— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Tuesday, June 10, 2003
Baseball Primer Interviews: Michael Lewis
David has a sit-down with the hottest writer in sports.
Primer: How did you stumble across this story?
Lewis: It was as simple as having paid casual attention to the commissioner?s office and the discussions about money and baseball for the past few years, and the Blue Ribbon Commission Report?where they argued there had to be more revenue sharing because poor teams couldn?t win, and given that, how this poor team was winning. And I had given a speech ? in San Francisco ? and when I did that, I met Roy Eisenhart, who was the former president of the A?s, and I mentioned that I was really curious about this, and could he introduce me to Billy Beane? And he made a call to Billy, and I went and saw Billy in early spring training of last season, 2002. And when I started asking the questions, I couldn?t believe how interesting it was, and it took probably a month before I figured out there was a book in it. I thought I was going to write a magazine piece. After that, I called the (NY) Times Magazine, and told them I wasn?t going to write a piece, because I was going to write a book.
I had to be a fly on the wall, in the front office and in the clubhouse. I ran around with the team pretty much all year. When I wasn?t with them, I was with either the Blue Jays or the Red Sox. Once I realized this was a big narrative with big themes, and what a wonderful story it was, it was just a question of how I did it.
Primer: Were you a pretty big baseball fan coming in?
Lewis: This is how ignorant I was: I didn?t even know who Bill James was. So I wasn?t that kind of baseball fan. I played, and a lot of my formative experiences as a kid growing up took place on a baseball field. I played through my freshman year in college. I was a pitcher with off-speed stuff. Pitchers with off-speed stuff have a way of having to know things about the game, because if you don?t, you?re in trouble. So it meant a lot to me as a kid. And as a grown-up, I followed it, but never obsessively.
Primer: Were you surprised at some of the things that you learned? Were you knocked off guard because you had that basis of what you thought was knowledge about how the game works?
Lewis: Not really. A lot of it was stuff that I had thought before. What wasn?t, was stuff I hadn?t even thought about at all. I mean, I always wondered why guys got such credit for RBI?s. And as a pitcher, I can remember thinking the guys who are most valuable, who I would least like to face, are the guys who have a gift for getting on base, and I don?t mind facing the guy who hits the ball over the fence once every 15 times. So, it wasn?t that.
What stunned me was the literary eloquence of Bill James. I was absolutely astonished. I had the pleasure of discovering him, because I?d never heard of him. And the way I found him was all those Abstracts were on Billy Beane?s bookshelf, and I said, "What are those?" We were talking about, they were trying to be like Warren Buffett. And in the context of that conversation, he pointed, and he said, "If we?re Warren Buffett, that there is Benjamin Graham." And so I said, "Can I just take these and read them?" So I took ?em all. I could not believe that I didn?t know who this man was. I was just astonished by it. It was a combination of the clarity of the thought and the joy of the way it?s expressed. It just seemed totally original and fresh to me. But he was writing about many teams I could care less about ? but it was still interesting, and that was astonishing to me.
The statistical stuff, the sort of number-crunching stuff that knocked me off my feet, was the stuff in the book, the AVM people, when they?re sort of redesigning the accounting?what Oakland does ? a double?s not a double, it?s .87% of a double, depending on where that hit was, what happened to that hit the past ten years.
That, and the way they had calibrated the way probability shifts with every little event on a baseball field. The way they break a piece of furniture in the front office when Mulder didn?t get the call on a 1-1 pitch, and I thought, "What?s the difference between 2-1 and 1-2? It?s not that big a deal." And to learn how big a deal it was, that really surprised me, and it completely changed the way I watch the game. The simple way to put it is I watch it as a process, rather than a series of outcomes. And I watch the little shifts that take place between the big ones, in a way I never did before.
Primer: Are there things that the A?s are doing like that, that are proprietary and that other teams don?t know about?
Lewis: Are there still secrets? Yes. I don?t think there are lots of them, but there are a few. It doesn?t mean that their secrets are wisdom, but I know there are still things I don?t know. But I don?t think they?re the huge things, I think they?re subtle things. I think they think that even with the book out there, they maintain an intellectual edge.
And of course, if people misread the book, and misread what they do, and say, "Oh, what you?re supposed to do is just pay whatever you need to pay for on-base percentage," they completely miss the point. So I think they also think ? I think that they have an advantage in that it?s unlikely baseball people will be really quick to figure out how to do it.
Primer: Are they smart enough to adjust when people start to overpay for on-base percentage?
Lewis: Yes, they are, but even if people overpay, it still eliminates that inefficiency from the point of view of someone trying to buy it? They?re smart enough to adjust but they aren?t smart enough to stop the inevitable foreclosing of inefficiencies in the market. And so it?s going to be harder and harder for them to do well, I think.
The change may be gradual, but you saw it in the draft a few days ago. Teams that a year ago would have taken a high school player all of a sudden magically are taking a college player, and I think that?s going to continue? Look what Boston and Toronto are doing. I think that squeezes them some already.
And it wasn?t just Boston and Toronto.
Y?know, the draft, it was Colorado and San Diego, and even Arizona. San Diego wasn?t that much of a surprise? Kevin Towers is very close to Billy Beane, and I think he regards him as a role model of sorts, so it?s not that surprising. But I?ve heard second-hand that the Colorado owner walked into the Colorado GM?s office, and said, "Have you read this book? I?ve been saying we should do this for years." And when that sort of stuff happens, it creates a more difficult market for the A?s to operate in.
Primer: Were you surprised to see some of those teams shift that direction this quickly?
Lewis: Well, I would love to know how it happened. Y?know, it?s possible it would have happened anyway. I?m almost sure it didn?t happen because some GM read the book and said, "Oh, that makes sense." More likely, that GM said, "I don?t want to read this book," and the owner came in and said, "I?m only paying for college players." If that happened, that wouldn?t surprise me all that much, if it?s the owners that are driving it, because they?re the ones that are laying down the dough.
I am a little surprised it moved quite as quickly as it did, because I really had been impressed up to that point with baseball?s willingness to ignore the better mousetrap.
Primer: Were you treated differently by insiders than by outsiders? Was there a difference in how you were viewed?
Lewis: No. It was probably a little different than how I was treated by the front office, because Paul DePodesta had read a few of my books, so he knew I wrote books. So that was different from a beat reporter. Scott Hatteberg had heard of Liar?s Poker, but? it took months to wear down (the players?) resistance. The players just saw me as a kind of a weird beat reporter. They didn?t know what I wanted. I kept trying to talk to people rather than ask them questions, and it just took a while before I was able to establish the kind of conversations I needed to establish, with not just the players, but the coaches. So Rick Peterson, Thad Bosley, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Scott Hatteberg and Bradford, of course, I finally got to the point where I could sit down and have a conversation. But it took months. So eventually, yes, I was treated differently, but it was only because I insisted upon it, and did it by just trying to explain what I was doing.
Primer: Was that any different than any other book you?ve done, where you?ve tried to get inside some organization? Was there more resistance from a baseball organization?
Lewis: There was more indifference, because they could care less. When I tried to get inside for magazine articles, or in the case of The New New Thing, a book, the places I?ve written about, usually people are nervous or scared, or worried. But in this case it was just pure indifference. They didn?t know who I was, or care, and they could basically assume that whatever I wrote, they could ignore. So that was a little different.
And the general reporting environment sort of sucks. I mean, the first thing you face are surly, naked men who really don?t want you there. And so, my general feeling was, I had to force myself to do it at first, because it wasn?t pleasant.
Primer: A lot of the initial reaction to the book was based on the politics. There was not really any talk about the ideas. Were you surprised?
Lewis: Surprised is probably too strong a word. But I was taken aback. I thought, "My God, how badly can you miss the point?" And I also thought, "Well, Jesus, this is what a lot of sportswriting degenerates to."
You look at actually how sportswriting often works, it?s some sportswriter trying to figure out how to create a conflict between two people inside the game. He said this about you, what do you say in return? And it?s such a, I don?t know, kind of dreary and irritating. But that?s how an awful lot of the daily news stuff proceeds, and that?s how it gets its narrative and momentum. So there was a huge attempt to gin up little narratives or conflicts between Billy Beane and, in particular, Steve Phillips, Grady Fuson, and Kenny Williams. And in each case I knew, because I was talking to Billy all the time, that what was being reported in the newspaper was nothing like what was happening between the guys. I mean, Grady Fuson, the Rangers? guy, managed to peddle a story to the San Francisco Chronicle that Billy had apologized, which is about the opposite of what Billy had done. And so this kind of stuff, I don?t know, I was a little worried at first, because I thought, "Is this the way the book?s going to be read?" Because I didn?t think?if I gave one minutes? thought to Kenny Williams, I?d be surprised. And I just thought, "Good Christ, let?s just forget about this little stuff. The book is a story, and it has certain points it?s trying to get across. Can somebody notice that please? But that hasn?t been a problem since. That was just the baseball response, and that?s such a small world for the general state of the book at this point, that it doesn?t matter.
Primer: Do you find that part of the reason some of these ideas are so slow to catch on has to do with the way baseball is reported?
Lewis: There?s no question that the source of baseball?s bull-headedness is partly the media coverage of it. It?s just that, the sheer numbers of unthinking people who are either scouts or reporters, or more likely, columnist types, who don?t want to have to think, who are insulted when it?s suggested there?s this thing that maybe they don?t know all about, that?s in the middle of their world, that?s new and different, they?re insulted and threatened. I do think that is a force for resisting change. But I hate to generalize about the media, because I?ve been generalized about before. There are so many good ones, that you don?t want to say they?re all kind of the same, and they?re all bad. There are bad ones and good ones.
The bad ones are really bad?it?s just how bad the bad ones are that I can?t stand. I?ve run across a dozen of these guys whose stuff I?ve read, who I can?t find a single redeeming trait, not in spirit, not in their ability to craft a sentence, not in the freshness of their observations, not even in their ability to get an original quote. And yet they maintain their little corner of the newspaper.
And some of them don?t even seem to be enjoying what they do. Well, clearly, they don?t like what they?re doing. How could they like what they?re doing? There?s no excellence there; it?s just horrible. So, those kind of people are going to be threatened, because this is going to force them to actually do some work. They?re going to have to actually learn something here. And it?s insulting because it suggests that they?ve been writing all along with this big thing going on in their sport, with this thing that they?ve been oblivious to.
Primer: Do you think they will learn something new, or do you think they?re going to be replaced?
Lewis: No, of course not. I don?t think they?ll go learn something new. I think that they will sit there and grumble, and be bitter. Six months from now, after the media storm about Moneyball has died down, they?ll go, "Oh, remember that overrated book, Moneyball?" Or there will be snide references to it. But they?ll wait.
It?s very interesting to see how it?s worked. They thought they could do that when the book came out, and instantly there was this tidal wave of sentiment that they had to confront, so they would?ve had to have had an honest fight. So they?ve kind of gone away right now, but they?ll come back.
Primer: Do you think media coverage will change?
Lewis: I don?t really know. I think people like Rob Neyer strike me sort of as the voice of the future. Was there someone like Rob Neyer 10-15 years ago? I don?t know. So I think it is changing. But like everything, actual change happens very gradually. And it wasn?t the point of my book to change anything. It was just really a great story.
Primer: Billy Beane is obviously the hero of your story. Did you ever find yourself having to step back from giving him too much credit for the things that were going on, rather than somebody like Sandy Alderson, who was there before him?
Lewis: It was always hard to know where Billy started and stopped, so yeah, I did. There was a matter of judgment in whether to say Billy was responsible for this. Well Sandy?well, I don?t say Billy was responsible for rethinking the game at any point. Sandy introduces him to Bill James, Paul DePodesta does most of the actual thinking, so I felt I had to make that clear.
Another point I wondered about was with the pitching staff. Rick Peterson obviously has been doing a wonderful job with that pitching staff, especially with preserving their health. That was something I almost went into at some length, and then just backed away from, basically because I thought I didn?t really want to write about it. It was one level of detail too many. I mention it, but I don?t really go into it. And I say he doesn?t get enough credit, but the thing is a narrative, and I had to make decisions about what was in and what was out, and it seemed a kind of distraction from the main story?going to a health clinic in Alabama to preserve the health of their pitchers.
But yeah, I think the thing is, how much of Billy is luck? The really amazing thing is that this personality, with these abilities, has collided with his moment in baseball history. He is so lucky to have come of age in baseball now, as opposed to 10, or even 15 years ago. I mean, it?s the perfect moment for Billy Beane. So I hope the reader doesn?t come away thinking the writer thinks he?s some kind of supernatural genius. I think he?s really talented, and gifted, kind of like a Wall Street trader is. But that he depends very heavily on other people.
Primer: Some of the criticism in discussion at Primer has been that the praise for Beane is a little over the top. What?s your reaction to that?
Lewis: I don?t even think of this as a biography of Billy Beane. And it?s kind of a tricky area for me, because at the same time people have said that I?ve glorified Billy Beane, some people have also said that I?ve been too hard on him as a person. This is not an unflawed character I?ve drawn.
This is the truth: I wrote what I saw, and what I thought. And of course people are going to disagree, especially when a book is as successful as this one is. Everybody?s going to have his own individual point of view about how important Billy Beane is, and all you can say is, well, good luck with your point of view. I?m not going to apologize for the book. I think he?s actually a seminal figure in baseball history. I think he?s an important character, and if I didn?t, I wouldn?t have written about him.
Primer: What is it that you think made it possible for him to succeed? What is it about him that made this his perfect moment in history?
Lewis: The big thing about him is, there was all this intellectual property freely available that could be used as a weapon. And he was perfectly suited to use intellectual property as a weapon. He was perfectly designed to take ideas and turn them into action, because he was able to grasp and understand the ideas, because he had a passion about it?he had a passion about the stupid ideas because his own life experience had been warped by them?and because he had absolutely no fear in a big league clubhouse. A lot of big league players are uncomfortable in big league clubhouses. When he walks in, he?s big man on campus. He?s not putting up with any bullshit. And that is a huge advantage when you?re trying to make people do what you want. They fear him, he doesn?t fear them, almost on the level of physical intimidation. And when you?re trying to take such a intractable, unchangeable culture as a major league baseball team, and change it, there?s a kind of violence involved there. And he?s very well suited to practice that violence. But this is the time in baseball history where there?s been the greatest discrepancy between what is known about the game, outside the game, and what insiders do. He?s sort of evening it out. He?s a human machine for evening it out?for dragging the knowledge from outside of baseball into baseball.
Primer: And I assume you think it took someone who was an insider to do that?
Lewis: I think, no question. Sandy Alderson couldn?t have done it. Billy not only played baseball, but still, when he walks into that clubhouse, I think the players know that he?s the best athlete. And that?s a very unusual thing. Most of these general managers are dumpy little guys. I do think it?s a big thing. There?s a law of the jungle, and the law makes him king.
Primer: A lot of the discussion besides the political stuff has focused on the draft, and scouting versus numbers.
Lewis: Yeah, that?s because the scouts have the most to lose, and they have their own publications that they can go to and complain. That?s why. There?s so many scouts?there must be two thousand of those guys.
Primer: Are there any scouts in the organization that Beane is inclined to believe?
Lewis: I think there are some he trusts more than others. And more importantly, a lot of the younger ones are completely on board. They?re performance scouts, who are doing some other stuff, too. But they?re not sitting there with radar guns. They?re not like the other scouts.
Primer: Is there something that?s not based on statistics that the A?s are doing better because they?re willing to think openly?
Lewis: They are refining the arts of pitch counts, and how long you let guys go in the minor leagues, and they have this medical facility down in Alabama they use to examine pitchers? motions and see whether, physically, they?re going to do something that?s going to tax their arms or their bodies. That?s a natural example, it?s not sabermetric.
Baseball Primer would like to thank Michael Lewis for taking time out his day for this inteview. Michael Lewis? book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, is available at most brick-and-mortar and internet-based bookstores in hardcover.