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Wednesday, November 24th, 2004

Time Event
David Ricardo In The Bleachers
Just read, and finished, Michael Lewis' book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game in one sitting.

Let me preface this by noting the following: I am not, really, a baseball fan. If I'm a fan of any sport, it's probably football -- I grew up in Oklahoma, after all -- but I'm not really a sports fan by any real standard; certainly not up to the high standards of voxel or kaynorr. Of course, as an American male, I have my various sports loyalties, but it's nothing I can't do without. For instance -- again, probably because I grew up watching the OKC All-Stars -- I have lived in Chicago for 16 years now without really committing to either the White Sox or the Cubs. By all rights and sociologic, I should be a Cubs fan (Hyde Park is like a North Shore enclave), and I'm certainly a huge Wrigley Field fan, which tilts the balance to the Cubbies, but I root for the Sox in their league, too, and wear my White Sox T-shirt proudly in and out of town. My baseball cap refuses to be involved in the schizophrenia beneath it, and supports the Chicago Bulls.

I am, however, a fan of the mythos of baseball, as part of the Matter of America, and in its own right as a truly wonderful case of evolving legend. Watching ball games and reading sports columns, you get a sense of what the courts of the 12th century were getting at when they had invented the tournament joust and were feeling around for a legendry to match it. They got the Round Table -- we get Murderers' Row. It's all good.

This means that I should have intensely disliked Moneyball, since it exists to trumpet sabermetrics -- baseball statistical analysis deployed by geeks who live to pour cold water all over the mythos in favor of hard-numbered probability. They're like the "doctors" in Gilliam's Baron Munchausen, spreading the frock-coated, spectacled Age of Reason and sucking the very breath out of the unquantifiable magic of the Olde Ball Game.

However, I am not solely a mythographer, but also a historian. And history is about What Happened When. Events, and their outcomes; which become facts; which depict true patterns for those who can see them truly. I am also, as a conservative, aware that all the dreaming in the world is bootless -- in fact, it's actively harmful -- if the cold hard reality will curb-stomp you 94 times out of 100. (George Will once said there are three kinds of natural pessimists: conservatives, historians, and Cubs fans. Yet another reason I should root for the Cubs.)

And in that spirit, Moneyball is a fascinating case study of the slow incursion of Fact, of History, into the myth-infested, socially inbred halls of baseball management. It tells the story of Billy Beane, the Okland A's general manager, who used sabermetrics to build a ridiculously winning team out of a ridiculously small payroll. (Again, something relevant for Cubs fans, perhaps.) It doesn't hurt that Michael Lewis is an almost criminally engaging writer, who manages to make you care about almost the least appealing aspect of modern sports -- the bottom line -- and its impact on the game.

And sometimes, History and Myth come together: Theo Epstein, the G.M. of the Red Sox, is a sabermetric believer hired by John Henry (and how about that name for someone who beat the unstoppable Yankee machine) when the Red Sox couldn't close the deal with Beane his own self. But winning eight games straight, against the Yankees and then the Cardinals -- that's pure magic.

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