Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game….Michael Lewis

Billy Beane, General Manger of the Oakland A's

Benjamin Franklin once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results.

Every year, Major League Baseball teams fall all over themselves to spend millions of dollars to sign and trade baseball players, hoping to give their team a better chance to get to the World Series, even though it doesn’t always follow that the team with the biggest payroll and biggest stars automatically wins the Commissioner’s Trophy. Yet every year, teams continue to plunk out the cash to recruit players, relying on subjective scouting and incomplete statistics to make these costly moves.

Unfortunately, in 2002, the Oakland Athletics didn’t have the mega-sized payroll to bring in expensive talent and compete with other teams and their ready cash. What they did have was the guts to try something completely different. And they succeeded at it beyond anyone’s comprehension. Michael Lewis’ amazing book, Moneyball, is not only the story of the visionary A’s front office, but also the birth of a new way of thinking about baseball.

Billy Beane, a one-time professional baseball player, was selected 23rd overall in the 1980 MLB draft, choosing to go to the pros rather than attend Stanford, where he had a free ride. Scouts and coaches all over the nation were enamored of Billy’s clean swing and amazing stats. Beane would later come to regret his decision to forego college for the pros, and would be out of baseball by 1989. He believed that scouts were too easily swayed by what they wanted to see in a prospective baseball player, rather than what was really there. When Beane read a series of abstracts by a statistician named Bill Jame,s which broke baseball players down into cold, unfeeling stats rather than the gut feelings and subjective impressions of scouts, he believed he had found a cheaper, more efficient way of putting together a baseball team. This approach would rock the boat of conventional scouting, recruiting, and signing of baseball players, giving heretofore unknown players a chance to make it to the big leagues, and giving smaller market teams a chance to compete with their more expensive rivals.

The A's celebrate Matt Hatteburg's game winning home run on Sept 4, 2002 in Oakland. With this win the A's broke the AL record with 20 consecutive wins, a statistic that is still alive today. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Having loved Lewis’ other book The Blind Side, where he tackles the heartwarming story of Michael Oher and his rise from poverty to riches through football and the love of his adoptive family, I was prepared to love Moneyball too, especially after I saw and enjoyed the movie last weekend. I often find myself bored when I read a book right after seeing the movie, but this was not so with Moneyball. I thoroughly enjoyed it, maybe more so than the movie. Lewis has such a down-to-earth style, explaining the somewhat overwhelming statistics and insider thinking in baseball, and he is so good at getting into the heads and hearts of his characters. Billy Beane’s complex character is  is hilarious one minute and unhinged the next minute, smashing bats into walls and throwing chairs, choosing to go to the gym and work out during games because he was too nervous to watch. I can imagine the stress he must have been under, to prove to the rest of baseball than his unorthodox choices had method to the madness and were considered and purposeful, and how awesome it must have been to succeed even against bigger and seemingly more talented teams. His willingness to think outside of the box and go against the grain of the outdated and stubbornly entrenched thinking of major league baseball are awe-inspiring. Lewis’ portraits of the overlooked, unknown players Beane would recruit, such as unorthodox pitcher Chad Bradford, catcher-turned-first baseman Matt Hatteberg, and oversized catcher Jeremy Brown, were awesome.  You were really rooting for these guys, and laughing at the old-timer scouts who overlooked and undervalued them.

There wasn’t much not to love about Moneyball. The only part that didn’t appeal to me was the epilogue, where Lewis explains how major league baseball reacted to his book. It seemed to me a bit defensive and kind of whiny. Other than that, it was an amazing book. The movie was also really good. I’m not a Brad Pitt fan, but he did a great job as Billy Beane. Check out both the book and the movie.

Grade: A-

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Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal…Eric Schlosser

Here's how it all started.

If you’ve ever wondered about the path your hamburger takes from the ranch to your tray at McDonald’s, get ready to super-size your gag reflex. What you don’t know about fast food could actually kill you…or, at least, really gross you out.

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is a fascinating, frequently nauseating, and sometimes horrifying read about the hidden side of fast food. Fast food chains originally arose and prospered thanks to the automobile and the interstate highway system. As more Americans took to the road, they needed food they could get quickly and could eat behind the wheel. Restaurants that began as small mom-and-pop stores in Southern California serving quick, easy to eat food without ever having to leave your car soon blossomed into multi-billion dollar corporations with thousands of locations world-wide. Their restaurants are household names, even to the very youngest Americans, since fast food restaurants actively target children in their marketing schematics in their quest to create customers for life. Thanks to this, Ronald McDonald is one of the most recognized fictional characters in the world, second only to Santa Claus. (If that isn’t a sign of the Apocalyse, I don’t know what is!)

Schlosser lifts the curtain on the inner workings of the fast food dynasty. He reports that the smiling face that greets you at the counter when you walk in or cooks your food is usually an underpaid, uninsured, and overworked employee, who is sometimes not even trained to operate equipment they work on. In fact, he reports that many fast food brands like McDonalds and Taco Bell have tried to get rid of skilled jobs altogether by automating kitchen equipment. So much for creating jobs in this economy! Even though teenagers are still in school and are mandated by law only to work a certain number of hours during the school week, Schlosser reports that some fast food franchises have ‘looked past’ that and allowed teenagers to work more hours than they should…just as long as they don’t work overtime. Franchise managers are given incentives to keep overtime hours down, and some have gone as far as falsifying time cards to keep overtime hours underbudget, or overscheduling employees to send those who are close to going into overtime home. Sounds like a great place to work, right?

Having never read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, I had no idea of the horror stories that exist about America’s slaughterhouses and meat packing facilities. I was disgustingly enlightened by Schlosser’s book. According to him, not only are most of the cattle that are slaughtered for hamburger meat fed other dead cattle, chickens, or sometimes dead dogs and cats for food instead of grass, but are sometimes crawling with disease or rolling in their own poo by the time they get butchered. The meat is sometimes processed by tools and machinery (and people) that aren’t sanitized consistently. Amazingly, the cattle probably have it better than the folks who chop them up. Schlosser reports that the people who do the slaughtering and meat-packing work at great risk with very few safety precautions, are barely compensated financially for debilitating injuries (and are sometimes not even allowed to report them), and are hardly allowed time off even after something as horrifying as an amputation, since the executives get bonuses for low accident rates and sick time.  To add insult to injury, meat packing jobs are some of the lowest-paying in the country and, like fast food service, come with no benefits and are usually taken by the more vulnerable and desperate segments of the population–teenagers, immigrants or unskilled workers.

I hate clowns.

Until I read this book, I don’t think I realized how much blind faith I had in the food service industry. I always assumed they were doing their best to provide safe, if not nutritious, food for me and my family. This book cast a lot of doubt on those assumptions. According to Schlosser, the restaurant industry has a long way to go before food can really be called ‘safe’. In 2001, thousands of European cattle were tested and found to be infected with what would be called ‘mad cow’ disease. If mad cow meat was eaten by humans, the results could be deadly…as of the writing of Schlosser’s book, 100 people have died from the human variant of mad cow disease (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD). When you consider that one cow could be fed the infected meat of another cow and become infected itself, and then its meat ground up with other non-infected cows for hamburger, going into millions of hamburger patties, it’s easy to see how scary and uncontrolled food-borne diseases can be. The incubation period for vCJD is unknown at this time, so any of us could have eaten a contaminated burger and it could be decades before symptoms begin to show. Schlosser’s findings that government agencies like the USDA and OSHA are generally more supportive of big business rather than food safety is alarming. Mad cow disease seems to have spurred big companies like McDonald’s to take better steps towards testing hamburger meat before it is served, which is great, but hopefully it’s not too too little, too late.

In closing, it will probably be a while before “I’m lovin’ it” again at McDonald’s. Yuck.

Grade: B+