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A tale of two books


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To the extent that I blog at all, I generally just talk about Mormonism and Mormon topics. So, today, something completely different. The last two books I've read are Steinbeck's "The Winter of Our Discontent" and the infamous "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis.

This is only my second Steinbeck read, with the other being "The Grapes Of Wrath" (of course). Steinbeck is such a blunt author that (sometimes) the subtleties are completely lost in his work. The characters seem like such caricatures of themselves that by the time that you realize that they're much more nuanced, you've lost the ability to perceive it. I never saw the window into Ethan Hawley's soul that would have helped me to understand his struggle with pride and morality. At the end of the book, I just felt like I had experienced a profound loss of potential. Not being a real literary critic, I generally only ask one question of a fictional work: are the characters any good? Steinbeck's book committed the ultimate sin in my eyes: the characters should have been good and fell short. This wasn't a bad book by any stretch, but I'd recommend a different Steinbeck work if you like his style. I can't recommend any specifics, but I'll bet he can do better than this one.

"Moneyball" should have been read months ago. As it is, I left a truly important baseball book on the shelves. This book is everything that a sports book should be without really being a sports book. As many reviewers have noted, Moneyball is truly a business book. The genius of Moneyball is not in what it tells one about the game (true students of baseball have already experienced the debate presented within and know just exactly who Voros McCracken is), but in what it tells one about a successful business. It is absolutely essential to understanding how to evaluate things differently. The biggest challenge in reinventing a system of thought is in understanding that there's a problem at all, since evaluation is from within the prism of the current system. I love the Adrienne Rich quotation "this is the oppressor's language but I need it to talk to you". Lewis points out that baseball is the same way. The language of the game controls the evaluation, measurement, and quantification of it. Billy Beane and his intellectual predecessors (of whom there are many) have simply changed the language of baseball. Instead of talking in "five-tools", "clutch hitter", and "RBI machine", things like DIPS, OBP, and win shares are discussed.

What's really interesting is that Billy Beane's language shift has meant that the old guard of baseball is talking past the new laptop jockeys. Just as Beane can't understand why people would hold onto old fashioned ideas about baseball, the old guys don't get DIPS. They think it's just a way to manipulate numbers without seeing anything on the field. Lewis does a great job of pointing this out by contrasting the drafting strategies of Beane and Paul DePodesta with the views of the old time scouts. (Let the record show that while Beane took Tim Hudson, an unmitigated success, the scouts wanted Ben Sheets in his place. Not exactly a slouch.)

I think you need to at least like baseball to enjoy Moneyball. But if you like the game at all, you need to read this book, both for its baseball content and its description of an intellectual war. The worst thing, from an evaluation perspective, is that Beane starts so far in the hole financially that truly evaluating his strategy is nearly impossible.

More blogging soon. Sorry we haven't been so diligent lately. All five of you, hang in there.


7 Responses to “A tale of two books”

  1. Blogger annegb 

    I love John Steinbeck. I think that's the only book of his I haven't read.

    That is all I have to say.

  2. Blogger D-Train 

    You sound much more qualified than I to evaluate his work. I actually loved Grapes of Wrath and would put that in my favorite few fictional works. This one didn't do it for me, though. Maybe you should give it a try. You would probably be a lot better than I at appreciating it.

  3. Blogger lchan 

    John Steinbeck is my favorite author and East of Eden is my favorite book. I've read it at least 5 times and can always find something new in it to love.

    I haven't read The Winter of Our Discontent since high school, so I don't remember much of it. I think it was the first book of his I read. I've been thinking of re-reading it, so it's funny you should post about it.

    Steinbeck's characters are almost all flawed, but I love that (he's similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald in that way, but the mood of his work is so different because he deals with the working class and the poor - while Fitzgerald is fascinated by the rich and the spoiled). It gives you something to relate to.

  4. Blogger Pris 

    "...the scouts wanted Ben Sheets in his place. Not exactly a slouch."

    Uh...understatement? When the Brew-Crew are taking down the cards in the central (admittedly, it'll be a few years), we'll talk more...

    So, I haven't read "Moneyball" but it's been on my list for some time. Do you read a lot of the sabermetric sites on the net, D? Fascinating. Anyway, the impression I get of Moneyball from the reviews is not that Beane started to use different, more complex, statistical tools, but that he used a way of evaluating players that were undervalued. So, when he was doing his thing, OBP was overlooked in favor of BA, RBI, etc. That is, since teams were paying a premium for high-BA players, you could get high-OBP players for cheap. But now that the rest of the league (for the most part) is started using the same technique--looking at OBP, etc--OBP is being valued more, so teams cannot get high-OBP players without paying a lot. So, it seems, that the smart GM would try to find a way to evaluate players so they could get a high-value player for low cost. Anyway, that's the impression I get--you see the same thing?

    Also, have you read that new book on the Braves organization/scouting? I can't remember what it's called, but the author (a Braves scout) hates the Moneyball system so he went and wrote this book. Reviews are generally favorable.

  5. Blogger Mike 

    I liked East of Eden- D-Train I'm still not sure if you would. You ought to read it if you have a free afternoon. I think that the characters are somewhat compelling- except Steinbeck prevents them from being so by beating you over the head with stuff. Although, really, Steinbeck's whole point of the people who are non-compelling are flawed by being so. Those who are too perfect or too evil aren't happy.

    I think that you may enjoy it if you can push through it-
    either that or you will be annoyed at me for telling you to read it.

    And honestly- there's other stuff you've put off reading that you ought to read first. Trust me.
    (remember- I told you that you'd love starship troopers)

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