I once saw a high school baseball coach setting up a baseball field for a game. He walked back and forth from the pitcher’s mound to the dugout as he removed one weighted block from the tarp which protected the mound and walked it to the fence by the dugout. With each block, he carefully stepped over the freshly painted lines from the third base line to Homeplate. He wore his uniform, shirt freshly laundered after the previous usage, socks pulled tight, hat waiting to be jiggled and rubbed and removed to signal expectant players to homeplate. I saw, or maybe I imagined his lips mouthing a silent prayer for the upcoming game, asking the baseball gods to bless this field, bless these players, bless this sport.
America, in some ways, has moved on from baseball compared to the prevalence of football and basketball or even soccer. But it will forever be America’s pastime, and it will always make these modern sports seem barbaric, with their raw displays of athleticism and strength. There’s no mysticism in football, there is no higher power in basketball.
But baseball is a game of ritual and desecration, prayers and superstitions, hopes and curses, unwritten rules and unspoken edicts. It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball. I realized that as I watched that coach walk back and forth on that hallowed ground, the baseball field.
And it helped me understand the point of Moneyball, a story about big data, disrupting the system, about the dawning of a new age of thinking and overthrowing the dinosaurs in favor of a new era of efficiency and intelligence. But it is also about barbarism and the loss of belief in something greater, the death of insight and hunches and the superstition that surrounds the religion of baseball. It’s a story that makes you peak behind the curtain, and once you do, you can never go back to believing in the great and powerful Oz.
There are two sides to the story of the overhaul of baseball at the hands of analytics. There is the hero, Billy Beane, on his quest for validation and acceptance and his journey to overthrow the ‘haves’ as a lowly ‘have not,’ reaching from under the fifty feet of crap that separates his team from every other. And we root for him and laugh at him and we feel his pain and disappointment, and ultimately, we cheer at his successes.
But there are also those old dinosaurs in the meetings- the Gradys of the world- who have done it a certain way for a long long time. Who have figured out ‘what works’ and who just want the Billy Beanes of the world to let them do what they do best. Let them put a team together based on their years of intuition and expertise and get out of here with the stats and numbers and computer bull shit.
Their cause is noble too. The way they go about it, by stifling new thought, suppressing all newcomers, and their arrogance and anger, are all worth criticism. But at the core of their sins is a desire to preserve an ideal, to preserve baseball, and thus, to preserve a part of American identity. They are holding onto the mysticism, the religion and the romance of the sport. They don’t want to see the game lose the ‘human.’ They want to preserve the right to play the sport with their hearts and minds, and in so doing bring the audience into the game with their hearts and minds as well.
So in the closing scene where Pete calls Billy into the film room to watch their 300 lb catcher trip while rounding first, and remain inert on the ground embarrassed and heartbroken, only to be brought to his feet after being told he hit a home run, Pete was not only showing Billy that in his failed efforts to win the last game of the year he may have done something even greater, he was also showing Billy, and us, that there was still, in the data-driven league they were creating, room for the human, room for life lessons, room for prayers and hopes and dreams.
As Billy, who has never held any superstitions about this game, put it, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
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