Stats, hunches and the battle for baseball   

Updated: March 11, 2008, 2:33 PM ET

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A guy named Jeremy Brown is the latest excuse to reignite the "Moneyball" debate, and in the process re-establish "Moneyball" as the least-understood important book in sports history.

Brown is the "fat catcher" from Michael Lewis's best-selling book about Billy Beane's philosophy of constructing the low-budget Oakland A's by identifying undervalued statistics that help win games. Brown was a college catcher the A's drafted in the first round, even though no other team really cared about him or about his unfailing ability to get on base.

Jeremy Brown

Michael Zagaris/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Jeremy Brown's retirement has spurred new debate about "Moneyball."

Brown retired this spring, for non-baseball reasons, and that was enough for the anti-stat crowd -- they're like the anti-science crowd, only without Bibles -- to crow about the failure of the Beane method.

This has become the closest thing to war among baseball people. Lewis's book was published in 2003, but its hang time is phenomenal. Web sites focus on pointing out the media's inability to embrace the basic common-sense commandments of Beane's philosophy. More baserunners lead to more runs, and more runs lead to more wins, therefore on-base percentage is a pretty accurate judge of a hitter's worth.

Where's the confusion?

Apparently, it's right here: A reliance on statistics undervalues hunches, guesswork, grittiness, gutsiness, the lore of the lunch-pail work ethic, the pastoral underpinnings of the game and -- perhaps most important -- the visceral satisfaction a certain segment of the population feels whenever David Eckstein busts it down the line and gets thrown out by the spike-length of one of his size-5s.

There's something about baseball that makes people want to believe in magic. They want to believe a manager can look into the eyes of a backup catcher and know when he's ready to hit a pinch-hit, game-winning homer.

(Football has its headset-helmet and its immediate eye-in-the-sky photos -- we're talking legal ones here -- so maybe the adherence to baseball's perceived seat-of-the-pants simplicity is merely a desperation grab for lost innocence.)

It's entertaining but senseless. You can watch baseball with a dreamer's eye and still know that a guy who gets on base close to 40 percent of the time is going to score more runs than a guy who doesn't.

It's too late for an intervention, probably. The traditionalists -- those who believe batting average, homers, RBIs and eye-black are all you need to know -- are becoming more strident. Any threat to the concept of baseball's magical realism -- a world view largely created by folklore -- is seen as an affront to some deeper value system. We're a society that continues to increase its fondness for ignorance, so why should baseball be any different?

Besides, the people who believe in magic want to believe every stat-reliant seamhead is eating Noodles 'N Sauce straight off the hot plate while shuffling baseball cards in mom's extra room.

In other words, neither side thinks much of the other. Sides have been taken and courses have been stayed. We're looking at a long battle.

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In the end, it was decided that his crossover is slightly better than Hannah Montana's, even though his target demographic is slightly older: In explaining why he gave a full scholarship to Lil' Romeo, an 8 ppg guard on a last-place high school team, USC coach Tim Floyd said Lil' R will draw a lot of 11- to 17-year-old girls to the games.

This, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with it: Lil' Romeo is the conduit between Floyd and 6'6" Demar DeRozan, a legit top-20 recruit from Compton, Calif. -- and LR's best friend.

Obviously, the 11- to 17-year-old girls need someone to hang with: Floyd, remember, is the guy who offered a scholarship to an eighth-grader from Illinois who attended one of his camps last summer.

Just for the heck of it: Harold Miner.

First it was UCLA against Stanford, and then UCLA against Cal, and then Gonzaga against Santa Clara, and there's only one conclusion to be reached: The NCAA needs a full-blown referee academy to set things straight.

It's good to see perspective still reigns in this land of ours: A guy in North Hills, Pa., created an action figure of Pennsylvania high school football phenom/historic procrastinator Terrelle Pryor.

It's like, all kinds of pages and stuff: Bud Selig said Saturday that he doesn't need to read the recently released grand-jury testimony of Barry Bonds.

One more reason to go: The West Coast Conference tournament will move to Las Vegas next season.

Proving there's more than one way to tank: Pat Riley says he's going to leave the bench to go scouting, and now Dwyane Wade decides to sit out the rest of the season to rehab his knee.

Wade's unstated goal: Get healthy for the Olympics.

Before we go any further, can someone please find out which side Dan Burton is on? The NFL, cattle-prodded by Sen. Arlen Specter, is negotiating with former Patriots video coordinator Matt Walsh to get his side of the SpyGate scandal.

Staying completely removed from all credit for 17 seasons: Rick Adelman.

Never have so many been so wrong about so much: The Chicago Bulls.

Well, Shaun, would it help if they presented you with a pink slip the size of those phony checks they hand over to charities at golf tournaments? A wire-service story Monday began, "Now that the Seattle Seahawks have signed Julius Jones, Shaun Alexander wants to know what's going on."

Proof that someone out there still cares what Don Zimmer thinks: The New York papers were abuzz with the news that Ol' Zim -- no relation to Lil' Romeo -- thinks new Yankees manager Joe Girardi is out of line complaining about Rays rookie Elliot Johnson steamrolling Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli during a spring training game.

And finally, apparently some editor decided "Just Beat It" seemed a little too obtuse: Isn't a headline reading "Beat Goes On" -- prominently displayed Monday on a national sports Web site -- a bit insensitive for a story on the return of Mark DeRosa?

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Sound off to Tim here.


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