Sports in Books: Moneyball

October 23, 2011

Bill James by Paul Hoppe

When a book changes its subject, that book becomes a messy subject for review, particularly as time and influence pile on.  With that, and sportsvssports substitution of tangent for style in mind, this post will attempt to disregard Moneyball as historical artifact.  It is the pivotal document in which a sabermetric approach to baseball management was introduced to the public.  This post is about whether or not you want to read it.

Moneyball is a drama in four parts.  The first is a compelling tragedy of failed promise.  Billy Beane is tragically too smart for his own good.  Later plot twists reveal that this was never actually the case, and the exposure of the real reason unfolds like a darkly comic mystery.  The characters tend to be fairly funny on their own, so author Michael Lewis lets them speak for themselves to positive effect.  The rest of the writing is good; even by the standards of non-sports books.

“James was forever moaning about the paucity of information kept by major league baseball teams.” (82)

When the topic turns to the development of new statistics by amateurs, Moneyball does not become either slower or dryer, again due to the deft technical construction of Lewis, and because he knows when to let Bill James, a sort of ‘enfant terrible’ of fantasy sports nerds, do the talking.  While the outcomes are known all along by the reader, Moneyball maintains its dramatic tension by making a character of the idea; Billy Beane and Bill James are presented as basically mentor and champion, the Merlin and Lancelot of the true King.  In this way the relation between the idea and the myriad baseball people influenced by it holds the reader to the travails of Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford.  When a memorable scene unfolds between Ron Washington, Ray Durham and Thad Bosley, the idea looms like another physical presence which ads irony to the scene.

“Ray’s now engaged.  He’s like an American tourist who has just discovered the German on the train next to him is a long-lost cousin.  ‘It’s different here, huh?’ he says.” (265)

It is the growth of the character which Lewis makes of the idea which gives Moneyball its appeal.  While Billy Beane sometimes has the appearance of an outsider taking on the world, he is the heir to a playoff team, while the idea is heir to nothing.  Moneyball is unusual for a non-fiction book, in that it takes place in a short space of time, involving people all in one country, while being about the survival of an idea.

People who can’t deal with baseball, and who know and care nothing for its mythology will not care.  People who can’t watch a baseball game will not have the patience for what is after all a baseball book.  People who play fantasy sports, or baseball, or ever wished they were a GM, and still haven’t read it, should.  Moneyball is still enlightening, still interesting, and most importantly, still fun to read.


Sports in Books: Home and Away

January 24, 2011

Home and Away by Dave Bidini is a book about the Homeless World Cup of Soccer, which it turns out is a real thing.  It tells the tale of a group of Canadians travelling to Australia to participate in just what it sounds like, more or less.  The thing is, so many people around the world play soccer, that the Canadian side has a person with a past involving professional soccer, and they still aren’t good.  In this respect ‘the’ Team Canada and Homeless Team Canada are similar.

The book is written in the first person and Bidini participates, but he avoids being overbearing both as a side-character and a narrator, and it benefits from the sense of personal connection that this allows.  Indeed, identifying with the homeless players is the main conceit of ‘Home and Away,’ with the soccer tournament being important because it is important to them.  This gives it a different feel and narrative arc then sports books tend to have, even though the actual sports content (such as description of game play) is similar in amount.

This sports content is delivered in an unusual style, with the description often individuating and personalizing players, as opposed to the dominant convention of using description to glorify or mock, which maintains a distance reinforced by generalization.  As such ‘Home and Away’ will not inspire the reader the same way autobiographies of famous athletes overcoming their personal challenges might.  It is a story of triumphs and defeats, but with a scale more familiar to middle class people’s own experiences and so mostly foreign to our culture’s sports writing.  Trés Canadian.  It will win with Canadians, and with soccer fanatics and bleeding hearts, as well as those who are bit of both.