Archive for October, 2011

October 29, 2011

#29) Top five lessons from “Moneyball”

This will be the last baseball post for a while, I promise.

It’s been said that one doesn’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy “Moneyball.”  As a baseball fan, I wouldn’t be the one to ask, but I would guess that one would have to be a baseball fan to really enjoy the book.  There were some parts that were a little hard to follow, even as a baseball fan, and it’s my guess that the non-fan would be lost or bored by them.

That said, with “Moneyball”, the movie vs. book debate is apples and oranges: the film, thoroughly enjoyable, has wide appeal, whereas the book is already a classic among hardcore baseball geeks.

The book has several valuable lessons that transcend the sport, so for those who don’t feel like reading “Moneyball” but might be interested in some of its take-aways, I present my five favorites.

1) When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  This may be the oldest cliche out there, but the story of Billy Beane, Oakland Athletics general manager, puts a new twist on it.  Beane himself was a highly touted baseball prospect in the early 1980s, whose career was a disappointment.  However, he became his own cautionary tale.  The scouts who saw him and built him up were impressed by his appearance, and Beane used the lesson of his own story to judge players by their actual statistics and records, not just what is apparent.

2) Use what you have, not what you need.  Billy Beane’s 2002 Oakland A’s won the same number of games as the Yankees, a team with a payroll four times higher.  Beane knew early on that it wouldn’t pay to fixate on the gap between the two teams’ budgets; he had to find a different way of looking at the numbers.  He reinvented how to read baseball statistics and found value in players who were under-appreciated by the market; he also saw how to replace the higher-priced stars whom he couldn’t afford to keep.

3) Know what you want.  Once Beane realized the type of players he wanted, he would put their names up on a board and figure out exactly what he needed to do to get them, bluffing, cajoling and negotiating his way to his goal.

4) Know how to be “wrong.”  Baseball people, be they fans, writers or those inside the game, are notorious for being stuck in their ways.  Beane didn’t change his course when his strategies were lambasted by the media.

5) Know how to be right.  As word spread of Beane’s effectiveness in finding undervalued players, others in the baseball world refused to do business with him, knowing that by definition, they were probably getting the short end of the stick.  Like a pool hustler, Beane had to convince his marks that the deal was actually in their interest.

The story of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics is certainly entertaining, educational and inspirational.  Even non-baseball fans can learn a thing or two from his persistence, innovation and creativity.

October 29, 2011

#28) Baseball’s greatest game

The debate is officially over.

Game 6 of the 2011 World Series is, by any reasonable measurement, the greatest game in the history of baseball.  Of course, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and proclaim a recently played game to be the greatest ever, but as a baseball historian and long-time Red Sox fan myself, I here present an air-tight argument for my case.

I’ll start by comparing this Game 6 to MLB’s panel-voted top five games of the last fifty years.

#1) 1975 World Series, Game 6: as a Bostonian, I was taught to revere this as one of the greatest moments in sports history.  Certainly it was a classic, but the closest the Sox ever were to being eliminated was four outs.  The Cardinals were down to their last strike TWICE.

#2) 1991 World Series, Game 7: as a seventh game, perhaps this one does have an advantage over this year’s game 6, and it was certainly a tense, tight battle.  But for pure entertainment value, one has to place a 10-9 win with many ties and lead changes above a 1-0 shutout.

#3) 1986 World Series, Game 6: until last night, only the New York Mets had ever come back to win a World Series after being down to the last strike.  The Mets, however, only did it once in this game.  This year’s game 6 ended with a home run, which is a little more aesthetically appealing than a ground ball through the first baseman’s legs.

#4) 1992 N.L.C.S., game 7: never had a seventh game been decided with one swing of the bat, as Atlanta pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera singled in two runs to beat the Pirates.  However, this game only decided the pennant.

#5) 1986 N.L.C.S., game 6: another classic; the Mets tied the score with three runs in the ninth inning and went onto win in 16, making it the then-longest post season game ever.  Still, this was pennant-clinching, not World Series-clinching game, and the Mets were never down to their last strike.  In fact, had the Mets lost, they would have had another chance in Game 7, albeit against Astros pitcher Mike Scott, who’d been dominant in his last two starts against them.

Since MLB’s list only covered the last 50 years, I’ve dug a little deeper and come up with five historic games that rival – but do not beat – Thursday’s game.

1) The Bobby Thompson “Shot Heard Round the World” is baseball legend, but Thompson’s home run to give the Giants a 5-4 win over the Dodgers came with one, not two outs; it also only decided the pennant.

2) Bill Mazeroski’s home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series was one of only two times a Fall Classic has ended with a jack.  The game, with multiple lead changes, was very entertaining, and the Pirates’ upset over the Yankees should not be underestimated, but for the sake of this argument,  Maz’s shot came with the score tied.

3) The seventh game in 1946 saw the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter score from first base on a double (not a single, as is often said), making a goat out of Johnny Pesky and turning the Red Sox into World Series losers for the first time.  Slaughter scored in the eighth inning, however.

4) Who was the only team to lose game 7 of a best-of-seven series and win the World Series?  Why, the Boston Red Sox, of course.  The 1912 World Series actually went eight games (game 2 was called due to darkness).  In the eighth and decisive game, the Sox became the first team to win a Series after being an inning away from elimination (this wouldn’t happen again until 1985).   But it comes up short against Thursday’s game, in that the Sox tied the score with one out before winning on a sacrifice fly.

5) The Washington Senators – not the second version of the team which became the Rangers, but the first, which moved to Minnesota in 1960 – won the 1924 World Series.  In the seventh game, they scored the winning run in the bottom of the twelfth, after tying the score with two runs in the eighth.  A Game 7 wouldn’t go extra innings again until 1991.

The journey of the 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals is not unlike that of the very sport they play.  Over the last few decades, America’s pastime has been written off as irrelevant; languishing in its own history while losing market shares to basketball and football.  But baseball has a way of coming back–providing great games perfectly timed to revitalize interest in the sport.  Just as 10 years ago, the great 2001 World Series gave fans a much-needed escape a few weeks after the terrorist attacks, this one, the first to see a seventh game since 2002, will undoubtedly provide a great boost for baseball.  With a basketball strike threatening the upcoming NBA season, perhaps fans, inspired by the great World Series that just finished, will rediscover America’s pastime.