Books postsFriday April 20, 2012
Book Review: I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson
During the baseball strike of 1994-95 I read a lot of books on baseball, then wrote reviews of what I'd read. I did that all the time back then. I wanted to remember why I felt something rather than just what I felt. I suppose it's led to what I do here. This review, which I came upon while researching potentional Jackie Robinson Day posts, was written in April 1995, just as Judge Sotomayor was telling the boys of summer to shake hands and play ball already...
Don’t purchase I Never Had It Made, Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, expecting to read a lot about baseball. He’s retired before we’re halfway in. The 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers are given less than a page. I understand he wants to be known as more than just a ballplayer, but, let’s face it, working at Chock Full O'Nuts isn’t exactly why Jackie Robinson is an important figure in American history.
And where’s the famous fire? Recounting the race-baiting from the dugout of the 1947 Philadelphia Phillies, which included racial epithets, black cats thrown onto the field, and the Phillies players leveling their bats at Jackie and making machine gun noises, Jackie comments thus: “It was an incredibly childish display of bad will.” That same year, Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey, losing a poker game, said to Jackie, “‘You know what I used to do down in Georgia when I ran into bad luck?.... I used to go out and find me the biggest, blackest nigger woman I could find and rub her teats to change my luck.’” The reader expects an explosion but it’s as if Jackie, the writer, is still trapped in 1947, and turns the other cheek. “I don't believe there was a man in that game, including me, who thought that I could take that,” Jackie writes. “Finally, I made myself turn to the dealer and told him to deal the cards.” Really? That’s it? What was your relationship like with your teammate after that? How could you play on the same team? Did you seethe watching him pitch? Anything?
Not only is little said about his baseball life, but little is said about how his baseball life affected African Americans. Maybe he worried such a chapter would seem self-serving.
Instead we get advertisements for Chock Full O’ Nuts:
Soon Bill Black was in the restaurant business offering a limited number of rapidly prepared items at reasonable prices and with swift and polite service.
We get press releases for politicians:
The Nelson Rockefeller personal charm and charisma had now become legendary.
We get the bourgeois existence of Jackie and Rachel Robinson. They buy a house in Connecticut. Their children have problems with fame and drugs. Rachel, trying to establish her own identity, denies that she's married to Jackie Robinson, which so worries her she consults a psychologist.
For the most part Jackie seems to be justifying his post-baseball actions. Why did he support Nixon in 1960? Why did he support Nelson Rockefeller? How can he live in Connecticut? Wasn't he involved in a takeover at Freedom Bank?
Perhaps this is why the book seems unfairly weighted towards his post-baseball life. His baseball life needs no such justification.
--April 18, 1995
Searching for Ralph Ellison's Quote
You remember “Almost Live”? Good show. Nancy Guppy was a regular, and funny. Last year at opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival at McCaw Hall, I ran into her. I was with a group of mostly women, I believe, suited up and wearing sunglasses, so not my usual raggedy self, when I saw her by the front stairs and pointed her out. She noticed being pointed out, and I smiled, and she came up to me. I think she thought I was someone else. Her disappointment when it turned out to be just me was muted but palpable, but, as things go, she's now a friend ... on Facebook. Just that. She wouldn't know me from Adam Wahlberg.
The other day, on Facebook, she posted this:
“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.”
I immediately loved it. I asked her where it was from but she didn't know. So I searched it out in 2012 fashion.
The first Google search result is from an ad-heavy site called Brainy Quote, which sandwiches Ellison's thought between two similar thoughts from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anais Nin, but of course it attributes nothing. Such is the way these days. You can click on his name and find out that he's an AUTHOR, that he's AMERICAN, when he was BORN and when he DIED, but the quote is just there to be quoted, along with other Ralph Ellison quotes plucked from the obscurity of, what, a book, and made to live forever here. And now here's an ad from Google.
The second and third results are from Good Reads, which at least tells us the quote is from “Invisible Man” (rather than, say, “Shadow and Act”), but provides no context. We do find out, however, that 1,190 people “liked” it. Which is good enough for me.
Linguaspectrum.com, fourth, expands upon the quote. On its page, “92 Quotes About Defeat,” it gives us a slightly fuller version:
“America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It's winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many - This in not prophecy, but description.”
The fifth result, from the ad-heavy Bookrags.com, which uses those awful double-underlined pop-up ad-links to specific words, finally gives us context. Ralph Ellison's quote is from the epilogue to “Invisible Man,” pg. 577, which does no good for me since my Modern Library edition only goes to 439 pages. But at least we know where it's from now. It's no longer invisible, you could say.
But how about that line right before the plucked version?
It's winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country.
Tell that to Bill Gates' house on Lake Washington.
I finally found the quote in my edition of “Invisible Man,” by the way. It's at the bottom of pg. 435 of the Modern Library edition and part of an argument for diversity and against conformity. “Must I strive toward colorlessness?” he asks, among other things. I actually underlined (not doubly so) “winner take nothing” when I read this back in college, but for what reason I can't image. Because I thought it was profound? Because I disagreed? I hope I disagreed.
Originally I was going to tie Nancy Guppy's FB quote to Roger Kahn's quote about a team in defeat, one of my favorites, and then tie both to any team playing the New York Yankees, and have fun that way. This was going to be a YANKEES SUCK blog post, and giddy, and ha-ha fun, but the Google searches depressed me too much: All the crap out there that ranks so highly. I'm even more depressed that somehow, in the last month, Pres. Obama's approval rating has dropped from 50 % to 41%. What happened in the last month? Tell me. How is he now in a statistical dead heat with Mitt Freakin' Romney? All the crap out there that ranks so highly.
Seriously, bless those who play in the face of certain defeat. Me, sometimes I get so sick of it all I search for e.e. cummings' helluva good universe next door.
Ralph Ellison of brainyquote.com. Make sure to “like” him.
Quote of the Day
“It seems to me that a Democratic president who gets us health care reform and tough new financial protection for consumers, who guides the economy through its roughest period in 80 years with moderate success (who could do better?), who ends our long war in Iraq and avenges the worst insult to our sovereignty since Pearl Harbor (as his Republican predecessor manifestly failed to do, despite a lot of noise and promises); a president who faced an opposition of really spectacular intransigence and downright meanness; a president who has the self-knowledge and wisdom about Washington to write the passage quoted above, and the courage to publish it: that president deserves a bit more credit from the left than [Thomas] Frank is willing to give him.”
--Michael Kinsley in his review of “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right,” by Thomas Frank, which is as critical of Pres. Obama as Frank's previous book, “What's the Matter with Kansas?,” was critical of Kansas.
Dialogue of the Day
“You're a Christian, right, Chad?
”You believe in Jesus?“
”Have you ever seen him?“
”No, I've never seen him.“
”Ever seen yourself get hitters out?“
”So why the fuck do you have faith in Jesus when you never seen him, but you don't have faith in your ability to get hitters out when you get hitters out all the time?“
--2002 Oakland A's pitching coach Rick Peterson to 2002 Oakland A's reliever Chad Bradford in Michael Lewis's ”Moneyball," pg. 253.
This past week, for obvious reasons, I've been reading Michael Lewis's “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” for the first time since I reviewed it for The Seattle Times back in 2003.
Being a fan of Bill James, who, in the 1980s and '90s, revolutionized the way we looked at baseball statistics, I never doubted the efficacy of what Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, the first Jamesian in a Major League Baseball front office, was doing. I.e.,:
- To compete in an unfair game, in which your opponent has three times your payroll (now: five times your payroll), you have to find what is undervalued and buy it, and what is overvalued and sell it.
- What was undervalued, in 2002, was on-base percentage, which is a more reliable measure of a hitter's potential to score runs, and thus help win games, than batting average, the measure of hitting prowess for most of baseball history.
- The plate discipline necessary to create a high on-base percentage was a less teachable trait than people believed. At the same time, it was translatable from the college to the professional level: a guy with a high OBP in college would tend to have a high OBP in the Majors. Thus college-level players with high OBPs were players worth drafting.
Since 2003, whenever anyone's disparaged “Moneyball” and Beane, and it's happened a lot (here, for example), I've defended. If the Oakland A's were having a hard time of it recently, I argued, it's not because the concepts of “Moneyball” failed; it's because they succeeded all too well and were adopted by other, richer GMs, such as Brian Cashman of the much-hated New York Yankees, who made OBP his touchstone, too. That particular market inefficiency, which Beane had exploited for years, had corrected itself. Thanks in large part to Michael Lewis's book.
* * *
But the Jamesian stuff is only one aspect of the philosophy conflated into the term “Moneyball.” Beane also attempted to upend long-standing baseball traditions because of his own sad experience with the national pastime.
In 1980, he had been a prized, five-tool, high school player, a first-round draft pick with a “good baseball body” who never quite panned out, even as less-talented but gung-ho teammates such as Lenny Dykstra became stars. From this, Beane, the GM, concluded the following:
- Scouts are overvalued.
- Body type doesn't matter. (“We're not selling jeans.”)
- High school players, particularly pitchers, aren't worth a first-round draft pick.
Basically he never wanted to draft himself.
Reading in 2003, a part of my brain went, “Wait. Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were drafted out of high school.” But such thoughts were pushed aside as Michael Lewis's narrative propeled me along.
Re-reading in 2011, these thoughts weren't pushed aside.
There's a big set piece in the book, the June 2002 draft, and reading it in 2003 one accepted Lewis's interpretations of Beane's assumptions because the drafted names were just that: names. They meant nothing. Now they do ... or don't. Now they're superstars ... or not.
This, for example, was Billy Beane's wish-list for the 2002 draft:
Just names back then. Now they have numbers, too.
Nick Swisher was Beane's baby, and he took him with the 16th overall pick, and Swisher has panned out more or less: first for the Oakland A's, then for the Chicago White Sox, and now, most famously (and ironically), with the New York Yankees. His career batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are: .254/.360/.467. Not stellar but pretty good.
Meanwhile, Prince Fielder, who was disparaged in the book as “too fat even for the Oakland A's,” and was picked 7th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers (saps!), is having a better career: .281/.388/.537. He's a star. Swisher's a character but he's not a star.
Obviously the A's, with their 16th pick, couldn't have chosen Fielder; but here's the thing: they wouldn't have chosen him anyway. He was a high school player. And that was too close to Beane's own experience.
How about the player who went after Swisher? The 17th overall pick belonged to the Philadelphia Phillies who chose, yep, a high school pitcher (saps!), named Cole Hamels, who, after making the bigs in 2006, has gone 74-54, with a 3.54 ERA and a 3.75 K/BB ratio.
I don't doubt the efficacy of the basic Bill James lessons from “Moneyball.” But, re-reading, I'm beginning to doubt the efficacy of the lessons Billy Beane culled from his own sad experience with the national pastime. Maybe scouts are more necessary than he thinks. Maybe high school players should be considered in the first round.
* * *
In the five years after the “Moneyball” amateur draft, from 2003 to 2007, 189 players were chosen in the first round of the draft. Of those 189, 85 were high school players. Of those 85, eight have become Major League All-Stars, including current NL MVP candidate Justin Upton, current NL Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw, and Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
Of the remaining 104 first-round draft picks, all out of college, 17 have become All-Stars, including current AL Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander, current NL MVP candidate Ryan Braun, and former Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum.
The odds of drafting a future All-Star are greater with college players, at least in this small sample size, 16 percent to nine percent; but given the chance on a Justin Upton or Clayton Kershaw, not to mention a Ken Griffey, Jr. or Alex Rodriguez, why not take it? Why ask to see the B.A.?
The A's were one of only two teams—the White Sox were the other—who didn't draft a high school player in the first round during these five years. Here's who Beane chose instead:
- Brad Sullivan, Brian Snyder and Lauren Geminder in 2003
- Landon Powell and Richie Robnett in 2004
- Cliff Pennington and Travis Buck in 2005
- No one in 2006
- James Simmons in 2007
Only the three hyperlinked names made it to the bigs. Of those three, none has a career OBP above .325.
* * *
So is Billy Beane misreading the lessons of his own life? If so, he wouldn't be the first.
What was the problem with Beane as a young player? Was it his body type? His five-tool talent? The fact that he was merely a high school player? Not really. The real problem, delineated by Lewis but subsequently ignored by Lewis for the larger narrative, was his personality, which didn't handle failure well. He obsessed over it. He began assuming he wouldn't succeed and wound up not succeeding. Guys like Lenny Dykstra? They never doubted. (Which ultimately, after baseball, brought Dykstra down, too.)
And for those with doubt? There are coaches like Ron Washington, “Wash” to his friends, who, during the 2002 season, took a former catcher, Scott Hatteburg, necessary because he came cheap and had a talent for getting on base, and turned him into a “pickin' machine” at first base. Wash is now manager of the Texas Rangers, who won the American League penannt last year, something Beane's A's (and my sad, sad Seattle Mariners, for that matter) have yet to do.
The scouts in the book come off as daft oldsters who pay attention to the inconsequential (“a good baseball face”) and miss the bigger picture (the Jamesian stats). But maybe sabermetricians like Beane and his assistant, Paul DePodestra, are missing the bigger picture, too. Maybe the point isn't upending conventional wisdom so much as balancing it with their own unconventional wisdom. Maybe the point, as in so many areas of baseball, is simply balance.
* * *
There are a lot of ifs associated with “Moneyball.” If only Tim Hudson had pitched up to his usual standards in the 2002 ALDS and the A's had gotten past the Minnesota Twins and eventually to the World Series. If only Jeremy Brown, the fat Alabama catcher with the gaudy OBP drafted in the first round by Beane, had panned out. (Jerry Crasnick suggests the attention from “Moneyball” did him no favors, but, to his credit, he did retire with a .864 OPS.) If only Brian Cashman was like most Yankees fans and didn't read.
The book feels poignant now. It's full of regrets.
Does Michael Lewis have any? Billy Beane helped change the game but so did Lewis. His best-seller stabilized the market inefficiencies Beane had been exploiting. It was as if Lewis had shown David's playbook to Goliath. When the two returned to the field, Goliath had a slingshot of his own.
More, does Lewis regret the following analogy? It is, without a doubt, the most shocking thing about reading “Moneyball” in 2011 rather than 2003.
First, a little backstory. Baseball is often about luck. A pitcher may make a good pitch, a batter may mistakenly swing at that pitcher's good pitch, but it still might result in a bloop single to left. Old baseball hands say such luck evens out over a season, and a career, and maybe it does, but the stats people would still like to remove it from the equation. They would like to get a truer picture of past performance and thus a better indicator of future performance. They would like to minimize risk.
In Chapter Six of “Moneyball,” Lewis writes about a company that is doing just that: AVM Systems, run by two former Chicago stockbrokers, Ken Mauriello and Jack Ambruster. These guys take a baseball field, divide it up into thousands of mini-grids, then track every baseball hit during a game by velocity and trajectory and landing point (point #643, for example), and place value judgements on every action. Was the hit a true hit? Was the right fielder properly positioned? Would an average right fielder have caught the ball? Etc.
These guys are part of Moneyball strategy, too, and Lewis writes about them in glowing terms. He even compares what they do—the cutting up a baseball field into thousands of meaningless fragements—to what was then a very successful, very lucrative, and virtually riskless area of Wall Street: derivatives. The cutting up of stocks and mortgages into meaningless fragments, and bundled together to minimize risk.
The kinds of people who were transforming baseball for the better, in other words, were thus just like the kinds of people who had transformed Wall Street for the better. Both were minimizing, or, in Lewis's words, “more accurately” pricing, risk. He writes:
The chief economic consequence of the creation of derivative securities was to price risk more accurately, and distribute it more efficiently, than ever before in the long, risk-obsessed history of financial man.
If only that had been the chief economic consequence of the creation of derivative securities.
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