For decades, baseball talents scouts used the same system for predicting the success of prospective players. Players were ranked by their abilities to “run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power.”
Traditional methods for ranking prospective ballplayers are crude and inaccurate—as a result, some top major-league prospects turn out to be mediocre athletes.
On a spring day in 1980 in San Diego, a group of prospective major league baseball players was playing a game with talent scouts watching from the bleachers. This was a key time in baseball history—in only a few years, the average big league salary had tripled. As a result, bad decisions from scouts could have million-dollar consequences. On that day, the scouts had been watching prospective players for months. The players were excellent—calm, fast, strong. The scouts shouted for the players to run a sixty-meter dash. To the scouts’ amazement, one player, Billy Beane, ran the dash in just 6.4 seconds.
We first meet Billy Beane, the most important character in the book, when he’s a star high school athlete—so talented that he wows professional talent scouts who’ve been watching high school games for years. Billy is the kind of ballplayer who stands out according to the crude, old-fashioned methods of ranking players, methods which Lewis, and Billy himself, will later criticize.
Billy Beane had always been a superior athlete. As a high school freshman, he pitched for the varsity baseball team. As a junior, he was six foot four, 180 pounds, and batted .500 in a notoriously tough high school league. His coach, Sam Blalock, recognized that he was major-league material—professional talent scouts would come to Billy’s high school games and demand to see him play. The scouts were very impressed with Billy, but perhaps “they saw only what they wanted to see: a future big league star.”
By any traditional measure, Billy seems to be the perfect all-around baseball player. However, Lewis creates a mood of uncertainty by suggesting that the talent scouts who admire Billy aren’t looking at this player with a critical eye—once they’ve made up their minds that he’s major-league material, they just see what they want to see.
In Billy’s senior year, his batting average went down from .500 to .300, possibly because of pressure from scouts. He would become furious when he didn’t play well, and Sam Blalock never knew how to control him. When he failed in small ways, he’d allow his frustration to interfere with his play. But the scouts seemed not to notice—their only question was, “Can I get him?”
As Billy gets older, we see small signs that he’s not as gifted an athlete as the scouts seem to think. A great ballplayer isn’t only defined by his batting average and other statistics—he also has to learn how to cope with pressure and adversity on the field. Instead of teaching Billy these valuable skills, Billy’s coaches and scouts assume he’ll just continue being perfect.
In 1980, the head talent scout from the New York Mets, Roger Jongewaard, was rumored to be considering Billy Beane for his first pick (the other possibility was a then-unknown Darryl Strawberry, and the Mets seemed to prefer Billy to Strawberry). However, Billy, who got good grades, was interested in going to college on a sports scholarship, rather than entering the major leagues straight away. Despite Billy’s talent, many major league teams thought it would be foolish to make him an offer on a first round draft pick, since he might turn them down.
Darryl Strawberry went on to become one of the most talented players in baseball history. Therefore, the fact that the Mets scouts preferred Beane to Strawberry says a lot about Beane’s potential. However, what Jongewaard fails to understand is that great ballplayers must be single-minded and focused on baseball. Billy clearly isn’t, as evidenced by his interest in going to college (not that there’s anything wrong with going to college!).
In 1980, Roger Jongewaard decided to take a big risk and extended his second first round draft pick to Billy Beane (his first, first round draft pick was Darryl Strawberry). When Jongewaard made Billy the offer, Billy was reluctant to accept. He’d been admitted to Stanford, and seemed intent on going. However, after Jongewaard took Billy on a trip to meet the Mets, Billy was impressed, and decided to sign.
Billy’s reluctance isn’t a good sign: it suggests that he won’t be singularly focused on playing for the Mets. However, Billy agrees to sign with the Mets, partly because he’s impressed and intimidated by the glamor of professional sports.
Soon after Billy’s decision, he started to get cold feet. He confessed to his parents that he was having second thoughts about playing for the Mets; however, in the end, he accepted the Mets’ offer and took a signing bonus of 125,000 dollars. Billy believed that he could attend Stanford during the off-season; however, when Stanford realized that Billy wouldn’t be playing sports for the school, they rescinded his admission. Billy would be playing rookie ball with the Mets minor league team before he’d become a big-league player. Next, Billy’s parents invested his bonus in a real estate venture that promptly went bankrupt. “One day,” the chapter concludes, “Billy Beane could have been anything; the next he was just another minor league baseball player, and not even a rich one.”
Billy Beane makes what turns out to be a very bad decision: impressed with the glamor of the Mets, he decides to sign. As a result, Billy starts out playing rookie ball for a minor league Mets team, with the expectation of graduating to the big-league team one day. Billy gives up the chance to go take things slowly, and become a more mature, disciplined player at Stanford. Furthermore, he even loses the supposed financial benefits of major-league play, losing his massive signing bonus right away.