Moneyball and Life

John ArmstrongBaseball

I am a baseball fan. No, make that "I am a huge baseball fan." I have loved the game since I was a small boy when I picked up my first bat and glove. In fact one of my first memories of childhood is playing pitch and catch with my dad in the backyard of my Tennessee home. And also of staying awake late at night with my portable radio in bed listening to the Cincinnati Reds or the St. Louis Cardinals.

I couldn’t hit very well so I never became a really good baseball player. I got hit by a pitched ball when I was very young and no one ever helped me stand back in the box and hit a thrown ball again without some measure of fear about getting hit. So I took what I knew about the game in my head and made it work for me in other ways. Had God not called me to the gospel ministry I think I would have become a sport’s writer and covered baseball for a major newspaper. I like to think I would have done a decent job.

All of this to say that I love a good baseball book and Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, is a very good baseball book. No, it is a great baseball book. For that matter it is a great book about life itself. Moneyball is the story of how Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics, took one of the smallest payrolls in major league baseball and turned his team into a perennial winner, regularly getting more for a dollar spent than any team in the sport. His skill defies the "socialist" theories that the rich in baseball must share with the poor or the game will fail.

The moral of the Billy Beane story is quite simple—big money is supposed to always win in baseball, at least according to the lords of the game. But it simply isn’t so. Billy Beane has proved otherwise for the past five years. (And for those who pay attention Oakland is doing it again this season, recently riding a winning streak of epic proportions right into playoff contention after being buried in the American League’s Western Division early in the season. And this is happening, no less, after Beane lost two of this three top pitchers to the financial market in the off season!)

How does Billy Beane, a David in baseball terms, regularly slay the Goliaths of the bigger markets? He pays attention to the numbers that almost everyone else in the game ignores. He believes the most important offensive statistic in baseball is not batting average, or home runs, but on-base-percentage. He has worked this observation out to a science and follows it religiously. He has made a game of these numbers and turned them into a successful business principle by paying careful attention to things that others simply ignore. And he sticks to this philosophy while others jeer and doubt.

Billy Beane believes winning baseball games is both a science and an art. It is an unfair game and those who win must understand how it works and why some win while others lose. To some extent life works this way too. You are given certain opportunities. You can work with what you have and try to win with your resources, both by mastering what you do have and by improving them wherever possible. Complaining about what you do not have, or about "the hand that you’ve been dealt," as the saying goes, solves nothing. Don’t waste your time on what you can’t change. Know yourself. Study your resources very carefully. Make what you have work to real advantage.

Not bad counsel. And I got that from reading a great baseball book!