Tonight is what could be the last game of the 2011 baseball season, unless of course LaRussa upgrades to Verizon so his bullpen “can hear him now.” Anyway, I’m going to close out the season with “Moneyball,” the legendary Michael Lewis book about the Oakland A’s that had somehow escaped my attention until the movie arrived in theaters a month ago.
This has been an extended autumn in Cincinnati. It’s still warm outside and the leaves are falling at their own leisurely pace. Baseball is drawing to a close. Admittedly, I’m a bit sad that the World Series is almost over—I have this vision that once the final out is called, the leaves will give up on their grip and the temperatures will bottom out. The end of baseball also brings another change in America—most people don’t start paying attention to the election until the Series is over. I think that used to be more accurate when the baseball season wasn’t as long, but it’s close enough. The World Series and elections have been inextricably linked for decades because of the swinging attentions of the American people.
For me, baseball and politics are linked for other reasons. I’d like to think I’m more of a baseball traditionalist, which is also how I was taught politics. Like the old-timers in baseball, I learned mostly that winning elections is about trusting your gut and having an instinct for thinking like a voter. But that old-timer philosophy isn’t really true in either anymore. Today, Baseball, like politics, is mastered by those with the data. Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” is just a reminder how much things have changed.
I could recap the book, but most of you have read it (or have seen the movie, which is worth seeing but not worth discussing since after all this is a book blog). In my opinion, the bottom line is this: Beane gets credit for changing the game. He didn’t do it alone, but Lewis gifted him the credit, defined the term Moneyball as a data-driven model for winning, and before Beane could fully exploit it, everyone else adopted the model. And that’s how the game changed.
I don’t know that I’m going to cover any new ground here, but what was most interesting to me was the linkage between Moneyball in baseball and Moneyball in politics. The same principles that Lewis describes in the baseball context have been applied to politics. We’ve seen how political movements have been built online. When Al Gore lost by 537 votes (yes, I know, he actually won, but Bush became President), it became clear that every piece of data needed to be used. Elections are won by single votes…baseball games by single at-bats…and once it became clear there was a way to gain even the smallest advantage, well, then it must be seized. Perhaps no one explained this better than the late Ron Silver, playing Bruno in “The West Wing,” when he talked to President Bartlett about sailing and removing kelp from the side of a boat. (Die hard fans will remember this.)
I think that in 2006 and 2010, new generations of political gurus utilized Moneyball. Instead of simply blogging with a laptop, groups made up of voters who were “left out” from the mainstream party structures were suddenly able to mine data, target voters, communicate quickly, and create new coalitions or voting blocks. Look at the Democratic “netroots” and the Republican “tea partiers.” These groups were the Billy Beanes of politics. They longed to take their small-budget losing teams, find inefficiencies in the market, and try to gain power with an advantage the big boys had not yet discovered. At different points in time, both were able to do it. The more liberal netroots played a key role in getting a number of their candidates into office in 2006. The tea party did the same thing in 2010. But just like for the A’s, it didn’t last for long. The national Democrats and national Republicans caught on, spent a hell of a lot more money, capitalized on their existing infrastructures, and co-opted all of the tools, tricks and new strategies that the small market teams briefly used to their advantage. The Democrats and the Republicans are the Yankees and the Red Sox; they have the money, the power, and the incentive to ensure that the tea party or the netroots—or even something entirely new—are never able to permanently change who wins the game. So the net result is this: now, everyone plays Moneyball. The big boys are solidly back in charge, in both politics and baseball. It’s just too bad that in politics we are talking about something far more serious than a game.
(I know that this is an imperfect analogy—hell, the Cards and the Rangers are in the Series this year, not the Yankees or the Sox. But here I think trends matter, not outliers, and so does this: the Cards and Rangers have the 11th and 13th most expensive payroll in MLB, respectively.)
I love politics and I love baseball. Both give me great pleasure—I marvel at a good campaign ad the same way I marvel at an amazing play at the plate. Yet the more I’ve learned about both, I’ve learned that things aren’t always what they seem. Both a business, both corrupted by money, and too often both result in the same candidates getting elected or the same teams winning. I still enjoy each, but I am wistful for days that may never have actually existed, the days when politics and baseball were less about money and data and more about instinct and honorable gamesmanship. Maybe I’ll just go back to watching it through the prism of the old-timers. It’s more fun that way.
Thanks for reading.