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BRONX BANTER INTERVIEW: MICHAEL LEWIS
2003-07-28 08:26
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

BRONX BANTER INTERVIEW: MICHAEL LEWIS

STRAIGHT, NO CHASER

The author of "Moneyball" was in Boston to throw out the first pitch last Friday night. (David Halberstam, eat your heart out.) A week earlier, Lewis was in New York, putting the finishing touches on the press tour for his latest best-seller. He took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with Bronx Banter. Here is our conversation:

Bronx Banter: Have you sold the movie rights to "Moneyball" yet?

Michael Lewis: I didn't have much hope that anyone would buy them. Because I can't really see how you could make it into a movie---a good movie, anyway. What happens is, if somebody bought it for the movies, you'd have to create some sort of female role. They would just have to. You just have to twist so much. Having seen "Liar's Poker" get bought for a lot of money, and then completely mangled in the creation of the script, and eventually never getting made. If they can't make that, I can't imagine how they can make this. There have been, oddly enough, some feelers from people who say they want to buy the rights. A lot of things sell, that shouldn't sell, accidentally. That might happen, but I'd be really surprised if it ever became a movie.

BB: It's tough too, because baseball movies are notoriously bad.

ML: Yeah, that's right.

BB: The Billy Beane characterization is the dramatic structure for a movie treatment. It might have to be a very male movie, but so be it. It could be a classic, and I think I got the feel for it when I read the book.

ML: The hope for it as a movie would be having very few baseball scenes. And lots of scenes of Billy in his office.

BB: The greatest sin of baseball moviemaking is that the sport has never properly been captured on the screen. Football was lucky; NFL Films was the best thing that ever happened to that sport. Most action shots in baseball movies are static, shot in super slow mo. You get close-ups and super close-ups. It's terrible. You never feel the vast amount of space and isolation that exists on a baseball field. It doesn't seem like it would take a real genius to figure this out, but there it is. As a visceral subject¡ªwhich are what movies are all about---baseball is still an unpolished pearl. But imagine the comedy you can find in Ron Washington going through infield drills with the butchers they send through. The scout stuff is a cinch for great machismo movie melodrama.

ML: That scene would work as a movie. I agree. And it would work having these misshapen oddities that show up. Ron Washington would be a wonderful movie character: a guy who is hired to be the third base and infield coach of a team that won't waste money on foot speed or fielding skills. This beleaguered, veteran guy. I can see that, but what I can't see is the narrative thread. I don't know exactly how you'd do that.

BB: It's about a personality tour de force, surrounded by a very strong supporting cast of characters. It's about Beane being one kind of player as a kid, and eventually becoming a man as a general manager who is obsessed with signing players who are his exact opposite.

ML: There you go. But how would you end it? Maybe you wouldn't have to. I used the 2002 A's season as a very loose narrative frame. Which was, from the point of view of making a movie, unremarkable.

BB: Yeah, you'd have to make the anti-baseball movie, baseball movie.

ML: You would have to do that. I'd say the only good baseball movie I have ever seen is "Bull Durham."

BB: I got another one for you, and I actually think it's the only other really good one. "The Bad News Bears."

ML: Oh, there you go. That is a good baseball movie. "The Natural" was horrible.

BB: You want to think movies like "Band the Drum Slowly," and "Bingo Long¡¦" is better than they really are, but they're lousy. Even "Eight Men Out," which had a lot of good things going for it, wasn't really a good movie.

ML: Yeah, it was ok. So I don't have any plans to make "Moneyball" into a movie. If somebody wants to call and give me money, I'll take it. That's sort of how I feel about it.

BB: You've been promoting your book "Moneyball" for the past few months. Has the publicity tour been different from your previous experiences promoting your work?

ML: Ah, no. There have been very slight differences; it's disturbingly the same. If the publisher had been a little more innovative, I would maybe follow the A's around, and just go to the ballparks, and talk to the reporters at the ballpark. But we didn't do that. We did a very conventional promotional tour, and it was maybe a couple of extra cities. Even then, I think I've had tours that were even bigger than this one [has been]. So no. It's fifteen, sixteen, seventeen cities. The tour itself last about four weeks. And then I stopped. Now, I'm coming to do a couple of more things this week, and then I'm completely done. I promised them I'd come back to New York for a couple of days, so I'm here now, doing that. But that's normal for a book tour. I mean book tours are like¡¦running for president. You land, there's a handler. You're taken to three or four radio shows, a TV show or two; you give a talk at night, maybe one in the middle of the day. And then you go to bed and you do the same thing the next day, somewhere else. That has been no different from the other books. But the only difference is that I'm doing sports media [now]. And I've never done that before. Every city seems to have six radio shows that do nothing but gab about sports. And that was a new experience for me.

BB: Who was the target audience for the book?

ML: There wasn't one. We didn't sit around and say, ¡®Who's going to buy this?' Actually, I'm the wrong person to ask. It's possible my publisher did. But I didn't think about it. I can tell you who has bought it. Broadly. There is a whole---as you must know---subculture of baseball---

BB: Nerds.

ML: --Nuts. They bought it. There is the whole world of Wall Street. The people who read "Liar's Poker." They bought it in a big way. I don't know how many copies we've sold to people who work in baseball, basketball, football, but we do seem to have sold quite a few. To people who are actually in the sports business. Agents, scouts, people in the organizations. So that's an audience. But a lot of business people seem to be reading it.

BB: One of the things I liked about it is that you made very definite narrative choices. It seemed broader than an insider baseball book. It wasn't just written for the baseball nut, it has a wider appeal.

ML: That's because I'm not a baseball nut. So I wouldn't be interested in it if it was just a baseball nut subject, that's right. I just thought it was a great story. I'll tell you who is not reading it: women. My sense is that 95 out of every hundred readers are male. There have been very few responses from women; lots and lots of responses from guys. I was in Chicago yesterday and I had dinner with an economist named Richard Thaler, do you know who he is? He essentially invented the field of behavioral economics. Those economists start with the assumption that people aren't rational. As opposed to are. He's at the Business School of Chicago. And he found himself in an argument about the book with one of the economists who believe that people are rational. He said it was being heavily read there. So academics. Maybe academics are reading it, to.

BB: What interested me are the dramatic choices you made in the book. You kept the focus, sharp and exact, with no fat. You know, for many baseball nuts, the book could have been 200 pages longer, and they would have been perfectly happy.

ML: And you know how many people would have been unhappy? Including me.

BB: I think it's funny that the criticism against the book was aimed at Beane, when it's not just a book about Billy Beane.

ML: It's still going on. You see the Joe Morgan columns?

BB: He's such a dope as an analyst. There are guys who make a regular habit of busting his chops in the baseball blogging world.

ML: But I have the impression that he thinks of himself as a great success as an analyst. He seems to be oblivious to the kind of criticism that you hear from any thoughtful person who has listened to him. But he wrote a couple of columns where he said Billy Beane shouldn't have written this book. That kind of stuff. But there has been a lot of that kind of stuff, I agree. There have been also a lot of people who have been hostile to a section of the book and after, admitted that they hadn't read it. They are hostile to the idea of it, and I can understand that.

BB: Most of what people criticized about the book was the portrait of Beane as a big, egomaniacal schmuck. But I always got the impression that Beane is a shrewd guy who is smart enough to surround himself with very talented people.

ML: I agree with that. I think what happened was, people mistook the reaction to the book. People in baseball thought he was arrogant because he had a book written about himself. That is where the charge of arrogance is coming from, and it's bizarre. All of it---whether they think he wrote it or not¡ªis prefaced on the idea that he somehow orchestrated this thing. Which could not be further from the truth. This thing happened in spite of him not because of him.

BB: Is it just jealousy?

ML: That would surprise me. I would think it's more that. This is a very sensitive environment, because a lot of guys sense they don't know exactly what they are doing. A lot of people are aware that there is this organization [the A's] that has been doing a lot more with less money than their organization. How bad does that look? Is there a good reason why they are doing better for less money? It's not just luck. It can't just be swept away with a wave of a hand. All of a sudden, it's very damning and very threatening. This explains the hostility of GMs. The hostility of the scouts is obvious enough. They need to channel that into something, but instead of picking an argument with the book¡ªwhich would be very dangerous¡ªand me, who can answer back in print and have a lot of fun doing it. If they can make it seem like this is some arrogant asshole GMs doing; I think it is their attempt to mute the message of the book. It may not be so conscious as that, but I think that's where it's coming from. They are trying to mute the message of the book.

BB: Have you read any of the write-ups on your book in the blogging world?

ML: I don't go on and read---I know there have been long threads on the various websites about the book, but I haven't gone on and read any of that.

BB: For a lot of the super stat nerds, this book is like the Torah. It's had a real impact.

ML: It's funny. I could understand as I was writing it, that would be somewhat unsatisfying to a hardcore stats nerd because all he wants in the statistical secrets of the Oakland A's, and he wants them in a cold-blooded fashion. He doesn't want a story. The truth is, I wasn't ever going to get all of the secrets. I got some of the secrets, probably the most important ones, but there is still stuff I didn't get. The other thing the stats geek wants me to do is dismantle whatever fallacies they might have. And I had no interest in doing that. I just wanted to give the reader a view of what they were doing. I didn't want to say, ¡®It makes no sense that on base percentage is three times better than slugging percentage¡¦' I didn't have any particular interest in sifting through the minutia of the A's statistical arguments. I thought the big point, is that they are even making them. If they are wrong, and it's really only two-and-a-half times slugging, then who really gives a shit? I mean I give a shit sort of, but not really. The point is, the A's are thinking rationally and analytically about it. We can argue about the finer details, but I didn't care to do that. I knew when I was writing it that there would be a feeling with the hardcore baseball fan that they were being lead to the alter. It would miss the point too heavily to focus on just those arguments. These are people that basically embrace the same worldview, and they are arguing amongst themselves, in a language they can understand.

BB: There was an article on Bill James in The New Yorker a few weeks ago and James said one of the frustrating parts of working for the Sox is that he's discovering all this new knowledge and he can't share it with his public. When did you first read Bill James?

ML: Not until I saw his books on Billy Beane's bookshelf. I had never even heard of him. There was a long row of the old Abstracts in his office, and I said, ¡®What's that?' I took them away. I actually took them away, and I kept them for about six months.

BB: Who were some of the characters that didn't make it into the book, or got cut down drastically? I would have loved to had more of Sandy Alderson.

ML: That's not a bad example; I could have gone farther into him. Well, Tim Hudson ended up on the cutting room floor. For a very specific reason. Zito got left on the cutting room floor too, but I was less interested in Zito than Hudson. And they were both very available. I could have really gone places with them as characters, but I decided very early on¡ªor more like in the middle of [writing] it--- that I wanted the reader to encounter players that the reader didn't know were valuable. I wanted the reader to have the experience of undervaluing. While it is true both Zito, and especially Hudson, had been very badly undervalued in their youth, they are now such established stars that you don't get that experience with them. If Sports Illustrated came to me and said, ¡®Okay, let's look at the outtakes and see if we can make a couple of magazine pieces out of this. What would you like to do?' First I would say, let me do a profile of Ron Washington. He's just so funny. Without meaning to be funny. He's one of the funniest people I have ever run across. And he's in such a funny predicament. I would put Ron Washington on the cover of Sports Illustrated. "The Unluckiest Coach in Baseball." Hudson would be the second one. I did quite a bit of reporting outside the A's organization with other ball clubs, and that all ended up on the cutting room floor. I spent quite a bit of time with the Toronto Blue Jays, some time with the Red Sox, some time down with the Rangers. As discreet pieces of writing, I would have loved to write about Tom Hicks. I would have loved to write about J.P. Riccardi, and what he was doing in Toronto, and I would have loved to write about John Henry. I had a whole chapter that I wrote about the Blue Jays, and I just dropped it. It just didn't work in the story, so I dropped it and left it all behind.

BB: The story is the thing. What I like about the book is the choices that you make are confident and assertive.

ML: There are some ruthless decisions that have to be made. It's more than the story is the thing. The story has got a point to it, and the story and the point rub along together and you don't want to distract from it. I had this other body of material that is entertaining, that's colorful, that works on its own, but the thing had a momentum to it, and I felt that every time we left the Oakland A's the story lost some of that momentum. And I didn't think I could add anything to the point I was trying to make. It wasn't so frustrating because I was wed to the story I was telling. I was very happy with that. But there were times where I was like, ¡®Shit, I'm sorry I've got to lose this, but I've got to lose it.'

BB: The A's are all about finding efficiencies and you have to find efficiencies in writing as well.

ML: You do, you really do. I think there is a power to narrative, in that you have an almost economic relationship with the reader, in that they pick up a book, and it's a story. And in the first 50 pages, they become invested in the story. They become partners in the story, in a funny way. If they feel confident in your ability to manage the story, they'll go all sorts of places with you that they wouldn't otherwise go. But if you abuse that trust, you are in real trouble. So I always feel that decisions have to be made in the interest of the story. They are sometimes ruthless decisions but it's all in the interest of being able to take the reader someplace that he can't believe he'd go. I've had a lot of people tell me, ¡®I can't believe I read all this shit about statistics and Bill James.' Then, to get them to read about Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford.

BB: I love how chatty Scott Hatteberg is, and how conversational first base is as a position. It got me to thinking that all first basemen must be some of the best talkers in baseball.

ML: If they are not, they are wasting an opportunity. He actually is made to be on first base. He is unlike a professional baseball player in his conversational abilities. He is a delight to talk to

BB: Did you find that the players ranged from gregarious to mute?

ML: Some of them were almost monosyllabic. I would hate to have to write about Eric Chavez. Miguel Tejada would be a delightful subject if you spoke Spanish. Some of them were easy to draw out. Corey Lidle: very easy to draw out, very easy to talk to. Hudson. I could develop a relationship, a conversational relationship with them. Then there are some of them like Chavez¡¦

BB: He looks burnt to me.

ML He's just so insecure. This horrible combination of cocky and insecure. He's cocky because it's a front. I always felt kind of embarrassed for him, talking to him. He didn't know what to think about anything actually. He would cover up by being rude and gruff. I just didn't have time for it. Mulder. Mulder is vacant. There is nothing there. He's like a beautiful woman who has never had to think. I would hate to have to write about Mulder in a way that required me to actually tease quotes out of him. Or anything from him. I talked to all of these people, and some of them were better than others, but there were plenty of them that were good.

BB: Hudson just looks like he's got personality. He's so poised.

ML: He's the leader of the team. There is no question. I'll tell you a story. When they lost to the Twins in the playoffs last year, the next morning there was supposed to be media availability from 9-11 in the clubhouse. All of the players came, got all of their crap, and left by 8:30 in the morning. The place was vacant when the press showed up to ask questions. The only one there was Tim Hudson. And Scott Hatteberg. But Scott Hatteburg had had a great series. But Tim Hudson, who essentially fucked up the whole thing, sat there and answered everyone's questions. That's the kind of leader Hudson is.

BB: Why didn't Billy Beane take the Boston job?

ML: In the book I don't explain why he didn't go; I explain why he even entertained it in the first place. He wanted the validation. Why he didn't go? I think his daughter had a lot to do with it. I think that he almost breaks out in hives when he's in an east coast city. I mean, he doesn't own a suit. Being in a more corporate, conservative, or business-like environment makes him uncomfortable. I think that the Red Sox job is actually a really shitty job right now. Because you've got this organization that looks to the fans and the media like, ¡®Oh, we could win a World Series this year,' but in fact, the minor league system's bankrupt. Four of your stars' contracts are coming up after next season. To do it right, what they need to do is rebuild. Not to max out right away at the major league level, but actually take a longer view. And that is such a bad environment to try and take a longer view because everybody wants it now.

BB: It's like trying to rebuild in New York.

ML: Boston is insane though. They haven't won it since 1918, you'd think they could put up with someone who came in and had a plan. But they can't. So I think Beane saw that. In addition I think he understands that the opportunity cost of making a decision is that he would have been locked up for five years in Boston, and who knows what's going to come down the pike. Whereas I think he feels he can walk out of his contract in Oakland any day if something comes up.

BB: Do you think Beane is going to run into difficulties when Paul DePodesta eventually leaves Oakland and takes a GM job himself?

ML: Yes. Yes, I do. I think Paul is extremely valuable. Having said that, I think Paul might have some trouble adjusting to a job of his own. I think they are more valuable---I think they know this too---much more valuable together than they are apart.

BB: Do you like baseball more after writing the book?

ML: I get too invested in how the book is doing right when it comes out. Then I'll just forget about it. In three months I'll have forgotten about it. But right now¡¦every week the publisher calls and tells me where it is on the best-seller list and how many copies are selling and all that stuff. It's impossible for me not to get engaged. So, it's ruining the baseball season for me because every game becomes, ¡®How does it affect "Moneyball"?' If the A's lose, it ruins my night. If the Mariners win, it ruins my night.

BB: Now you sound like a real baseball fan.

ML: Almost any game can arguably have some effect on how "Moneyball" is perceived. When the Blue Jays lose, I get upset. And when the Red Sox lose to the Yankees, I get upset. So I'm actually, not enjoying it right now. But I will go back to enjoying it next year.

BB: There is still a lot of time left this season for things to turn your way. Will you write an additional chapter for the paperback edition?

ML: I think there's a chance that I'm going to write a response to the critics. It wouldn't be exactly that. It would be a piece making observations about the reaction. It would include a discussion about sports writing and the state of sports writing. Baseball writing. It's curious the way baseball writers are. It's curious to me that Joe Morgan can write pieces saying that Billy Beane wrote the book, and nobody says anything. It's just weird. In a way, the response to the book has explained why all these inefficiencies existed in the first place. I might do that, if I have the energy. But my inclination is to move on. The pleasure of the book is largely in doing it. It's done. And now, I'm going to write a sequel to the book. Which is going to take me six years to do, and the sequel is going to be about what happens to the kids they drafted. I am following them through the minor leagues. Traveling on the buses with them and all that other stuff.

BB: So you are sticking to baseball for now?

ML: Well, that won't be published for six or seven years. I really want to see what happens to them. I'll do other things in between, but I am going to do another baseball book.

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