I’m not going to apologize for putting this up late. It was a long weekend and now my back hurts and I can’t find my tooth brush. So here this is, and stop whining.
Chapter 9-10 (The Trading Desk, Anatomy of an Undervalued Pitcher)
In the past few weeks, I’ve described both my unwarranted fear of this book, and the suspicious mental black outs I’ve suffered from reading it. This was all due to an intimidation to the process of sabermetrics; to a wary hesitation on my part to open my brain to the precision and detailed manifestation of Billy Beane’s ultimate plans. But this time, we’re dealing with something much more in line with my expertise: a frightening free fall to insanity.
The problem is, as Billy goes crazier, he gets smarter, and then he gets what he wants. Unlike a normal crazy person, who wakes up to find themselves running through traffic, or being shoved into the back of a squad car, Billy finds himself at his desk, losing his mind, yet carefully and tentatively arranging players of Major League Baseball in the fashion that best suits his needs.
So, what does this tell us? That you need to be crazy to be successful as a GM in this league? I would have assumed that. We know Billy isn’t a perfect breed; his cracks are all too visible even as he goes about his business. In the last chapter, we learned he rarely watches A’s games choosing instead to work out when the team is playing.
If I lifted weights every time baseball made me crazy, I’d be fighting crime. Yet Billy keeps working, and working better than everyone, sending his appeal as a protagonist through the ceiling. He’s conflicted, yet an all-star. His job requires him to make decisions that at times go against what he want to do, and rather tap into what he has to do to keep being a stellar GM. It’s all too easy to imagine a scene from these chapters; whether its Billy and Paul DePodesta scrambling through stat books to find somebody to take from the Mets, or a montage of Billy making sharp quips on the phone with a line of other GMs.
The reason some movies suck is because of uninteresting characters. In fact, that’s the reason most sucky movies continue sucking as the movie sucks on. A lead character has to provide tension of some kind, be intriguing to the audience, so that they feel something for them; pity, romantic appeal, relate-able crises. If a character in say, I don’t know, Into the Blue has no bigger problems than “HOW WILL WE GET TO THE SUNKEN TREASURES IF WE’RE STILL WEARING OUR SHIRTS?!” then that’s going to be a pretty terrible movie (FUN FACT: It was).
The Moneyball movie has half a chance, not because the first thing you think while reading it is “Boy, if only I could see these phone calls happen visually… maybe they’d make more sense.” It’s because Billy Beane is trapped in a swirling vortex of conflict at every turn. Every communication, conversation, and interaction ends with him endlessly frustrated or wildly enthusiastic. His dialogue is frantic, calculated, and usually doesn’t waste a word–despite frequently speaking in code.
Never are these qualities more obvious than in chapter nine of this book. Billy is sitting at his desk, making and taking phone calls while sometimes having fiery debates with Paul DePodesta. If Steven Soderbergh was still directing this movie, this sequence would be incredibly imaginable. He flips into flashbacks and back story in the middle of longer scenes telling the current story with reckless abandon. He doesn’t care what order things happen, as long as it best serves the story he’s telling. This scene (Chapter 9) would have been the signature Soderbergh moment of Moneyball. Maybe. We’ll never know.
But that theory also applies to the following chapter, as once more, we are told Billy Beane’s story by being told somebody else’s. This time, it is Chad Bradford.
Chad seems like the same kind of outsider that Jamie Moyer has become; he’s still around, but… whyyy? It’s not velocity. It’s not consistency. But there’s a hitch in his giddyup that highlights him as a somebody, and his numbers are good enough that he can stay where he is. In fact, at times, they’re better than most. But that’s the point of this book. Everybody’s looking at the wrong numbers. And as luck would have it, Chad’s not just a big part of the story, he’s also an interesting person in general.
Moneyball could have very easily been a calculator in book form, read only by the wormiest of underground baseball enthusiasts. But’s cinematic in its prose, and instead of filling the pages with rapid fire decimal points, Lewis extends his reach from the saga of Billy Beane to the story’s outreaches. People and players whose names would have naturally been lost in time are suddenly major players and key roles in a story that has changed the game. Nowhere is this better indicated than in these past two chapters: Not every author (or film director) can make a scene of a guy talking on the phone fun, and not every story bothers to point you toward its support structure.