|Thursday, May 15
Examining the art of evaluating
By Rob Neyer
Author of the bestsellers Liar's Poker, The New New Thing, Next and Losers, Michael Lewis is a columnist for Bloomberg News and also contributes regularly to Slate. His latest book is Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and focuses on the Oakland Athletics.
The following interview was conducted via e-mail from April 22 through May 2.
Rob Neyer: Not to put words in your mouth (or your fingers), but it seems to me that the lead character in Moneyball is an idea: the notion that objective knowledge does have an important role in baseball, an industry that's long resisted this notion. But there are vivid supporting characters, too: Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta, of course, but also Bill James, Scott Hatteberg, Chad Bradford, and Jeremy Brown.
Aside from Objective Knowledge -- which of course can't really speak for himself (or herself) -- what sort of reactions have you received from the book's other characters?
Michael Lewis: You're right. The book is the story of an idea, and the people who seem to be the main characters are subordinate to the idea. But they can be forgiven for thinking that that's highfalutin' nonsense, and that the book is really about them.
I doubt any of them will tell me honestly what they think of the book, for fear that I might write another one. I know from experience that their feelings about the thing will be driven mainly by its reception. And so it's still too early to tell how they feel about it.
I know Billy Beane thinks I have made him more of a potty-mouth than he actually is -- which is probably true, as I've drawn him only in the most intense situations he faces. I sense that Paul DePodesta feels that I have depicted his brain more accurately than his body, and that I have failed to convey to the reader the astonishing number of pounds he can bench press. Chad Bradford as much as admitted to me that he read the parts about himself and skimmed the rest, which is of course just what an author wants to hear. Scott Hatteberg says he read it all and laughed a lot -- and I know he's gotten some pleasure out of teasing Billy Beane about it -- but hinted that I shouldn't expect that the A's players would be forming a book club to discuss my work any time soon. Jeremy Brown still hasn't read it ... but only because the publisher ran out of galleys before I could talk them into sending one to Midland, Texas (where Jeremy catches for the A's Double-A farm club).
RN: Following up on that, what sort of responsibility do you feel toward the people you're writing about? Do you worry at all about pleasing them, when at the same time you have to please your editor, your readers, and (most of all) yourself?
ML: This is a tricky question. I am tempted to write, "Only a monster could write about people and not take into their consideration their feelings. I am that monster."
But it's a bit more complicated than that, perhaps.
I can't imagine writing a book about people for whom I feel no sympathy. In this case, I was very fond of my main subjects, and I assumed my affection would bleed through into the prose. I also assumed, right from the start, that the fact that they were underdogs, and that I was clearly rooting for them, neutralized hard questions about my responsibility to them. The book was always going to be a generally upbeat depiction of a group of hard-luck guys with no money looking for clever ways to win baseball games. I wasn't going to be accusing anyone of murder or pederasty.
But the truth is that people can be made very upset by even broadly flattering portraits of themselves. (Writers are bad dentists; they never know what nerve they might hit.) And I do see it as my job to ignore the finer feelings of my subjects, and to write them as I see them. The reason for this is simple: once you start to worry too much about how someone is going to feel about what you write about them, you cease to write them well. I don't think of my responsibility exactly as a responsibility "to the reader" or "to my editor" or even "to myself." To the extent I think about it at all (and I don't much), I think about it like this: there's no point in getting out of bed in the morning if I am not trying to write a great book, and if I'm worrying about what everyone on the planet is going to think about it, the book won't be great. It won't even be good.
RN: Very few books are "easy" to write, but you ran into some ... particular difficulties, as mentioned in one of your Dad Again columns for Slate. If you don't mind re-living some bad memories, could you talk about the burglary and the (unrelated, fortunately) trip to the emergency room?
ML: There's nothing duller than other people's problems. But, OK. ... I'd written what I now think of as about a third of the book -- at the time it was more like a tenth -- when someone broke into my office and stole my computer, all my backup disk ... and nothing else. It was a slick job and very weird; they left a stereo and a lot of other stuff obviously more valuable than what they took. Not long before, I had published a piece in The New York Times Magazine about some colorful Iranian dissidents in Los Angeles, and it flitted through my disturbed mind that I'd landed on some Iranian secret-service list. The local police and FBI of course thought I was mad, and declined to follow up on the case. I rewrote the book -- good for the book! -- and had written about two-thirds of it, right up to the chapter on Scott Hatteberg, when I slipped on an ice rink, landed on my head, and lost consciousness for about an hour. I finally came to, remembering that I was writing a book ... but not what it was about. Another fresh start! But a few hours later, I think, it all come back to me.
On the other hand, how would I know?
RN: In the course of researching the book, you must have seen things and heard things and met people that, wonderful as they all were, just didn't wind up with a place in the story you wound up telling. So what was the hardest thing to leave out of the book?
ML: Well it was funny to know that the players refer to Barry Zito's San Francisco apartment "The Stabbin' Cabin."
RN: Hrmm, I think I'll leave that one alone ...
ML: There were story lines that spun right off the Oakland A's that led more deeply into other clubs, especially the Yankees, Rangers, Blue Jays, and Red Sox. I wrote a chapter about watching a game with Blue Jays GM J.P Ricciardi that might have been the funniest thing in the book -- J.P being a very funny man -- but I had to cut it, because it just got in the way of the story. I think someone ought to do what I had hoped to do, and take apart the business mind of Rangers owner Tom Hicks. Again, it just didn't fit in my story. The Oakland character I was saddest to lose was Tim Hudson.
RN: At least a few people will, I suspect, take the position that you've gone from writing about "serious" subjects -- like bond trading, politics, venture capitalists, and technology -- to something that's not so serious at all. I happen to think that baseball's just about as serious as anything else you've written about, but I'm wondering, how does writing about baseball fit with your other subjects? Or if you'd rather answer a different (if related, and no less obvious) question, why baseball? And how did this go from wild-eyed idea to book in a few short months?
ML: This will sound strange but it is completely true: I was far more certain of the importance of the subject while working on this book than I was when I wrote Losers, which is about people running for President of the United States of America. I could talk a week without exhausting the argument, but the nub of my conviction was this: if professional baseball players, whose achievements are endlessly watched, discussed and analyzed by tens of millions of people, can be radically mis-valued, who can't be? If such a putatively meritocratic culture as professional baseball can be so sloppy and inefficient, what can't be?
Moneyball didn't begin as a book. It began as a New York Times Magazine piece I wanted to write, that would answer a simple question: How did a team with so little money (the A's) win so many games? But after about a month of digging I saw that it was a big, wonderful, book-sized story, so I called the Magazine's editors and told them they'd have to wait. And because they are kind and generous, they agreed.
RN: I've been studiously avoiding asking specific questions about what's in the book, because if people want a general outline they can visit Amazon or their local bookstore, and read what's on the back of the dustjacket. But let me ask you about something that's not in the book ... Where do you see Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta in five years? Still together in Oakland? Billy in Oakland and Paul somewhere else, or vice versa? Both of them gone, with the A's still in Oakland, and struggling?
ML: Well, since my subjects specialize in assigning probabilities to future events, let me answer the question absurdly, in that way. I'd say there's a 10-percent chance that they'll both be in Oakland, but it will happen only if some smart tycoon buys both the A's and the Warriors and maybe even another franchise in the bargain, and hires them to run the whole shebang. The most likely scenario -- put it at 25 percent -- is that both are running some other team; say, Paul in Washington D.C. and Billy in Los Angeles. And I wouldn't be a bit surprised if both wound up with real money to spend. At any rate, I'll be surprised if a low-budget team like Oakland can be as good five years from now as it is today, as the size of its intellectual advantage is bound to shrink.
RN: One more question, and then I'll finally let you go ... What about the future of The Idea? I happen to think its spread is inevitable, because it just makes so much damn sense. Do you think I'm wrong?
ML: I think the idea will spread, slowly for a few years and then all at once.
There's a reason even the best new ideas take time to spread. People become overly invested in the things that they think they know, which is usually whatever it was they knew when they were young. The old guys must retire or die before the new ideas gain traction. The problem is especially acute in baseball because the only people who are allowed to introduce new thoughts into a big-league clubhouse are people who played professional baseball.
Having said that, only a fool would buy a baseball team and hire to run it some baseball insider who disdains or misunderstands the Oakland model. Fools sometimes do get their hands on enough money to buy baseball teams, but the odds are against it. And if you step back from American society and ask "What kind of people are getting rich these days?" the answer is increasingly "People like John Henry." That is, people on the nerdly end of the spectrum, who have a comfort with both statistical analysis and decision-making in an uncertain environment. And these people, increasingly, will demand that their teams be run along rational lines. The price they will pay for this is that the pleasure of owning a team will be somewhat reduced, as there will be a lesser role for their whim, and they will be compelled to cede much of the decision-making to professional management.
RN: Michael, thanks a million for answering all my questions, and good luck with the book.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.