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Great Books and Movies about Baseball! Moneyball vs. The Baseball Codes

November 6, 2011

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis 


I avoid Brad Pitt movies.  Nothing against Brad Pitt.  He seems to be a cool guy, and I like cool guys, but every time I see him in a movie, I think to myself “Hey, that’s Brad Pitt pretending to be an ancient Greek demi-god,” or “Hey, that’s Brad Pitt pretending to be an American commando during World War II,” or “Hey, that’s Brad Pitt pretending to be a guy helping out hurricane victims in New Orleans… Oh yeah, that’s actually Brad Pitt!  That’s so cool!” 

Therefore, I haven’t seen the movie version of Moneyball, so I’m judging the book on its own merits. 


Some reviewers claim they don’t like baseball but were still fascinated by Moneyball.  I don’t see how.  This is a statistics analysis book with some baseball anecdotes added to support the statistics.  Now, I appreciate (but don’t like) baseball, so I can enjoy the statistical side of it without getting bored.  But somebody who doesn’t like or doesn’t appreciate baseball?  I don’t see how. 


My biggest problem with Moneyball is that it asked a lot of philosophical questions about baseball but then didn’t use any historical perspective to answer them. 


For example, I grew up watching the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1980’s, a fast base stealing team that was built to win in a park where it was tough to hit home runs.  This team “manufactured runs” in a way that Billy Beane from Moneyball would have disapproved of (“How many innings did they run themselves out of by getting caught stealing bases?” he might ask).  This franchise designed to steal bases and manufacture runs went to three World Series in the 1980’s, won one (1982 against Milwaukee), got cheated out of another (1985 against Kansas City… long story) and lost another in seven games (1987 against Minnesota) because it was the American League’s turn to have home field advantage.  

These Cardinals weren’t just a base stealing team.  They played great defense (another trait Billy Beane thinks is overvalued), but they also probably had a great on base percentage (a trait that Billy Beane thinks is undervalued).  The point is not whether Billy Beane is right or wrong because the Cardinals were great in the 1980’s (they probably had a very high payroll, but I don’t know because I don’t do research).  The point is that this book would have been more fulfilling if there had been more historical perspective to it.  It’s still enjoyable, but it felt incomplete. 


Baseball is considered to be a boring sport, yet baseball is the subject or backdrop to a lot of popular, non-boring movies.  Bull Durham, Field of Dreams (okay, kind of boring in its non-baseball scenes), Major League (I lost count how many there are), The Natural, The Rookie, (maybe) Moneyball.  How can a boring sport make for exciting movies?  

It’s the pitcher-batter duel.  From the stands or from your television, it can be kind of dull to watch a series of these pitcher vs. batter contests, but a movie director can take these mini-conflicts and make them very dramatic.  The internal dialogue of Crash Davis while he’s batting in Bull Durham is more entertaining than a full count, bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth at bat in a real baseball game.  Any decent director can take this conflict and build an entire story around it, even if most of the story has nothing to do with baseball.   If Major League Baseball would put microphones on baseball players so that we could hear their (profanity filled) commentary during at bats and on the base paths, television ratings would go up. 


You go to a football game to get pumped up, yell the entire game, and maybe get into a fight afterward.  You go to a basketball game to be seen.  But baseball, you go to a baseball game just to hang out.  You grab your hot dogs and beer, sit down, and hang out for a couple hours.  Maybe you get up to cheer for a couple seconds a few times a game, but during the regular season you really don’t care that much if the team wins or loses.  You’re hanging out.  George Will might try to romanticize baseball with a bunch of big words, but the rest of us are just hanging out. 

The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime by Jason Turbow 

Everybody alive in the 1990’s knows what I’m talking about.  It’s almost like JFK’s assassination; you know where you were when you saw it.  I was at a non-sports bar, my attention on something that wasn’t baseball, when a collective gasp arose from the crowd of men and scantily clad women running around the … establishment.  The overhead televisions ran replay after replay of a young punk baseball player charging Nolan Ryan and then that same young punk baseball player getting beat up by Nolan Ryan.  Boy, that young punk baseball player looked stupid. 

The thing is, what most people didn’t know (including me) was that there was a long chain of events beginning years before that led up to that one-sided fight.  I’m not going to explain it, but the history of the Nolan Ryan/Robin Ventura fight by itself is almost worth the price of The Baseball Codes

Okay, now that I know what really (according to the book) happened, I no longer think of Robin Ventura as a young punk baseball player.  He was a reluctant fighter (for reasons explained in the book), and Nolan was a nasty old fart who probably needed to get punched out.  But still, it sure was funny. 

The Baseball Codes gets into the unwritten code of baseball.  Why a bench clearing brawl will break out over a seemingly minor offense.  When it’s okay to steal a base and when it isn’t.    I’m not a baseball expert, so I wasn’t familiar with most of the anecdotes and rules.  Now that I’ve read the book, I’m a little more observant when I watch the game.  I won’t say it makes me like baseball, but it makes me pay closer attention during a game. 

WHICH ONE (if you have to choose)?  

If you don’t like baseball, or if you know nothing about baseball, read The Baseball Codes.  

Moneyball is good, but Michael Lewis has made tons of money already off his books, and this one isn’t really his best one, and it looks like the movie (which I haven’t seen) makes it a feel-good story, and this book (as much as I liked it) is not a feel-good story; it’s a stats book, albeit a cool stats book.  And if you don’t like baseball, you definitely don’t want to read a stats book about baseball.  If you don’t like (or appreciate) baseball, you probably want to read the one that explains why fights happen.

And that would be The Baseball Codes.

From → Literary Combat

  1. I think that no one ever read this because you didn’t tag it or give it a category. No one probably knew you wrote it. I hope I haven’t let you down by reading your new post, tracking down, and reading this one. I haven’t read or seen Moneyball, but I heard the movie was interesting. I think the book would bore me.

    While it’s not good for the game itself, I miss a good bench clearing brawl. the Yanks and O’s cleared the benches the other night when the managers started yelling at each other, but no punches were thrown…

  2. I think the same thing about Nicholas Cage movies you do about Brad Pitt. Except I don’t think Cage is a good actor or a cool guy.

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