In a night in September 2002, Oakland A’s fans were salivating to watch their favorite team win its twentieth straight game. Reporters from CNN, ESPN, and other channels wanted to interview Billy Beane about how he’d put together a record-setting team. Billy was reluctant to handle so much publicity but he did so nonetheless. Afterwards, as usual, he holed up in the weight room, furtively listening to the game on his radio—at one point, the A’s were up 11-0.
We’re back in Oakland on the night of the team’s twentieth consecutive victory. Billy Beane has never been comfortable with publicity—even when he was an athlete, he couldn't deal with the pressure from his fans and coaches. However, he talks to reporters because it’s for the good of the team.
Michael Lewis talks with Billy Beane in the middle of the game. Billy talks about how his shortstop, Eric Chavez, is probably the most gifted player in baseball—statistically, he outstrips many more famous athletes. As Billy talks, Lewis considers some of the contradictions in his management style. Billy is scientific. He often says that managing a baseball team is like a soapbox derby: “You build the car in the beginning of the year and after that all you do is push it down the hill.” And yet, there’s a side to Billy’s personality that is superstitious and deeply invested in the game. Another contradiction in Billy’s personality: he always says that “players don’t change,” and yet he spends untold hours trying to change his players’ game for the better.
Billy is arguably the most interesting character in the book, because he exemplifies some of the contradictions in baseball management in the early 2000s. Billy is a pioneer of sabermetric management; instead of using intuition to draft and acquire players, he pays attention to statistics. One would think that sabermetrics takes all the emotion and uncertainty out of baseball, but, Billy is clearly not an emotionless GM—on the contrary, he sometimes gets furious while watching baseball. In a way, Billy’s contradictions exemplify the contradiction between determinism (i.e., using sabermetrics) and free will (i.e., becoming emotionally invested in specific games).
In the middle of the game, Chad Bradford replaces Tim Hudson as pitcher. Chad has been having a slump, perhaps because he’s begun to experience a crisis in self-confidence—even though he’s become one of the best pitchers in the league, he questions his own talent. He walks hitters, sometimes two in a row. Soon, the bases are loaded, with nobody out. Quickly, the score becomes 11-6, 11-7. Disgusted, Billy mutters, “what a fucking embarrassment.”
Even though Chad’s greatest asset is his self-confidence, he seems to have trouble adjusting to the pressures of playing with the Oakland A’s. One of the premises of sabermetrics is that an athlete will continue playing in a matter that reflects his statistical record. However, as Chad’s poor performance shows, sometimes athletes go through unexpected slumps that statistics cannot predict.
Back in the eighties, Bill James argued that psychology always pulls winners down and builds the losers up. Here, tonight, the Oakland A’s, the heavy favorites, are getting pulled down by the audience’s expectations. The score is now 11-10; a few minutes later, at the bottom of the ninth, it’s 11-11. Art Howe puts Scott Hatteberg in the game as a pinch-hitter. Hatteberg, disciplined as ever, tells himself he won’t swing at anything down low in the strike zone until he has two strikes. After laying off the first pitch and getting ball, the second pitch comes in high, right where Hatteberg is looking for it. Hatteberg hits the ball into the stands—then, as if in disbelief, he runs around the bases. “Not five minutes later,” Michael Lewis concludes, “Billy Beane was able to look me in the eye and say that it was just another win.”
In this heart-stopping conclusion, the A’s narrowly win their twentieth game in a row, setting a new Major League Baseball record for consecutive wins. The reason the A’s win, in brief, is that they’ve assembled a disciplined and quietly successful team, exemplified by the hitting style of Scott Hatteberg. Billy’s reaction reminds us of some of his contradictions as a general manager: he’s emotionally invested in the game, but likes to pretend that he’s not. The passage also implicitly rebuts the many critics of sabermetrics who say that it takes all the uncertainty and excitement out of the game: on the contrary, Lewis shows, sabermetrics leads to some very exciting games, especially when the two teams have such different management styles.