Archive for the ‘ You’re Still Sore I Never Read Moby Dick? (Baseball & Books) ’ Category

Cardinals and Tigers and Moneyball, Oh My!

I’m still enjoying the post season immensely and I’m rooting hard for the Cardinals and the Tigers to win tonight. Rooting for the Tigers and the Cardinals? Could it be that what I really want out of all of this is epic trash talk on Red State Blue State? While that interpretation of the facts certainly makes for an entertaining story, it is not an accurate statement. Hmmm…could there be a better segue for my review of Moneyball? I think not:

So I saw Moneyball a few days back (Didn’t we all?) and, eh, I didn’t love it, but I did like it. Look, when not stressed beyond capacity I read voraciously, have done so all my life. Given the number of movies based on books out there, the vast majority of them quite loosely indeed, this means I either had to stop watching movies or learn pretty early on to view movies as a completely separate entity from books.  …And from history actually because for every cinematic crime against literature, there are at least three against history. Yes, I was a history major. Why do you ask? ;)

Looking at Moneyball strictly as a movie, I thought it was good. Enjoyable. A little overlong in parts – namely the Brad Pitt moping, and worrying and moping some more parts. Some of the scenes with Brad Pitt’s family were forced and trite. On the other hand, the acting was excellent, some of the dialog was genuinely stirring and the story was appealing. I love underdogs. I love upsets. Heck, I was rooting for the movie A’s by the end of it. From a story telling standpoint, especially knowing that Aaron Sorkin was one of the final script writers, I felt it was missing a big, gorgeous, eloquent mini-speech about baseball or two. Also, once the decision was made to concentrate on the 2002 major league team rather than the draft class the book actually focused on, I wish they had also decided to incorporate more of the players’ background stories as presented in the book – especially when given the choice between including 20 extra minutes of Brad Pitt brooding in a car or 10 minutes each of the story behind Chad Bradford’s unusual even for a submariner style and Scott Hatteberg’s need to socialize. A little sarcastic dialog from a 1st base conversation or two would have been a nice way to break up the montages.

So I enjoyed Moneyball as a movie, but what about as a cinematic glimpse of baseball history? Well it wasn’t that at all, actually. Notice I refer to Brad Pitt as Brad Pitt above, not Billy Beane? That’s because the characters in Moneyball were just that, characters in a fictional movie, loosely based on something that actually happened and, truth be told, a loose interpretation of the book as well. The mischaracterizations and inaccuracies were pretty epic. The movie completely forgets to mention non-Moneyball players, even though a Cy Young performance from Barry Zito and an MVP performance from Miguel Tejada might have contributed to the A’s 2002 success, you know, maybe just a little, along with strong performances from the rest of the non-Chad Bradford pitching staff and other returning A’s players. And as for the Moneyball stuff, Carlos Pena wasn’t traded to force Art Howe to play Scott Hatteberg. Hatteberg was already playing more games than not as a DH because, yes, he didn’t just walk a lot, he could actually hit. He also grew into a decent fielding first baseman. And I could go on and on. All of these creative licenses were clearly taken with the intent to make Moneyball into a better story. And, in that sense, I believe that the creative team behind the movie succeeded. But what happens when we change the truth to make it a better story, especially so much of the truth? Exactly.

Okay, so it was entertaining but took creative license to the extreme with the history. So what about all of the folks who don’t know any of the history behind the movie? Are they going to start running around quoting Moneyball as fact? I don’t really see this happening to any degree that should concern. Look, here’s the thing with movies. They rarely if ever get it right and when they do the authenticity usually lies more in the feelings than the actual facts. And for a movie based on history, touting “based on a true story” in the ad campaign means roughly the same thing as using the author’s name in the title of a movie adapted from a book – what appears on screen bears only passing resemblance to the source material. And I think that most savvy movie goers understand this.

What’s that you say? The typical movie goer may not be savvy? Maybe these anecdotes will quell a few fears:

A few weeks ago, a casual baseball fan friend of mine told me about this great looking movie he just saw a preview for, Moneyball. After describing the gist of the plot he had gleaned from the preview he said, But here’s the weird thing. Did you know that they’re using the Oakland A’s for this movie? I mean, using the Cleveland Indians made sense in Major League. But I can’t figure out why anyone would want to use the Oakland A’s for a feel good comeback story movie. My apologies to A’s fans everywhere. These were my friend’s words, not mine. But I relate them here to demonstrate that some folks with more distance from the game than we lot kind of gloss over the “based on a true story” angle and just assume the whole thing is fiction.

And the non baseball fan’s perspective? I was chatting with a good friend a few months back who grasps the concept of baseball and goes to the occasional Dodger game when tickets fall into his hands as they are wont to do from time to time if you live and work in Los Angeles County, but who would not describe himself as even a casual fan. I mentioned enjoying chatting and snarking with a couple of Tigers fans at the Big A on 4th of July. He gave me a really confused look that typically means, “Explain?” So I explained that the Angels were playing the Tigers that night. He repeated the confused look and I gave him one of my own. I mean, what more could one explain?

(Close your eyes Michael David.) I am sorry to say that he then asked The Tigers? That’s not a team I’m familiar with? Okay, this is a very smart man. And he’s up on current events and popular culture. And he grew up in Maryland and went to a few games at Camden Yards as a child so this isn’t some sort of weird west coast bias thing. Apparently if you aren’t really a baseball fan, any team that isn’t the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, your local team(s) or a few isolated others, then that team could be a completely fictional movie team for all that you know…and seeing as fictional movie team comes pretty close to describing the 2002 Oakland A’s as depicted in the film Moneyball, maybe in this case that’s a good thing.

So, if this movie still hath offended think but this and all is…well…if not outright mended, perhaps a bit more in perspective. Those who are close to baseball know how weak and idle this particular theme was from a historical standpoint and those who are not close to the game are very likely to think it’s fiction for a completely different reason. And as for the folks who believe it to be gospel…well…they probably believe almost everything the movies tell them anyway, like the Da Vinci Code is word for word real…and that the 300 Spartans went to war in nothing but teeny, tiny leather speedos…and, and that Nicolas Cage has a broad acting range and can deftly insert himself into the leading role – and accent! – in any action movie.

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Notice that I reviewed Moneyball without ever once offering my opinion on Moneyball philosophy and/or sabermetrics? Yeah, I thought I’d be a little different. Besides, there is enough fodder there to declare Moneyball an entertaining movie but a bad “based on a true story” without ever touching sabermetrics. However, for the record, I think that sabermetric stats are one of many great tools available for assessing baseball players but they are just that, only one tool in the belt. I also think that traditional stats, paying attention to a player’s intangibles and also just plain old gut feel, instinct and observation are important tools for assessing baseball players. I think that it makes the most sense for baseball teams to use every tool available. Completely ignoring any of the tools in favor of one particular tool might work on an occasional player by player basis. But you can’t build a team that way…nor, if you read Michael Lewis’ original book was he initially theorizing that you could. He…a…got a little carried away there by the end of the book and strayed from his own premise. But I’ve got a whole post about that back in the archives if you’re really interested in reading my thoughts on the book.

Baseball Book Report: The Bullpen Gospels + a Mish Mosh of Loosely Related Topics

 I read, rather incessantly if the truth be told. For me it’s primarily a way of maintaining sanity. Something about disappearing into someone else’ story or an intriguing bit of non-fiction boosts my mood and settles my oft chaotically busy brain back into less stressed out functionality. Except, since late February I haven’t read much of anything. I have been too stressed out to settle down long enough for anything to grab my interest. It’s been miserable.

Finally, I picked up Dirk Hayhurst’s tale of minor league life, The Bullpen Gospels. I was so charmed by his turn of phrase and the compelling mix of humor and gut wrenching introspection, that I devoured it like a starving person in about two days, thus breaking up the longest “slump” of my “career.” One of the jacket quotes describes the book as Bull Durham meets Ball Four. On some levels this is true, especially on the humorous end of things. Never have kangaroo court proceedings been reported with such glee and the tales of out heckling rowdy opposing team fans are truly hilarious. But on the serious side of things, Hayhurst’s very much non-fiction back story and his personal stakes for failure are much darker and the introspection is more deliberate.

Ultimately, it’s the book’s juxtaposition of different elements that grabbed me. The silly with the serious. The drive for a major league baseball career with the motivation to have a lasting impact on the world. Beautifully related insider game tidbits peppered with references to Narnia, Charley and the Chocolate Factory, Conan the Barbarian and other wonderful oddities. I am a huge fan of that last part especially, as you might have guessed from the hodgepodge of strange side stuff I incorporate into this blog. Suffice to say, add The Bullpen Gospels to my list of recommended reads and many thanks to Dirk Hayhurst for helping me find my way back to my reading mechanics, as it were. Yes, of course he will read this, just like the Angels. Why do you ask? ;)

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After busting out of my biblio-slump, I began tearing my way once again through the stack of books to be read, and one of the first things that caught my interest also happened to have a blog tie-in. Jim Butcher’s “Curses,” a new short story in the Dresden Files series included in Ellen Datlow’s recently released urban fantasy anthology Naked City. In this story we find Harry Dresden, detective, warden and the only wizard in the Chicago phone book taking on the Cubs’ Billy Goat Curse. And the end result? A very fun read. I had no idea Butcher was a baseball fan and if he isn’t, he fakes it nicely. This is a lighter Dresden tale, as Butcher often chooses to share in these anthologies, and would be relatively easy for someone who hasn’t read the series up until now to pick up. And if you had the misfortune of watching the Sci-Fi Channel’s terrible TV series adaptation of these books, don’t worry, the books are a completely different animal.

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Speaking of books and baseball, there was a really cute news feature in one of the early July episodes of Angels Weekly showing Angels rookies Hank Conger and Mark Trumbo and recent rookie Peter Bourjos car pooling to the interleague games at Dodgers Stadium. The adorable part was how nonchalant and professional they were trying to be about having reporters videoing their ride, when it was obvious they could barely contain their glee over the very Big Leagues novelty of the whole thing.

The three young Angels shot the breeze on a number of subjects, eventually settling on upcoming movie releases that had piqued their interest. Conger, it turned out, could not wait for the new Harry Potter movie because he loves Harry Potter and has read all of the books, thus earning several Kristen approval points, not that they’re worth anything. ;) Bourjos and Trumbo laughed at this revelation and exchanged “Here Hank goes again” looks before each asked the other if he had ever finished an entire book willingly. No, neither one had, and both clearly thought Conger was the odd duck on this subject. But their teasing was affectionate and the whole conversation reminded me of a funny story from my high school days…

One day before class during my sophomore year, I had just put down a book I was reading to joke around with a group of baseball players, a fairly typical day. The guys were teasing me about my reading habits, mainly that I had them. I was the stat girl for the varsity team and had gone through grade school and then some with most of these JV players. We were friends. The teasing was affectionate and I was giving it right back. “Did your parents brainwash you or something?” asked a guy I had known literally since preschool. “Yes, and once you get past the machine that holds your eyes open really wide, the drugs are actually kind of fun…” I responded, or something to that effect.

Old friend kept it up and I finally asked him if there was any book he would willingly read. He pretended to gag and loudly protested, of course not. And all of the baseball players predictably laughed. Yeah, the boy didth protest too much, especially to someone who knew about his extensive Darth Vader collection. Fortunatley, timing was on my side and I held aloft the recently released book to reveal the shiny new cover – Timothy Zahn’s Dark Force Rising, the second book in the very first Star Wars series to tackle the question of just what happened after the conclusion of the original movie trilogy. Old friend emitted what can only be described as a squeal of delight and practically dove over a row of desks to get a closer look. “Oh my god! It’s out! I didn’t know it was out yet! Is it good? The last one was so good…” and so on. And he wasn’t the only one. Bwa ha ha.

The moral of this story? Careful Bourjos and Trumbo. Reading isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and there’s nothing wrong with that. But someday you may just find that one book that has you diving over a desk and looking silly, LOL.

Kaz, Rookie Pitchers and Moneyball: an Angels Off Day Potpourri

 

Scott Kazmir – The Final Chapter?

A final decision regarding Kaz came even sooner than I thought. On Tuesday, the date of my last post, Angels GM Tony Reagins and former Angels GM Bill Stoneman attended a Salt Lake City Bees game to assess Scott Kazmir’s performance and it was terrible. Six earned runs on five hits, three walks and one hit batsman in 1.2 innings terrible. Wednesday morning, the Angels put Kaz on waivers with the intention of unconditionally releasing him if he remains unclaimed. While I’m sad that a young pitcher who had a lot of early success lost all speed and control and seemingly can’t regain it, I think this was a good decision. The Angels have been patient, but it was time to release him. More than time.

However, I had not anticipated the rumors that the Mets are considering claiming Kaz or signing him after his release. I suppose it makes sense, if it is indeed anything more than a rumor. Kaz was the Mets draft pick. Maybe they think they can get him back in the proper headspace to pitch like he used to again? If they can, more power to them and best wishes to all involved, but I don’t see any improvement happening for a very long time if ever.

 

Tyler Chatwood

Mike Scioscia is taking advantage of this off day to adjust the starting rotation slightly, flipping Dan Haren and Tyler Chatwood’s starts in order to push Chatwood back and give him a little more rest. The Angels are starting to monitor Chatwood’s innings count and do not want to see it climb much over 170 innings for the season. Future off days are likely to be used in a similar fashion. I think the Angels should use the innings count as a guideline and monitor how Chatwood himself seems to be performing and how his arm is wearing through those innings more than a setting a strict numerical guideline. There is ample anecdotal evidence both for and against such handling of rookie pitchers and I really think that in the end the personality, physical makeup and style of pitching of the individual are what determines if such an innings limit is beneficial or detrimental in the long run.

 

Moneyball Trailer!

The Moneyball trailer is up, and included below. It passed the goosebumps test for both my husband and me, and after seeing it I am jonesing for the movie release even more than before. Goosebumps test you ask? I tend to get goosebumps whenever I see something I love done beautifully, wonderfully right, such a movie adaptation of a book I adored that absolutely nails the book. Thus trailers must pass the goosebumps test in order to ensure my complete anticipation. The trailer for the Shawshank Redemption where I could tell exactly what it was they had adapted from second one when the warden slaps the bible on the table? The scene from the Watchmen trailer where Jon Osterman becomes Dr. Manhattan? The first glimpse of the Ents in the Two Towers trailer? Or, more recently, pretty much every split second flash in the American remake of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I was planning on passing on as unnecessary until I saw the trailer)? Killer goosebump generators all.

So, Moneyball the movie. Is it going to contain factual inaccuracies, oversimplifications and overly romanticized details? Yes. Will some scenes frustrate the historically knowledgeable baseball fan? More than likely. Will it leave some non-baseball fans with the mistaken impression that the Oakland A’s have gone on to sweep the division time and time again? Actually, I have some hopes on this front. Aaron Sorkin did work the modern consequences of Charlie Wilson’s War into the end of the movie in a poignant way, so maybe not. But, alas, it is possible.

However, will Moneyball include Aaron Sorkin’s typically gorgeous dialog waxing poetic about one of my favorite subjects? Absolutely. And this, more than anything else, is the reason I am dying to see this movie. The baseball equivalent of the ‘Two Cathedrals’ soliloquy, the “May we have it back please” debate sarcasm, or Gust Avrakotes’ rant? I’m getting chills just thinking about it. Old baseball scouts and other staff discussing how they first fell in love with the game (the ‘how did I get here’ speech being a Sorkin staple)? Oh. Yes. Please. …And the by now de rigueur Gilbert and Sullivan reference? I have absolutely no idea how Sorkin is going to work one into a baseball movie, but somehow I am sure he will manage. (Yes, Seth. They’re all about duty. ;) )

Michael Lewis, Moneyball and Team Chemistry

My father-in-law discovered Michael Lewis this Christmas. One relative gave him The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Lewis’ new book on the mortgage meltdown and my husband and I loaned him Liar’s Poker, Lewis’ first book about his early career as a Wall Street bond trader in the 1980’s. He’s really enjoying The Big Short and we got into a huge discussion about both books and all things Michael Lewis over the weekend. And, of course, you can’t talk about Michael Lewis without talking about Moneyball, or at least I can’t.

My father-in-law is as much of a numbers geek as I am. I hooked him on the idea of reading Moneyball with my descriptions of the newer sabermetric stats and Lewis’ comparison of the analysis of certain key pieces of a baseball player’s skill set to the derivatives trade market. However, while I also appreciated these aspects of Moneyball when I read the book, they are not the reason it is one of my favorite baseball books. No, what grabbed my attention were the strong but unintentional arguments Michael Lewis made on the way to arguing his main points: namely that personalities, clubhouse/teammate chemistry and other intangibles that stats cannot measure are every bit as important as those skills the stats can measure and that being a passionate baseball fan sometimes causes you to defy logic and reason. If this doesn’t sound like the Moneyball you read or have heard about, check my logic here:

In talking about on base percentage, slugging percentage and other at the time undervalued stats Lewis dedicates a entire chapter each to A’s acquisitions Jeremy Brown, Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford. Each player exhibited one or more sabermetrically valuable skills while lacking many of the qualities that Major League Baseball placed a high value on. In the course of outlining the different ways this situation made each player a brilliant bargain for Billy Beane’s larger vision for the A’s an entirely different argument emerges. In telling their stories, Lewis’ also describes a crucial unexpected personal element that helps each player achieve success. Brown, for example, is a talented hitter who suffers from the fragile psychology of the chronically picked on kid. In Lewis’ telling, once Brown makes the first jump away from the A’s rookie team, he is on the verge of crumpling from a lack of confidence when his friend, the much more socially adept Nick Swisher, gives him the encouragement he needs, a sympathetic ear and a one-man cheerleading squad in the dugout.

Scott Hatteberg’s story is my favorite. A former catcher with a damaged elbow that destroyed his throwing arm, Hatteberg’s high on base percentage brings him to the attention of the A’s who want to retrain him as a first baseman. What the A’s have no way of knowing is how much Hatteberg’s love for baseball is built around the chats and personal interactions he had with the opposing teams’ batters when he used to catch. What I took from Lewis’s argument is that, more than the desire to excel at baseball again, it was the realization that he could have that same level of personal interaction and possibly even longer conversations with opposing players as a first baseman that gave Hatteberg the drive he needed to learn the challenging new position.

Hatteberg’s personality becomes a real asset when Chad Bradford begins pitching for the A’s. Lewis describes Bradford almost crumpling under the pressure of past manager’s reactions to his quirky submarine pitching style until Hatteberg gives him a timely confidence boost by sharing the hitters shocked and impressed reactions to the pitches when they reach first base. I assume that Lewis’ point in sharing these stories is that they are great stories which bring a compelling personal element to the book. But after reading them, I for one can’t imagine any of the players functioning in the way Beane felt their stats indicated they would perform if the intangible qualities in the player and/or their teammates weren’t there right along with the tangible ones. I know this is not what Lewis intended to argue at all, but the argument is there nevertheless and largely, I think, becuase you can’t escape the importance the human element plays in baseball no matter how you crunch the numbers.

As to the unintentional argument about the passion of baseball fans, one of Moneyball‘s biggest controversies is the perception that Lewis argues in favor of new sabermetric stats hands down over traditional stats. This isn’t Lewis’ original argument at all. He starts out by saying that sabermetrics allows managers to pick and choose undervalued skills, the skills that can give a less wealthy team the most talent for their limited dollars. His central premise is not that a team with relatively unlimited resources should prize these undervalued skills over traditionally valued skills…but it sure doesn’t sound that way by the time you get to the draft scenes in the middle of the book. Lewis begins to praise the skill sets the A’s have chosen to focus on to a greater and greater degree as the book progresses. He brings things back around to his central point by the end but seems unaware of the degree to which he strayed from it in the middle…and, understandably, it is the points where Lewis strays that the book’s detractors fixate on. Why the discrepancy? I think Lewis’ own obviously growing enthusiasm and occasional downright giddiness in describing his subject tells the whole story. By the end of his research, Michael Lewis has evolved from an interested but unbiased researcher into passionate baseball fan. And who among us really sounds logical and reasonable once we start talking about our team and their chances in any given season?

As much I appreciated Lewis’ sabermetrics history and analysis of the new stats, to me the combination of his intentional and unintentional arguments cuts right to the heart of baseball. The stats are important. The stats give you an amazing amount of crucial information. The newer stats give you even more. But the stats can never and will never tell you the whole story. I hope my father-in-law asks to borrow Moneyball soon. I want to discuss this with him and see if he thinks it compares to gut instinct vs. in depth market analysis on the stock market.

Trivial Memories of My First Baseball Book

I’m relatively new to MLBlogs so I’m still discovering new shiny things every time I visit. This weekend it was the Baseball Books blog. A little infrequently updated – which I understand – but a great concept. I really liked the what is your most precious baseball book post from April, but it was so old I hesitated to comment. Still, that post got the question spinning around in my brain and I figured I would answer it here. My most precious baseball book is kind of an odd choice. It isn’t valuable. It isn’t even necessarily good, but it was my first: Remembrance of Swings Past by Ron Luciano. It’s a part memoir, part historical baseball trivia book written by a former major league umpire.

Allow me to explain, my father has a head for trivia, one that I’ve inherited. We like to joke that no factoid is too trivial, no random piece of data so inconsequential that our brains will not latch onto it forever at the expense of a lot of, quite frankly, much more important information. We come by it honestly. My grandfather was a similar repository of useless but intriguing information and I can only assume that in each generation going all the way back to Ireland there was at least one gleeful collector of random facts. Hey, as family heritages go, it’s less painful than low arches and a lot less responsibility than a decaying manor house in a far away land – I’ll take it.

For this reason my sister and I gave our sports loving dad this book, a Joe Madden football trivia book and, if memory serves, one of the Far Side Gallery collections (How’s that for a trip in the way back machine boys and girls?) for Father’s Day one year. I was a kid who always had to have something to read to the point where, when new books were lacking, I would start rereading old books, peruse the encyclopedias (no joke!), or pick up pretty much anything my parents left lying around the house (Side Note: Parents, don’t worry if your kids do this. Your 10 year old isn’t going to learn anything from Danielle Steele, etc. other than that “adult situations” are really kind of boring until you’re old enough to figure out that boys don’t actually have cooties.).

A lot of the stuff my parents left lying around the house was boring – see side note – but Remembrance of Swings Past was not. It played to my love of baseball and growing interests in history and trivia. Besides, it gave me all kinds of questions for my father and grandfather (the original Angels fan in the family) and I will treasure those conversations forever. I will also always remember the books often hilarious stories about the Mad Hungarian, The Bird, the “auspicious” debut of the Kansas City Athletics green and gold uniforms and much more. Remembrance of Swings Past is neither the best baseball nor the best trivia book I have read, but it gave me a lifelong love of both.

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