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Michael Lewis Visits Athletics Nation: Part One

He's the author we have all come to love. He gave a national spotlight and prominence to the team we follow like a religion. He gave us our good book.

And now, Michael Lewis took a break from his newest book to speak to me. He looks forward to the new book, reflects back on the impact of Moneyball and gives a passing thought to the infamous Joe Morgan.

Without further ado, my conversation with Moneyball author Michael Lewis:

Blez: Hi Michael, I wanted to interview you for my site because I'd seen some rumors around the Internet that you were working on a follow-up to Moneyball. So is there any truth to that rumor?

ML: You know when I sold Moneyball, I sold it in two books. And I decided it was a book after the draft of 2002. So when I decided it was a book, I thought that I would really want to know what happened to these kids. And so I've been marinating in minor league baseball for the two years. It's a different kind of book so I anticipate it taking another two or three seasons before I'm even ready to write it. I'm just gathering string right now. The players really need to work out their fates before I can sit down to write about them.

Blez: That makes a lot of sense.

ML: It takes them so long. So I am working on it. I'm doing other stuff at the same time, but I am doing that. It's tentatively scheduled to be published in 2007. I wouldn't bet money on that happening.

Blez: Do you have a title for it?

ML: Underdogs.

Blez: Great name.

ML: As I say, it was conceived the moment that Moneyball was conceived. They're twins. It wasn't something I thought of doing after I published Moneyball. When I got into it, the funny thing was that I was really worried that I didn't have the stuff to do Moneyball. I was really confident that I was going to have the stuff to do the second book, but I didn't know how the first book was going to look. In a way, I remember thinking as I was working on Moneyball that the only reason I'm writing this piece is so that I can get to the second one.

Blez: Well, you turned out a heck of a piece for someone that just wanted to get to the next one.

ML: Yeah, but that was the spirit in which the whole project was conceived. I really did think, "God I really do want to write that second book. But I can't write that second book unless I write the first book first."

Blez: So you had a good idea going into writing that first book that a good portion of it was going to be about the drafting philosophy of the A's?

ML: I didn't know quite how much, but I did know that there was at least one long scene set in the draft of 2002. It just ended up running longer than I thought it was going to run. I knew that was interesting and was going to be a part of Moneyball because they were just getting real conviction in the front office about what they were doing in the draft. They had sort of dabbled in the draft in previous years. They had more or less taken control of the top draft choices where they were spending a lot of money. But they hadn't said, "Here is a list of the hitters we're going to take and here is a list of the pitchers." They hadn't gone that far. When I walked in, they were beginning to feel much more confident about imposing their theories. And 2002 was really a watershed for them, when they said, "Screw it, even if this doesn't work, it can't be that much worse than what we're doing. And so let's try this." I thought that it would be sort of neat and that it would be a part of what I was writing, I just didn't know how much.

Blez: When you became a part of the draft room, was it something that naturally evolved to them getting used to your presence? Sort of like reality TV stars getting used to a camera person being in their face all the time?

ML: I had been badgering them for two and a half months before that. So I'd developed an extended conversation with Billy Beane about what he was up to, and Paul DePodesta. By that point in the season, it wasn't that weird for me to be there because I'd been hanging around so much. I'd met a couple of the senior scouts and been to minor league games with Billy and scouting trips with Paul. So I don't think they thought twice about who I was and what I was doing. I was just another guy in the room and it was jammed. There was 40 people there so I don't think anyone really paid much attention to me.

Blez: Were you interested in baseball prior to the book proposal? I had thought some of your natural interest in the A's had come from the corporate world and how they were conducting business differently to be successful.

ML: The dirty little truth is that I used the connection of something I'd written a lot about, which is Wall Street and the way that markets work or don't work as an excuse to write about baseball. I don't want to be too clear about this because the truth is ambiguous. It is true that I didn't know that I had a book until I had framed it in terms of the market working or not working, the market being baseball players and how it was changing and how people were thinking about it. Theories on Wall Street were now being applied to human beings. That's really when I realized that there was a big story here. Having said that, I didn't start by saying, I want to write a market/financial-like book. I started by saying, I kind of want to write a little piece about baseball and I'd been curious about this thing going on in Oakland. I paid enough attention to notice that how well they were doing with their money was bizarre. In a properly functioning market, a team with such a severe financial disadvantage shouldn't be able to win so many games. But as for my baseball background, I wasn't interested the way, say Bill James was interested. I wasn't an obsessive. It had been a very important part of my youth. I'd played through my freshman year in college. I played summer ball after my freshman year and gotten very badly hurt playing after my freshman year. But I always felt cheated out of a longer career. I didn't think I was going to play professional ball, but I thought I'd been cheated out of an extra three years.

Blez: What happened to you?

ML: I was a pitcher. I was sliding into second base. I was playing American Legion ball. The team was so bad, they let me hit, which I didn't usually do. I slid into second base and the hole under the base where the base was planted. The gap was still there and my toe went under the base and I popped up after the slide. I ripped everything in my ankle and while my ankle ballooned, like an idiot, I pitched on it. I couldn't walk properly for almost a year, so I just stopped. It was my landing foot, so I couldn't pitch. I was having a good time in college, so I just sort of said, oh well. But then my senior year I remember feeling really sad that I had not been able to continue to play. After that, I didn't follow it that closely because I moved nine months after I graduated college. I moved to London for eight years and this is before it was really easy to get American baseball games on British television. So I was just cut off from it all and didn't pay any attention to it. I was a casual fan who had a history with the game. I wrote something three months ago for New York Magazine. I actually had my old baseball coach on the cover of the magazine.

Blez: I didn't see it, but I did see your Sports Illustrated piece about Moneyball.

ML: The piece for the Magazine was about my high school baseball coach who is still coaching. He's just a fabulous coach and they made him the cover story. I wrote a bit of that story. I had a natural interest in the game, but not the kind of interest that maybe a lot of the people that you hang out with have.

(Laughter ensues)

ML: (Still laughing)...Now I do though. It's a tar-baby. Once you engage with it, it's tough to disengage.

Blez: That's funny that you say that because growing up I was a real big hockey fan and I wasn't all that into baseball, and it wound up being the A's that drew me in and hasn't let go since.

ML: There's a good reason for that. There's a reason to root for this team. That's what is so fun about it. That whenever this team takes the field, it's not just a baseball game, it's a war of ideas. That's kind of neat. That does happen in sports, but not often.

Blez: Do you think that Moneyball in some senses, I don't want to say started that war, but in a lot of ways it did because it brought it to the mass public's consciousness?

ML: There were glowing embers there and the book tossed a can of gasoline on it. That is basically what happened, I think. Billy Beane was already experiencing friction within the game. Largely because he had done pretty well in some trades, but there was a sense that he was doing things a little differently. And people focused on what they could see, which was that they didn't steal bases and they didn't sacrifice bunt. I think word got out a bit that Oakland's front office was a bit more heavy-handed than other front offices and that they were controlling things that the manager would normally control and that the scouting director would control.

Blez: Like on-the-field decisions?

ML: Yes and that is, of course, heresy. And it pisses off all the old baseball guys because the managers, they want that power. They want that prestige and they can't imagine ceding any of it to a suit. There were already some little signs of friction, but the book clearly created a mess. I've always thought that it wasn't going to end really sweetly. The nature of these sorts of things, I mean. History is not kind in this sense. The revolutions tend to consume the revolutionaries. And how they do it is different in each case, but I've always kind of thought that this was a good moment for Billy, for Paul, for David Forst, for the book, but I wouldn't be surprised if the story evolves and there is more of them together in the future. One scenario, the ideas in the book that were spawned in the book-- actually the front office never invented these ideas, they just kind of seized on them. The Bill James stuff, these ideas will become so commonplace that so many baseball teams will be run this way. The attitude towards these people in this book, we know what that is already: "What's this book and who are these people claiming to have known something that we already use?" I wouldn't be surprised to see that kind of thing happen.

Blez: That brings me to a very relevant point about the book. If a team like the Boston Red Sox that has $120 million to play with gets into the same general philosophy that the A's are imploring, does that automatically put the Red Sox two or three steps ahead?

ML: No question about it. The Red Sox will be a better team than the A's for years to come. Thank God the playoffs are a crapshoot. There is room for both of them in the playoffs and anything can happen in the playoffs. Yes the market is moving now. It's moved quite a bit since I was in the front office. There aren't the same inefficiencies that there were before. There are still inefficiencies, but it's just that it's getting more efficient, so it's getting harder and harder for Oakland to operate. You can see it in the way they build the team, from stressing the high on-base percentage guys to not being bad this way now. There's a lot of noise out there now about how they've sort of abandoned the on-base percentage philosophy in favor of pitching and defense, but if you look at the Oakland offense this year and factor in the ballpark, it's actually a good offense. It's not a great offense. But if you take money into account, it is a great offense for the cost. If you factor in the extreme pitcher's park that these guys have to hit in and the money that's spent on them, it's pretty damn good still. It is true that a little before the time I showed up, they were already seeing the market for on-base percentage change, so they couldn't go snap up the same players. Scott Hatteberg wouldn't be available to them now for example. Jason Giambi coming out of the draft would've probably been more coveted. But they were already saying the next game for them was measuring defense better. I don't know this for a fact, but I think that's what they think they are doing.

Blez: I would tend to agree with you because the front office has alluded to the importance of the defense in some newspaper articles.

ML: Yes and it's a natural question to ask, why was it so devastating to Billy Beane that Mark Ellis got hurt? Even now, he sort of mourns the season loss of Ellis. Even taking into account the offensive production of Scutaro which is surprisingly good, and you could even say better than Ellis's. It's because the way they measured Ellis's defense, that defense was extremely valuable. And while Scutaro has, I think I saw on television the other day, committed the fewest numbers of errors of any second baseman in baseball, he just doesn't have the same range and he just doesn't get to some of the balls that Ellis would get to.

Blez: Which is obviously very important with the ground ball staff Billy's assembled.

ML: Exactly right. They built a ground ball staff and if you have Crosby and Ellis in there, you probably have the tightest infield groundball defense in the American League or at least one of the top ones.

Blez: Do you think Crosby is that good defensively?

ML: They think he's really good. They were very comfortable with it. And it would've been really fun to watch Ellis and Crosby grow up together as a double play combination. But what's also happened this year is the outfield defense has excelled. Part of this is luck because Jermaine Dye has come back in a way that you just couldn't predict. But the outfield defense is the best it's been since I've been paying attention to them. With Kotsay, Dye and Byrnes in left, the range is...I mean all of sudden they are running down a lot of fly balls. It's really very damning about Zito's year. To have that ERA and to be a flyball pitcher with the best outfield defense you've ever had behind you, it's very damning of where he is. In any case, the broader issue, as I was talking about the revolution consuming the revolutionaries, no matter how much I, as the writer, say about the book and try to explain to people that haven't read it or misinterpreted it what the book is trying to say and do: the noise against the book inside baseball is so loud and so persistent that there is no way I can drown it out.

Blez: How do you think that noise has affected Billy personally? Have you ever had a conversation with him about it?

ML: We talk about it all the time. I honestly think that after a period of being a little unsettled by just how noisy the response was, and it was very, very noisy, that Billy had started to build a new kind of strength. I think he has an attitude now of just, "Fuck `em." He's indestructible now, and it didn't kill him it only made him stronger. He's liberated from his clippings. This isn't to say that he isn't capable of getting irritated by them, but he really doesn't care what people think anymore, and I'm not really sure he ever did that much. But he just sort of discovered this strength within himself that he is capable of dealing with this and moving on. He's told me he finds it very liberating. And just judging from his behavior and attitude, I'd say that is true. Coupled with that is that it's also been empowering in a different way for him. There is a social power to the book. The reason that baseball was so noisy about it was that it managed to build a bridge between baseball culture and the larger culture. It drew in all kinds of people who would pay casual, if any kind of attention, to baseball. People were reading this and saying, "God this applies to my business and how come the other baseball teams are managed so stupidly." All of a sudden, the owner or the manager has his buddies asking him, "What the hell were you doing there, Fred?" It creates a pressure on baseball from outside of baseball. That has been greatly to Billy's benefit because he's now well known in corporate America whereas no one really knew him before outside of baseball. There have been benefits to him because in some ways it has liberated him from baseball. It's funny because baseball trapped Billy the minute he was talked into not going to Stanford. He was sort of rendered unfit for anything but baseball. It was going to be very hard for him after several years of bouncing around in the minors and the major leagues to go find a job outside of baseball that he would find challenging and interesting. Typically that person spends their life trapped in baseball, which could be an explanation for the behavior of some of the people in baseball. They're completely dependent on the culture. They can't break from the pack because it's too risky and there is nothing else they can do. Billy began to sense, even before I met him, there are other things he could do if he had to. But now that the book has come out, if he wanted to go be a venture capitalist tomorrow, there would be people who would hire him.

Blez: Speaking of people who are fearful of breaking from the pack and baseball being all that they know, what are your feelings about Joe Morgan at this point? I don't think anyone has been a louder, more public voice that won't let go of the book and criticism of Billy and the A's. He seems to have a lot of problems with Billy Beane and the book and new thought in general.

ML: I don't know what to say about that. He says lots of stupid things on the television set. He seems lazy and foolish to me. But on the other hand, he's not completely without merit as an announcer. There are times when he is actually interesting about some things and one doesn't want to give him too little credit. God knows where he is coming from, so I'd hate to explain his motive, but I'd just say he's not a very persuasive character to me. You can't write for a living without creating enemies. Or at least enemies of the things you've written. And I've sort of winced at some of my enemies, saying, "Oh God having that person as an enemy isn't good because whatever he says next could be dangerous." I don't feel that way about Joe Morgan. I actually feel very pleased that Joe Morgan is an enemy of the book. With enemies like that, who needs friends? It's hard for me to get upset about it.

Coming up after the Toronto game on Tuesday...back to Underdogs and what the key is for our Athletics to stay competitive in a baseball environment that is quickly adopting many of their evaluation methods.