Michael Lewis and Moneyball: on being wrong about sports

I don’t write much about sports in my book, for two reasons.  For starters, I am spectacularly ignorant about them.  (When Ted Williams died, I horrified a member of Red Sox nation by asking, “Ted who?”) 

To get around this deficiency, I tried grilling other people about error and sports – non-spectacularly-ignorant people, bona fide sports people – but the examples they offered rarely fit my working definition of wrongness. Really they were more like screw-ups: the famed Buckner error that lost the 1986 World Series for the Red Sox, for instance, or the scorecard mistake that cost Roberto De Vicenzo the 1968 Masters.  Thus the second reason I didn’t write about sports: nothing I heard seemed sufficiently relevant to my notion of error to earn a place in the book. 

It turns out, though, that there is at least one great story – one really great story – about wrongness in sports. The name of this story, as just about everyone but me has known for nearly a decade, is Moneyball. It was written by Michael Lewis in 2003, back when I was too busy being clueless about professional sports to bother reading it. (Having read Underworld in the late ’90s, I figured I’d fulfilled my books-about-baseball quota for a decade, easy.) 
 
When it came out, Moneyball was widely hailed as A) one of the all-time greatest baseball books; B) one of all the all-time greatest sports books; and C) one of all the-time greatest books, period. To this list, I would belatedly add another, more obscure accolade: it is one of the all-time greatest stories about wrongness – right up there with Galileo and Napoleon, and, I don’t know, Tootsie
 
Specifically: Moneyball is a story about how hard it is for reason to gain traction in a world dominated by intuition, emotion, and tradition. A story about the near-irrelevance of evidence in the face of entrenched belief. (“When I started writing I thought if I proved X was a stupid thing to do that people would stop doing X. I was wrong,” observes Bill James, the inventor of sabermetrics and the book’s intellectual center of gravity – basically, its William James.) A story about the way membership in a society – including a micro-society like Major League Baseball – can shield us from entertaining the possibility that we are wrong. A story about the schadenfreude-like delight we derive from other people’s mistakes, the gleeful pleasure of being right ourselves, and the even greater if more elusive satisfaction of the world finally coming to concede that we were correct all along. (Bill James again: “It is a wonderful thing to know that you are right and the world is wrong. Would God that I might have that feeling again before I die.”)
 
Given my interest in wrongness, I probably would have appreciated this book regardless of its literary merits.  But I didn’t have to, because Moneyball is, handily, one of the best works of nonfiction I’ve ever read. I laughed all the way through it, occasionally out of amusement but mainly out of sheer literary pleasure. That said, and despite the absurdity, in retrospect, of having waited so long to read it, there’s a case to be made that I should have waited even longer. Reading Moneyball when you’ve just finished writing your own first book is like pulling up to the end of the swimming pool after a tough workout, looking over at the next lane, and seeing Michael Phelps. It’s not just that he does it better than everyone else; it's that he does it better while making it look effortless.  Not to mention fun. Would God that I might write a few sentences like Lewis before I die.

 

Okay, maybe you don’t have strong beliefs about the “right” way to load a dishwasher, or about your sweetheart’s propensity to do it “wrong.” In that case, either you are unusually saintly or (like me) you don’t own a dishwasher. But you almost certainly get involved in domestic disputes about who’s right and who’s wrong all the time; we all do. Although interpersonal arguments can have a number of causes – from serious and painful breaches in trust to the fact that we haven’t had our coffee yet – an impressive number of them amount to a tug-of-war over who possesses the truth. We fight over the right to be right.