Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Moneyball: More than a Baseball Story

By Richard A. Lee

Moneyball, the film based on Michael Lewis’ best-seller about the creative strategies employed to keep a team with one of the smallest budgets in Major League Baseball competitive, opens on this week.

Like the book, the movie is likely to be more than a story about baseball. As Michael De Luca, a co-producer of the film, explained in a recent New York magazine article: “Sports movies work when they transcend the sport they’re about and become metaphoric.”

In this case, the story of Moneyball transcends the sport because it is a story about not doing things the same way simply because that’s the way they always have been done.

As Lewis wrote in his book, for years baseball teams relied on scouts to decide which high school and college players were most likely to succeed at the big league level. He unflatteringly described the scouting process as  “driving sixty thousand miles, staying in a hundred crappy motels, and eating god only knows how many meals at Denny’s all so you could watch 200 high school and college baseball games inside of four months.”

By contrast, Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane, the central character in Moneyball, turned to Paul DePodesta, a young man with a degree in economics from Harvard and a laptop computer that crunched numbers and analyzed statistics about the players available in baseball’s amateur draft. Unlike the scouts, DePodesta had no experience as a professional baseball player. In fact, he believed that scouts’ judgments often were flawed because they generalized too heavily from their own experiences on the diamond and tended to put too much weight on an athlete’s most recent performance.

I won’t spoil the plot of the movie, but as those who follow baseball know, Beane did keep the Athletics competitive for several years. The team never won a World Series, but the unorthodox techniques he used have since found their way into the operations and management of other major league organizations.

As for the lessons that Moneyball teaches outside of baseball, journalism is a prime example. Just as the scouts Beane encountered were set in their ways and resistant to change, so too were news entities – large and small – when the Internet radically changed the nature of their business and undercut its financial foundation.

Instead of embracing the new technology, much of the industry’s initial reaction to the Internet was to dismiss it and argue that it would never replace print newspapers.

“Newspapers dig up the news. Others repackage it,” former Los Angeles Times editor John S. Carroll said in a widely circulated speech delivered in 2006 to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

“At present the Internet is basically an electronic version of the ten-year-old boy on a bicycle who used to toss the newspaper on the front porch: an ingenious circulation device,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Russell Baker wrote a year later in a New York Review of Books essay.

In the ensuing years, history has proven wise men such as Carroll and Baker wrong.

Websites such as this one do in fact break stories and produce original content. Moreover, the once black-and-white line between print newspapers and the Internet has virtually disappeared since the work of “print” journalists now appears online – and with great immediacy.

We’ve also seen the Internet have an impact on public policy and politics, most notably the 2008 presidential campaign in which Barack Obama’s creative and intensive use of technology helped propel him to the White House.

And social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are playing important roles in the delivery of news and information. Just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has used YouTube masterfully on his way to becoming a national figure.

Would the journalism industry be on a more solid financial footing today if it had embraced the new technology sooner?

The question is a hypothetical one that probably is impossible to answer. But if you were to ask Billy Beane, I suspect he would respond with a resounding yes.

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Richard A. Lee spent more than 30 years as a journalist and government communications professional in New Jersey. He now is an assistant professor in the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University near Olean, N.Y. Read more of Rich's columns at richleeonline and follow him at twitter.com/richleeonline.