Saturday, April 28, 2007

Moneyball and Iraq: Two issues with one debate

On Wednesday night, I tuned in to a broadcast of the Red Sox-Orioles game that everyone seems to be talking about. After the game, I wasn’t thinking about Curt Schilling’s sock and his need for attention or Gary Thorne’s comments and his history of making controversial statements.

I was thinking about an innocuous comment by Jim Palmer during a J.D. Drew plate appearance.

Palmer made one of those comments about J.D. Drew’s On-Base Percentage fitting the Red Sox’s “Moneyball Philosophy.” It was the same sort of comment you hear whenever someone on the Red Sox or A’s who can draw a walk comes to the plate. Of course, with Palmer it was a straight observation, not a backhanded slap at the book or its ideas.

The way the book is still part of the baseball public’s consciousness, but the sentiment around it has shifted, reminded me of another long running debate. I realized that the trajectories of the discussions of Moneyball and the war in Iraq are interchangeable. With pro-Moneyball representing anti-war and anti-Moneyball representing pro-war, let’s plug the names of the Moneyball principals into their corresponding characters in the Iraq situation and see what we have.

Cast list:

Michael Lewis as Osama Bin Laden: Lewis, the man whose work started this all, the actual author of Moneyball, has been relatively unscathed by the anti-Moneyball crowd. So much so, that occasionally he had to pop up to remind the book’s detractors that it’s his book. Consider that his grainy video threat from a cave.

Joe Morgan as George W. Bush: Fazed by the onslaught of stat-oriented people who could be baseball experts without ever having played in the majors, and having the “smallball” bunting and hit and run strategies of his day devalued by the masses, he went on the warpath. But Morgan didn’t go after Lewis.

Billy Beane as Saddam Hussein: The A’s general manager and the star of Moneyball became the face for the anti-Moneyball crowd to attack. By allowing himself to be the subject of such a book, Beane was considered arrogant and rubbed some colleagues the wrong way. But it was Morgan in particular, speaking as though Beane had written the book himself, that went after Beane and the “Moneyball Philosophy,” Morgan’s “Axis of Evil.”

(For those of you who read Moneyball, enjoy the visual of Saddam Hussein calling up Ari Fleischer and saying, “Who’s the best looking evil dictator in the Middle East?”)

Bill James as Kim Jong-il: Before Moneyball was even released the Boston Red Sox hired the stathead forefather as a consultant. When the Red Sox entered the 2003 season without a defined closer, another untraditional move, the press derided the organization for letting a stat geek steer them off course. Then when Moneyball was released the focus went squarely to Beane and the A’s. Focused on the Red Sox’ lack of a closer, and their new target Beane, the press failed to notice that Red Sox had also cheaply acquired a Weapon of Mass Destruction.

Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder as Uday and Qusay Hussein: As the A’s kept winning and no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found in Iraq, President Morgan and his constituents needed a new explanation for their attacks. Just as Saddam’s two torturous sons provided a rational sounding reason to be in Iraq, Beane’s three young star pitchers provided a rationale for why the A’s were actually winning. He’d never, it was thought by the Morganites, win without all three of his young pitchers.

Rob Neyer, Peter Gammons and Bill Plaschke as The Nation, New York Times and Fox News:’s Neyer was on board with Moneyball so early that he actually helped Lewis during the writing process. Gammons, ESPN’s venerable institution and the most influential baseball writer in America, helped the “Moneyball Philosophy” gain traction in the mainstream by embracing the concepts and incorporating them into his columns. Plaschke, the esteemed and influential writer for the L.A. Times, assaulted the credibility of Moneyballers by calling them computer geek traitors, with no real love or feel for the game. He would continue these assaults on the philosophy even as the A’s stayed successful, though no WMDs were found and Uday and Qusay were gone.

Jim Palmer as the American Public: Moneyball seemed bad and war acceptable at first, but now Moneyball seems acceptable and the war in Iraq less so. The A’s keep restocking and contending for their division title and in 2004 the Red Sox used their Weapon of Mass Destruction at roughly one-third of his actual market value. Palmer, and many other commentators, followed the tide and no longer understand the purpose of the war and accept the value of Moneyball even without fully understanding what the issue was to begin with. These commentators think the book was about On-Base Percentage, rather than undervalued assets, which at the time of Moneyball just happened to be On-Base Percentage. But at least they're trying to embrace new ideas.

That leaves us with Joe Morgan, a man without an exit strategy, defending his war to the end.