money-ball

Although it’s been decades since baseball was as popular as football, proponents still insist that it is America’s “national pastime.” At first glance, this may appear to represent wishful thinking. But as the fascinating new film Moneyball implies, this conclusion fails to account for the peculiar connotations of the word “pastime.”

Even if baseball is no longer the sport that Americans are most likely to watch or play, it remains the one that they are most likely to theorize. In fact, so much time is passed in this pursuit that one can legitimately ask whether the action on the field takes precedence over the conversations it inspires. Whether they are comparing contemporary players to each other or their counterparts in the distant past, fans relentlessly ponder the sport’s vast archive of statistics not only before and after contests but during them. But this quantitative approach is offset by a literary impulse that perpetually searches for meaning that eludes numerical expression.

That’s the paradox of baseball: it is simultaneously the most and least mathematical of sports. Unlike the vast majority of them, it isn’t ruled by the clock. A game can require a brisk two hours or an exhaustive six, depending on circumstances. And there’s no way of telling which will prove the case beforehand. Even the most exciting game consists primarily of the temporal equivalent of negative space, in which something important might transpire but doesn’t. Conversely, no matter how steep the odds, no contest is really over — to paraphrase the great New York Yankees sage Yogi Berra — until it’s over.

Past a certain point, the outcome of a lopsided soccer, basketball or football contest will be mathematically certain. Baseball offers no such certainty. Indeed, as the sport’s Major League in North American prepares to commence its postseason, it has just borne witness to one of the most improbable and thrilling comebacks in its long history. Trailing the free-spending Yankees franchise by a score of 7-0 with only four outs left, the impoverished, yet plucky Tampa Bay Rays somehow managed to rally, first reducing the deficit to a single run, then tying the score in the bottom of the ninth inning in the most statistically improbable fashion, and finally winning the game and, with it, a trip to the playoffs on a game-ending homerun by their star third basemen Evan Longoria.

This resurrection would have been a great story no matter what. But coming on the heels of Moneyball’s theatrical release, its significance was raised to a higher power. For although the film focuses on the 2002 Oakland A’s attempt to remain competitive despite being wildly outspent by the Yankees and, to a lesser extent, other deep-pocketed franchises, its central theme applies just as readily to Tampa Bay squads of the past few seasons.

Led by General Manager Billy Beane — movingly portrayed by Brad Pitt — the A’s front office attempts to beat the odds through data analysis, making up for what they lack in funds with a sounder understanding of probability. The goal, as the film repeatedly reminds us, is to exploit “market inefficiencies” generated by other teams’ failure to transcend baseball’s traditional worldview.

Moneyball is the story of an underdog, to be sure, but one that ends up succeeding through mental discipline more than luck. The same should apply to the 2011 Rays franchise, a savvily assembled and smartly managed team. But most of the people who have written about their astonishing comebacks — both in that final game against the Yankees and over the course of September as a whole, which they began far behind the Boston Red Sox in the standings — have instead emphasized their stranger-than-fiction quality.

This is a patently ideological move, ascribing the defeat of a fortune — the Red Sox, like the Yankees, spent more than four times as much for their roster as the Rays did on theirs — to Fortune instead of hard work. Given the allegorical potential of this tale in an era of corporate malfeasance, when ordinary people are desperately seeking an edge, this mystification threatens to render it politically impotent.

Thankfully, Moneyball provides the tools we need to see the Rays’ success, not as destiny, but the sort of outcome we can achieve for ourselves with the right attitude and perseverance. To use the great sociologist Max Weber’s formulation, the movie — like the 2003 Michael Lewis book on which it was based — is an invitation to disenchant the world, not in a way that leaves us fearful and lonely, but one that provides both emotional and intellectual sustenance.

Part of the reason is that the film teaches us to understand the difference between superficially similar worldviews. Pitt’s portrayal of Billy Beane emphasizes the personal reasons why he prefers statistical analysis over the input of his baseball scouts. To be sure, he favors the quantitative over the qualitative, the aspiration to objectivity over the conviction that “gut feelings” should be heeded above all else. But he does so for eminently subjective reasons.

Towards the end of the picture, Beane poses a question that casts new light on the story: “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Earlier in the story, this might have seemed like a riddle he is trying to solve. But by this point in the movie we know his superstitions and weaknesses well enough to perceive that his goal is not to avoid being “romantic about baseball,” but to discover a more productive way of succumbing to romanticism.

Indeed, Moneyball suggests that the underdog’s position can only be defended while in the thrall of romance. The difference is that the A’s leadership — like that of the Rays, with their Clash-loving manager Joe Maddon — can’t afford to go along with the anti-scientific tendencies of baseball tradition. If they are going to be romantic about baseball, it must be in the context of sober-minded statistical analysis. This is a vital lesson in this era of teetering economies and tattered social nets. Fortune is not going to save us from the predations of the ruling class. But paying close attention to the data at our disposal just might.