that the godlike talents he had came with their own set of unique challenges (even if I have to roll my eyes while I say that).
To know Billy’s playing career is doomed, despite the descriptions Lewis gives of its seemingly imminent success, casts a shadow over these introductions to the man, and it’s no surprise when he winds up in a dank room full of shouting people instead of a sun kissed diamond in summer.
You know, I always feared that somewhere out there, there was a dreary, unfinished basement full of sinister men picking and choosing who gets to play professional baseball. For a while, it was why I assumed my career had ended so abruptly after junior high.
“This one’s no good,” they’d say, sucking down cigarettes and spitting out juice. “End it.” And my name was erased from not just a giant chalkboard, but from baseball entirely.
The rash assumptions, the villainous computer, the chewing tobacco–all of it was quite exactly the image my dad had spent countless summers convincing me didn’t exist.
And here, on these pages, Michael Lewis has solidified that anxiety as a solid fact. In the chapters to come, I expect to see pictures of him holding up a child’s bed and pointing to a reptilian monster that does, in fact, live under there; or touring a big, open farm upstate while explaining that Scruffles, the cocker spaniel from my childhood, does not and has never resided there.
The voices of the old men, painted subtly as ignorant dolts being pushed out of the way, acted as my last grasps at childlike assumptions. I thought every player got to the Majors by way of The Natural-esque storylines. It makes me think that the film version of this book is going to make Field of Dreams look like a nostalgic geezer’s fading memory dripping with sap. This scene alone provides a radical readjustment to any lingering romantic notions that pro baseball is a game that anyone can play, if they’ve got the right attitude and an inspiring soundtrack behind them.
I am enjoying this book, mind you. It may be dragging resentment, bitterness, and terror out of me, but a good story is about perspectives. Mine just always seem to be hiding behind a thin layer of childhood trauma.
Onward, Billy Beane! Show me how your sorcerer’s powers took you to a level that was all your own.