A copy of modern sports classic Moneyball sits on my bookshelf, four feet to my right. I have not read it, but will soon. I’ll tell you all about it. The timing of the production and release of the film adaptation has become interesting to me in recent days, for two reasons. Those things both signal the end of an era in Major League Baseball.
Apparently Brad Pitt made the movie happen. He told a television interviewer it’s about “re-thinking why we do what we do.” By bringing the story to the attention of mainstream mass media, Pitt is attempting to pass a development in the culture of professional baseball into the broader North American culture. This means he’s trying to sort of force-co-opt what in our culture becomes (if it wasn’t already in baseball) a subversive notion. The idea is that as time passes, the methods of conventional wisdom are eventually caught and surpassed by different methods, which were not available when the popular methods were adopted in the first place. I get the feeling Mr. Pitt refers to himself as ‘a progressive.’
This is interesting to me, in and of itself, sufficiently for me to begin a post about it, and then change my mind and leave off. Then the other shoe dropped, by which I mean the Boston Red Sox missed the playoffs and fired ‘Tito.’ Sure: The Red Sox are not a “Moneyball” team. When Francona took over in 2004, they had the second highest payroll in baseball to the Yankees. While they have traded around the top 5 with a few other teams since then, they have spent the second most on salary during his time. Epstein’s choice expenses, though, have long been “Moneyball” guys in at least some sense. They walk and have range in the field. They were overlooked (Pedroia), had difficult to quantify strengths (Varitek) or were ‘high upside risks’ (Daisuke). Perhaps as importantly as anything else, they were largely home grown. Hardly any regulars from either the ’04 or ’07 World Series Champion Red Sox had had star seasons previously with another team, except for the volatile misfit (Ol’ “Banned Substance” Ramirez) and Johnny Damon. Who else was a big-ticket acquisition? JD? The knuckleballer?
The man who made all of that work was Francona. Sure, they were hugely talented teams; but they took two big money sluggers and surrounded them with scrappiness and speed. The Boston Red Sox adapted the moneyball strategies to their situation, utilizing the stolen base while wearing out pitchers with endless at bats. Now that Francona has been let go, it is not because his trick stopped working, it is because now they are popular.
Not that Fancona will be easy to replace. The Red Sox failing, if it is not simply Carl Crawford and Jonathan Papelbon failing to get it together, is in General Manager Epstein’s department. The emphasis on a certain kind of starting pitching which has suited recent World Series finalists Tampa, Texas, Philadelphia and San Francisco has not been mirrored by Boston, and they had a team ERA nearly 6 in September. As Moneyball becomes the story of an outsider notion becoming mainstream, teams will continue to adapt. It remains to be seen if the Red Sox will do so. Maybe Epstein can find inspiration in cinema.