Oh, the curse!

David Runciman

  • Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball by Stephen Jay Gould
    Cape, 342 pp, £16.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 224 05042 7
  • Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
    Norton, 288 pp, US $24.95, June 2003, ISBN 0 393 05765 8

The 2003 baseball season – the regular season of 162 games that starts at the beginning of April and runs till the end of September – had its moments, as all baseball seasons do, but these little dramas took place against a backdrop of tiresome predictability. In the big-money American League East, for example, the teams finished the season in exactly the same order as they had finished the previous five (New York, Boston, Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa Bay). In the National League East, the ghastly Atlanta Braves (once owned by Ted Turner, now part of the AOL Time Warner empire) won their divisional title for a record 12th year in succession. By contrast, the 2003 post-season – the October sequence of play-offs between the best teams from the regular season that culminates in the World Series – was utterly spectacular, perhaps the most exciting single month of play in the sport’s history. All but one of the best-of-five or best-of-seven series went to the deciding game, and each was extraordinary. There were monstrous reversals of fortune, individual heroics, horrible errors, startling upsets, long nights of almost unbearable tension. And then, to cap it all, there were the curses.

Two professional baseball franchises are known to be cursed. One is the Chicago Cubs, playing out of beautiful, haunted Wrigley Field. In 1945 a local tavern owner called William Sianis was refused entry to a World Series game at Wrigley because he wanted to bring his goat with him (according to legend, the goat ‘smelt’, though this door policy has not always been consistently applied at baseball stadiums). Sianis chose to slaughter the animal instead, in order to curse the Cubs, whom he decreed would never play in another World Series. They never have. Yet they have never come as close as they did in 2003, when they got to within one game, leading their best-of-seven National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins 3-2, until, deep into the sixth game, with victory in sight, a ball that was heading safely into the glove of Cubs outfielder Moises Alou was knocked away by the glove of Steve Bartman (26, bespectacled), a fan who inexplicably leaned out of the stands to try to grab it. The batter who should have been caught went on to score, as did the seven who followed him, and the Marlins won the game easily, then won the next one, then defeated the Yankees in the final game of the World Series. Bartman was escorted from Wrigley Field under armed guard, given police protection at his apartment, and offered asylum in Jeb Bush’s sovereign state of Florida, before releasing a statement through his press people in which he apologised from the bottom of his broken heart for getting ‘caught up in the moment’. Somewhere in the background, a goat could be heard bleating softly. Oh, the curse!

By these standards, the other doomed team, the Boston Red Sox, got off relatively lightly. The Red Sox labour under the Curse of the Bambino, the result of a lapse of judgment by their owner Harry Frazee in 1920, when he sold his star pitcher, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees for $150,000. Before they sold Ruth, the Red Sox were one of the most successful teams in professional baseball, having won five World Series to the Yankees’ none. But Frazee needed the money to finance a Broadway show. The show flopped, but the Babe flourished, and since that fateful transaction, the Yankees have won 25 World Series to the Red Sox’s none. In 2003, the Red Sox got a rare opportunity to confront their demons in the American League Championship Series, when they faced the Yankees. Down 3-2 in the series, Boston won the sixth game in Yankee Stadium, keeping a slender lead in the final inning as a curious wind blew up, tossing around stray bits of paper and forcing the players to cling on to their caps (‘The Babe,’ the commentators on Fox TV announced portentously, ‘has just finished his hot dog’). In game seven, the Red Sox led 4-0, and 5-2, but the Yankees eventually tied it up, took it to extra innings, and then won it with a lead-off homer in the bottom of the 11th, smacked into the crowd by some guy they had recently acquired from Cincinatti called Aaron Boone. Afterwards, Boone told the press that Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ shortstop, a nice, inoffensive boy with cheekbones, the David Beckham of baseball, had promised him that ‘the ghosts would turn up eventually’.

The Red Sox were at least spared the indignity of having their misfortunes blamed on some hapless idiot whose glove happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But they have not always been so lucky. Until they win the World Series, and perhaps even when they do, Boston will be associated with the most celebrated personal fuck-up in the history of American sports – the ultimate ‘boner’, as it used to be called by baseball writers, or ‘blooper’, in the hideous euphemism of the TV age. In 1986, the Red Sox reached the bottom of the tenth inning of the sixth game of the World Series leading the New York Mets 5-3, and two outs away from the title. In Ken Burns’s wonderful documentary series Baseball, the NBC commentator Bob Costas describes being stationed in the Red Sox locker room as a little dais was being erected and preparations were made to spray the place with champagne to celebrate the lifting of the curse. But out on the field of Shea Stadium, a veteran first baseman with dodgy knees called Bill Buckner failed to pick up a simple ground ball as it dribbled between his legs, bending down, in the timeless phrase of one journalist, ‘like a man on the crapper trying to get to the telephone’. Ray Knight scored from third for the Mets, and downstairs in the Red Sox changing area Costas watched the staff unpeeling clingfilm from the lockers before the distraught players could see it. It goes without saying that the Red Sox lost game seven as well. Bill Buckner moved to Idaho. Oh, the curse!

Yet, as Stephen Jay Gould points out in an essay in this posthumous collection of his baseball writings, it was not Buckner’s fault that the Red Sox lost the Series. When Buckner made his mistake, Boston had already blown their lead (on a wild pitch, though almost no one remembers the name of the pitcher who threw it, Bob Stanley, or the catcher who missed it, Rich Geldman) and the game was tied. If Buckner had picked up the ball, the game would have gone to extra innings, giving someone else the chance to screw up. This was quickly forgotten in the mythology that grew up around Buckner’s Boner, the moment when one man’s knees cost an entire city the chance of redemption. Gould quotes various standard newspaper histories of the disaster, all of which baldly state that the Red Sox had been on the brink of winning the title when Buckner blew it. But the Red Sox had been on the brink of victory some time before Buckner blew it; when he so spectacularly failed to seize the moment they were merely on the brink of having to start all over again. However, this version – the true turn of events – does not make for such a satisfying tale of woe, and confuses the issue by suggesting that more than one person might have been to blame (Gould points out that the Red Sox manager, Joe McNamara, was as culpable as anyone, because he was well aware of Buckner’s bad knees, but chose not to follow his usual policy of substituting him towards the end of a game because he wanted Buckner to be on the field for the final moment of glory; how Buckner must have hated him for that, out in Idaho). The moral of the tale is that we are usually too keen to find the moral of the tale, and innocent people get hurt.

What Gould does not point out is the most obvious thing of all: that there is no curse. The Red Sox have certainly had their fair share of travails (although the seasons of near-misses have been far outnumbered by the years of nowhere-near), and some of these misfortunes can be traced back to their decision to dispense with the services of Babe Ruth. But it was not the baseball gods who punished them for this folly: it was the cruel logic of professional sport, in which success follows success, and failure breeds failure, and money makes more money, and the winner sometimes takes all. The Yankees got lucky with the signing of Ruth, but more significant was the solid use they made of their luck to build a lucrative franchise around him (their stadium in the Bronx is still known as the House that Ruth Built). They turned Babe Ruth from a pitcher into a hitter, and he turned hitting from a gritty science into a beautiful art, belting colossal home runs, then tiptoeing round the bases with his huge belly and his tiny ankles, grinning shyly at the crowd – part warthog, part ballerina, all fun. The clout Ruth gave the Yankees on and off the field was what made them big enough to survive their own runs of misfortune, always able to fund a hefty payroll for long enough to bounce back. The Red Sox have never quite been able to compete, though in trying they have sometimes overextended themselves financially, which only makes it worse. In this sense, they have been no more cursed by selling Ruth than Leeds United have been cursed by their decision to sell Eric Cantona to Manchester United in 1992. It is true that until Cantona crossed the Pennines, Manchester United had not won the league title for more than a quarter of a century, while Leeds had won it the previous season; it is also true that in the years since, Manchester United have won the title every season bar three, while Leeds have won nothing, and are now staring at relegation and possible bankruptcy. If they survive, Leeds may have to go as long as the Red Sox, or longer, before they recapture their glory years, because the gravy train has now left without them. But that is the point. The transparency of what has happened to Leeds United – handing an advantage to their arch-rivals, followed by a few years of decline as they buried their heads in the sand pretending it hadn’t happened, followed by a few years of reckless overspending as they desperately tried to catch up, followed by ruin – shows that it is not bad karma that brought about their misfortunes, just very bad business. Meanwhile, Manchester United, whose owners tried to sell the club at the end of the 1980s for £20 million, are currently worth more than thirty times that much, more even than the Yankees themselves. The success of United in the 1990s, like the success of the Yankees in the 1920s, was part symptom, part cause of an explosion in the money-making potential of their respective sports. The teams that missed out were never going to feel very good about themselves, and are always liable to reach down a little tentatively when a glimpse of what might have been rolls by.

Gould is interested in hard facts, but he is also a sentimentalist, and he is not interested in facts like these. He wants to dispel some of the little myths that fans tell themselves about the fate of their teams, yet he is not interested in dispelling the big myths that swirl around baseball. So, alongside the debunking, there is quite a lot of rebunking in these essays, as he trots out many of the old stories that baseball fans love to hear. For example, in the essay on Buckner, he sets the scene by describing the Curse of the Bambino in the most conventional terms: since 1920, he writes, the Red Sox ‘have always lost in the most heartbreaking manner – by coming within an inch of the finish line and then self-destructing’. He cites as evidence one of the most famous of all baseball images, the moment at the end of game six of the 1975 World Series, when ‘Carlton Fisk managed to overcome the laws of physics by body English’ – he swung his arms at the ball after he had hit it, trying to drag it back into play – ‘and caused a ball that he had clearly hit out of bounds to curve into the left-field foul pole for a home run.’ Outrageous! Fisk was playing for the Red Sox at the time, however, and this outrageous piece of fortune won them the game. True, the Red Sox then lost game seven, but it’s a bit too easy when both the good luck (look how the gods taunt us!) and the bad luck (look how the gods taunt us!) are cited as evidence that a team is cursed. Gould portrays himself repeatedly as a numbers man, a sceptic, one of the Harvard ‘pointyheads’ who like nothing better than to show that there is a perfectly rational explanation for some piece of baseball lore, and then draw up a graph to prove it. On the other hand, he writes about his favourite teams, and his favourite players, with the uncritical, starry-eyed innocence of a child. He insists that baseball should not be considered exempt from the cold reality of the laws of probability, but at moments of heightened emotion (and there are many) such thoughts go out of the window, for, as he says, ‘this is a church – and non-believers cannot know the spirit.’

Cod-religion interspersed with hard statistical analysis is appealing in small doses, but it grates after a while. Particularly wearing is Gould’s frequently restated adoration of Joe DiMaggio, against whom he will not hear a word. DiMaggio was a truly great baseball player, and a remarkable man, though by all accounts not an especially nice one. Anyone is entitled to discount the dark side of their hero’s character, but Gould wants us all to share in his sense that DiMaggio was a man apart, and he thinks he has the statistical data to prove it. His evidence, we are reminded again and again, is that in the summer of 1941 DiMaggio managed to register a hit in 56 successive games. This is 12 more than anyone else has achieved in the history of the major leagues (two players are tied at 44), and the record is known in baseball circles simply as the Streak. The difference between 44 and 56 may not look that great, but given the number of players who have embarked on streaks of lesser length, it is, in probabilistic terms, enormous. Indeed, Gould suggests that those 12 extra games mark a difference between DiMaggio and the others not just of degree but of kind, and that in the summer of 1941 he launched ‘a unique assault on the otherwise unblemished record of Dame Probability’. Elsewhere, he calls it ‘the greatest accomplishment in the history of all baseball, if not all modern sport’. Gould has done the maths – what he calls ‘fancy statistical analysis on the data of slumps and streaks’ – and discovered that DiMaggio’s alone is the one ‘that shouldn’t have happened’. In the obituary he wrote after DiMaggio’s death in 1999, he bluntly declared: ‘No one should ever have hit in 56 straight games.’ What DiMaggio achieved, therefore, ‘ranks as pure heart, not the rare expectation of luck’.

But this is, to say the least, an odd way of putting it. What the data reveal is that DiMaggio’s streak was much more unlikely than other unlikely things that have happened in baseball. But this does not place it outside the realms of probability. Gould shows that for there to be a better than even chance of a streak of comparable length occurring every 100 years, the best baseball players would have to hit the ball a lot more often than they do. But setting the benchmark at better than evens rather skews the evidence. After all, it is always likely that some things will occur whose probability is much, much, much less than 50/50, and this happened to be one of them. What is remarkable, if you are Stephen Jay Gould, is that it should have happened to the man it happened to – the man he revered above all others – when it did: during the summer when, as Gould points out, he was gestating in his mother’s womb (he was born on 10 September 1941). These, certainly, are matters of the heart, but they are facts about Gould rather than about DiMaggio. There is nothing about the Streak itself that shows it to be anything more than a streak – though of course those who lived in the century in which it occurred, and who care about such things, were lucky to experience it.

DiMaggio’s streak is anyway not the most remarkable achievement in modern sport, viewed in purely statistical terms. That accolade belongs, without question, to Don Bradman, the Australian cricketer, whose lifetime test match batting average of 99.94 towers over all others (the next best players have averages that congregate around 60). There have not been as many test cricketers as there have been professional baseball players, nor as many matches, but there have been enough for the raw data to mark Bradman out as a completely different order of run scorer from everyone else who has ever played the game. Even now, when there are perhaps more great batsmen playing than at any other time in the sport’s history (Lara, Tendulkar, Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist), they all find that an average of 60 runs per innings is the absolute limit of possible achievement. Whenever a player’s average rises above this magic number, they get vertigo and fall back. Bradman was not just 5, 10 or 20 per cent better than this, but two-thirds better, an unfathomable gulf. There is no reason why Gould should have known about this, or cared, though (if you leave Marilyn Monroe out of it) Bradman had quite a lot in common with DiMaggio, and was very much of the same type – a man of matchless dignity and self-possession on the field, and sometimes as mean as hell off it. It is also true that it is hard to know how to compare lifetime batting averages, in which the luck evens itself out and the good days can cancel out the bad, against unbroken streaks of achievement. Gould makes this point, and suggests that the Streak is all the more remarkable because DiMaggio could not afford ‘a single day of sub-par play, or even of bad luck’. But it is a little tendentious to suggest that a player who cannot afford to be unlucky even once is therefore operating outside the boundaries of chance altogether; a more straightforward way of putting it would be to say that he is certain to need some good luck along the way. In pressing his case, Gould overstates it. He says that what truly marks out the Streak as an untouchable achievement is that, to sustain it, DiMaggio could not afford to make ‘a single mistake’. This is not true. In baseball, a batter can expect to get as many as four or five chances to hit in a single game: he only needs to take one of these for the hitting streak to continue. Moreover, it takes three strikes to get him out. A few wild swishes, a couple of pop-ups for easy catches, and then a mishit squeezed past first base is enough to keep a streak alive. DiMaggio being DiMaggio, it was usually a lot more elegant than this. But just because DiMaggio was DiMaggio doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have happened this way as well.

In a letter Gould wrote to DiMaggio about the Streak, which is reproduced here, he tells his hero that, while he couldn’t quite assure him that it would never be bettered, the data suggest that ‘of all baseball records, yours is the least likely to be broken.’ The letter was written in 1985. Since then, baseball has acquired another streak, which is actually much less likely to be broken than DiMaggio’s. This is Cal Ripken’s record of playing in 2632 consecutive games (next in the list comes Babe Ruth’s Yankee teammate Lou Gehrig with 2130, followed by a group 1000 or more games behind). Ripken was nowhere near as great a player as DiMaggio, though he was pretty good, and his streak doesn’t say anything much about his gift for the sport, beyond a remarkable durability. Baseball is a surprisingly rough, sometimes violent game, in which there is always a risk of being kicked, spiked, trampled, or bodychecked by very large men with very short tempers, along with the constant threat of being poleaxed by a ball thrown at up to 100 mph. The fact that, for six months of the year, teams play almost every day also imposes huge wear-and-tear demands on the human frame. All players get injured, have accidents, get tired, lose form. Ripken was no exception. The fact that he carried on playing for the Baltimore Orioles, in every game, for nearly two decades, meant that he had to play through pain and exhaustion, and for whole seasons when his game seemed to be falling apart. Prolongation of the streak was a sheer effort of will, which is why many baseball fans think there is something fraudulent about it, and hate the attention that is paid to it. For long periods it seemed as though the only reason Ripken kept dragging himself onto the field was to break Gehrig’s record, and then to ensure that his own record was unbreakable (it is almost certain that no player will ever be so indulged again, which is why 2632 is untouchable in ways that 56 is not). In fact, Ripken performed to a remarkably high standard across the years, and though Gould is not much taken with his streak (because there can only be one Streak), he does cite Ripken as one of the best players of his era. The other streak that Gould does not mention in these essays is a streak of his own, though his publishers are not so reticent. In their blurb, they list as one of Gould’s crowning achievements the fact that he wrote 300 consecutive columns for Natural History (the basis of his many other celebrated collections of essays on almost every subject under the sun). Gould was seriously ill for most of the years during which he was writing these columns, and under sentence of pretty imminent death for some of them. Never to miss a month, and never to let the standard flag below what was more than acceptable, is an achievement that ‘ranks as pure heart, not the rare expectation of luck’. Which is why, perhaps, DiMaggio’s streak has a magic for Gould that Ripken’s could never match: he knew how one of them was done, but not the other.

Elsewhere, Gould has been less well served by the editors of this volume. Too much of the material is repetitive, and it is not just the endlessly reiterated glory of Joe DiMaggio that palls. There is also too much pompous phraseology, exaggerated emotion, and general striving for significance. Gould knows all this is a constant temptation for baseball writers, but he can’t seem to help himself. As he says, ‘the silliest and most tendentious of baseball writing tries to wrest profundity from the spectacle of grown men hitting a ball with a stick by suggesting linkages between the sport and deep issues of morality, parenthood, history, lost innocence and so on.’ Yet he is also capable of writing, about a piece of turf from the old Brooklyn Dodgers stadium at Ebbets Field on display as part of an exhibition of baseball memorabilia at the American Museum of Natural History: ‘We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow such ground. Robbie did, and Campy, and Duke, and PeeWee, and also the Preacher.’

Gould is a traditionalist, and he loves to keep the old linkages alive, with his mock-heroic prose style, his promiscuous affections for the teams of his youth, and even with his preferred uses of statistical data. He refers to himself as a ‘sabermetrician’, which is the self-chosen neologism (from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research) of baseball pointyheads. His brand of sabermetrics, though, concentrates on the analysis of what ordinary baseball fans like best: the great home run records, the hitting streaks, the batting averages. What Gould, like almost everyone else, really wants to know is how often grown men manage to hit the ball with the stick. However, by far the most interesting research in the analysis of baseball statistics concerns the question of whether it is right to place so much emphasis on the traditional, crowd-pleasing aspects of the sport. Baseball is in many ways a simple game, but it is nevertheless very hard to know exactly which players make the greatest contribution to a successful team. Is it the big hitters, whose home runs score not only for themselves, but for any other players who happen to be on base? Is it the consistent hitters, like DiMaggio, who can deal with almost anything a pitcher throws at them? Is it the pitchers themselves, either the starters, who can help a team get a lead, or the closers, who can help them to keep it? Or is it the fielders, whose agility and speed can determine whether a ball, once hit, stays hit? Astonishingly, the hard data suggest that it is none of these. The single most important attribute that a baseball player can have is the ability to get on base, so that whatever happens next, there is a better chance of a run being scored than there was before. One way to get on base is to hit the ball past the infield. The other way is to take a walk, which occurs whenever the pitcher throws four balls at the same batter (a ball is the name for any pitch that is not in the designated strike zone, and which the batter doesn’t try to hit). This means that the ability to leave the ball alone is just as important as the ability to hit it. Many of the players who are good at hitting the ball are also very bad at leaving the ball alone – they want to swing at everything – which greatly reduces their value to the team. The players you want are the ones who know when not to swing, and who recognise that walking to first base is just as effective as hitting your way there. Regularly taking a walk is not glamorous, and it is not the way to a fan’s heart, but it can be hugely valuable. Just how valuable it has proved to one team in particular is the subject of Michael Lewis’s fascinating Moneyball.

LLewis’s book tells the recent history of the Oakland Athletics, one of the worst supported and least affluent teams in major league baseball. Most of the time, the order in which teams finish the regular season correlates closely to how much money they have spent on players’ salaries, which is what can make it so predictable. But the shining exception is the Oakland Athletics, who have won their division, the American League West, for three of the last four seasons despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league (the New York Yankees in the East spend three times as much). Oakland have done this by hiring as their general manager a failed player called Billy Beane, who has been willing to trust in the statistics the sabermetricians have been providing. He signs up players who are good at taking walks. These players are almost always cheap, because despite the sabermetricians, no one else can believe that not hitting the ball is what matters in baseball. It helps that some of the players Beane signs are also fat, or slow, or poor fielders, which makes them even cheaper, because traditional baseball wisdom sets great store by athleticism. Beane mainly wants players who are capable of exercising self-restraint. It doesn’t matter what shape they are – in fact, it helps if they aren’t too worried about looking good. Of course, they have to be able to hit the ball, when it’s in the right place, but what counts is that they know where the right place is. Because some of them are fat, or slow, or poor fielders, they are bound to cost the team runs as well as score them, but over the course of 162 games the data suggest that the advantage they gain by consistently getting on base will outweigh any other handicaps they bring. What the record of the Oakland A’s over the last four years has shown is that the data are right.

Lewis follows the A’s through the 2002 season, when once again Beane showed that it was possible to buy success on the cheap, as long as you were willing to trust in the pointyheads. By 2002, most of the other teams had some idea of what Beane was up to. But one of the many remarkable things about the story Lewis tells is that, even when they could see what a ruthless application of mathematics could bring to the management of a baseball team, the other managers still didn’t want to know. The raw evidence of what walks meant to overall run production had been available for years, but Beane was the first person within the sport’s professional ranks to try to apply it. Crucial to this was the growth of the internet, which made it possible for Oakland scouts to find the stats on almost any player – professional, college, high school – in an instant. In fact, it soon became clear to Beane that Oakland didn’t really need scouts, grizzled ex-pros who were meant to tour the country trying to spot raw talent: all it needed were people who could operate a keyboard and were willing to believe what came up on the screen. The other teams refused to believe it. It took an enormous effort of will on the part of people who had made very good money out of the old baseball nostrums to give them up, and so they didn’t. They clung onto three prejudices in particular, none of which is unique to baseball: first, that the experience of each individual is typical (hitting home runs is what got me my big break, so hitting home runs must be what matters); second, that what counts is the last thing that happened (OK his stats aren’t great, but he sure hit it a long way yesterday); and third, that what is most important is what you see with your own eyes (the computer might say he can play, but I’ve seen him, and he’s fat). In some sports, this kind of evidence is all there is to go on, because there is no satisfactory way of comparing all players numerically. Football managers have no choice but to trust their own eyes, which is why they need to be able to judge a player on the basis of whichever matches they happen to see. But in baseball, the most important differences between players are not visible to the naked eye. They only emerge over time, in the form of statistical data. This means that everyone involved in baseball – managers and coaches and scouts and journalists and commentators – who makes a living out of their ability to evaluate a player’s performance as it takes place is living a lie.

So long as these data were the preserve of Harvard types like Stephen Jay Gould, it didn’t matter. The attitude of seasoned pros to the intellectuals who have always flitted around baseball was, as Lewis puts it, that ‘these people dignified the game, like a bow tie. They were harmless. What threatened was cold, hard intelligence.’ This is what Billy Beane brought to the business of buying and selling players: he stripped it of any sentimentality, and ignored all the baseball history that couldn’t be expressed in percentage form. The rest of professional baseball, profoundly unnerved by what this implied for their future employment prospects, pretended it wasn’t happening. So Beane decided to exploit not just the raw data but the other teams’ fear of the raw data as well. The problem with the Oakland Athletics’ approach to building a successful team was that as soon as a player acquired on the cheap realised just how much they contributed to that success, they would demand a lot more money for their services. In the old days, when being a professional baseball player was not much more than a form of indentured servitude, this wouldn’t have mattered, because there would be nowhere for the player to go. But since the advent of free agency, which allows players to negotiate with the highest bidder once their original contracts have expired, teams like Oakland have found it almost impossible to hold onto their star performers. So Beane let them go, to bigger clubs which could afford their exorbitant wage demands, and encouraged those clubs to pay over the odds by talking up his best players, beyond anything the evidence might suggest. A typical Billy Beane business plan would be to draft some player no one else wanted from college, pay him the basic rate, integrate him into a winning team, and then, when the other managers started to wonder how on earth Oakland managed to pull it off year after year, palm him off on one of the rich East Coast clubs for a small fortune, on the grounds that he was a hitting machine. And all the while the player would be the same guy he had been in college, just someone who knew which pitches to leave alone and which ones to swing at. Beane also specialised in picking up players that other clubs had failed to use properly, because they had not been willing to discover their true strengths. Unsurprisingly, the worst offenders were often the Boston Red Sox, who were so wrapped up in the traumas of their history that they rarely allowed a new player time to settle in before they started to ask for the impossible. Lewis describes the experiences of Scott Hatteberg, a player Beane acquired from Boston, whose genius was for not striking out, but whose career had run up against an insuperable obstacle, ‘the idiocy of the Red Sox’. Hatteberg’s

cultivated approach to hitting – his thoughtfulness, his patience, his need for decisions to be informed rather than reckless – was regarded by the Boston Red Sox as a deficiency. The Red Sox encouraged their players’ mystical streaks. They brought into the clubhouse a parade of shrinks and motivational speakers to teach the players to harness their aggression. Be men! There was one in particular Hatteberg remembers who told the team that every man had a gland in his chest, called the thymus gland. ‘You were supposed to bang your chest before you hit,’ recalls Hatteberg, ‘to release all this untapped energy and aggression.’

Cursed indeed.

The one thing Beane couldn’t alter was the underlying problem faced by a club like Oakland: the fact that its fan base was too meagre ever to allow it to meet the wage demands of the very best players. Beane’s solution, to keep moving players on as soon as they got ideas above their station, meant that although he could produce a winning team, he was never likely to produce a popular one – even the most loyal fans would find their patience tested by the knowledge that any Oakland player who made himself too conspicuous in the eyes of the wider world was unlikely to remain in Oakland for long. In this respect, Beane was fighting a losing battle: his players could grind out results, but the crowds still wanted to see the glamour boys, even the ones playing on losing teams. While sabermetrics might show that the home run hitter is overrated – the number of runs scored by a home run doesn’t depend on the hitter, but on how many runners are already on base, including all those who have walked there – home runs are still what most fans enjoy most. Baseball’s current popularity is founded on what happened in the summer of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa duelled for the single season home run record, McGwire eventually coming out on top 70 to 66. These are the players everyone loves, although or maybe because all that hitting made little difference to the fortunes of their respective teams (neither McGwire nor Sosa came close to the World Series that year). Gould calls Mark McGwire ‘a truly splendid man’, and goes on, with typical hyperbole: ‘You were the firstest with the mostest. We will always love you, and revere your amazing grace in that wonderful season. You and Sammy . . . will always be the boys of our most exquisite summers.’ Billy Beane’s by-the-numbers approach can’t compete with this.

Among the many things Gould admires about McGwire, who has now retired, is the way he cultivated his natural gifts: above all, ‘the gift of an extraordinary body’, to which he added ‘a steadfast dedication to training’. What Gould does not say is that this training regime included the ingestion of large amounts of steroids. The particular steroid McGwire has admitted to taking, Androstenedione, was not banned by the baseball authorities, though it is illegal in many other sports. It is sometimes more neutrally described as a ‘supplement’, although when used to supplement a healthy diet its side-effects can include aggressive behaviour, mood swings, hair loss, blurred vision, acne, enlarged breasts, shrunken testicles and, occasionally, liver cancer. Since McGwire made his confession, professional baseball has introduced mandatory drug tests. The first round of tests took place this year, and somewhere between 5 and 7 per cent of all players tested positive for steroids. Under the terms of the deal by which the players’ union agreed to testing, the names of those who failed were not released. Only if a player fails the tests repeatedly will his identity be revealed (a player would have to fail five times before being banned for a single season). Given that all the players knew the tests were coming, and given the range of masking agents that are available, it is a fair bet that the figure of 5 to 7 per cent seriously understates the numbers taking drugs. Some former players put the true figure at 25 to 40 per cent. It is also a fair bet that most of those taking steroids are doing it to increase their prospects of hitting home runs. Sammy Sosa, McGwire’s great rival, has always denied using steroids, and said he welcomed the tests. However, like Barry Bonds, the man who broke McGwire’s record by hitting 73 home runs in 2001, Sosa started threatening the record books only after a period of rapid weight gain (both Sosa and Bonds weigh about fifty pounds more than when they started their careers, and it is all muscle). Unlike Bonds, who is surly and unpleasant, Sosa has a cuddly, happy-go-lucky image. Nevertheless, when the journalist Rick Reilly asked him last summer why, if he welcomed tests, and if he was clean, he didn’t volunteer to take a test before they became mandatory, in order to set an example, Sosa told Reilly he was a ‘motherfucker’ and terminated the interview.

There is not a whiff of any of this in Gould’s book – it would be inconsistent with the mythic status of baseball’s heroes. More surprisingly, there is nothing of it in Lewis’s book, either. Although the Oakland Athletics do not set as much store by big hitting as other teams, Oakland itself has become synonymous with steroids, because it is the location for balco (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative), the manufacturers of thg, a steroid that has started showing up in all sorts of tests, including those taken by track athletes such as Dwain Chambers and American football players. The Athletics themselves haven’t been immune to temptation – their most famous hitter, Jason Giambi, enticed away by the New York Yankees at the beginning of 2002 with a contract worth about $120 million over seven years, has now been implicated in the growing balco scandal. But Lewis is not interested in digging too deep behind the facts of the A’s success. He just wants to tell a story about the numbers, and what can be achieved by people who take them seriously. Gould suggests that all baseball literature falls into one of two camps, the H’s or the Q’s: baseball writers either go in for hagiography, or they go in for the quotidian reality that makes hero-worship impossible. Gould himself makes sure that the quotidian stuff never gets too close to his heroes. But Lewis’s book is a rare, perhaps uniquely successful attempt to combine the two. It is an uplifting tale, full of engaging characters, presided over by the remarkable figure of Billy Beane, truly a man apart. Nevertheless, it is entirely about the everyday: indeed, it is about a world in which nothing but the everyday is allowed to intrude, for fear of turning people’s heads. And it isn’t a story with a happy ending, for the simple reason that Billy Beane doesn’t believe in them. Despite reaching the post-season for four years in a row (the season they didn’t win their divisional title, they qualified as best runners-up), the A’s haven’t come close to winning the World Series under Beane. In fact, once they get to the play-offs, they always fall at the first hurdle. In the 2002 post-season, the Athletics lost to the Yankees in the first round, as they had the previous season. On each occasion the best-of-five series went to the deciding game before Oakland blew it. For most baseball fans and for all other baseball managers, the post-season is where the glory lies. But not for Beane. He professes not to care about what happens in the games that lead up to the World Series, because a best-of-five or best-of-seven series is not long enough for the luck to even itself out and the statistical edge to come through.

In 2003, the Athletics won their division again, adding to the general air of predictability. As Lewis recounts at the very end of Moneyball, the Boston Red Sox had tried to tempt Beane away from Oakland before the start of the season, and almost succeeded, but at the last minute Beane couldn’t bring himself to make the move. Subsequently, in a typical piece of madness, the Red Sox decided to hire a man called Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics, and the author of a series of hugely influential but deeply eccentric books about baseball statistics. James immediately decided that he would use the Red Sox to prove one of his pet theories, that teams don’t need ‘closers’ (pitchers who specialise in protecting a lead in the final innings of a game). Without their closers, the Red Sox proceeded to throw away a series of games in which they held commanding leads. There then followed a typical Red Sox sequence of panic, reorganisation and hasty expenditure, at the end of which they finished the season pretty much where they started it, behind the Yankees but far enough ahead of the rest to qualify for the play-offs. In the first round of the play-offs they faced the Oakland Athletics. The A’s won the first two games to put the Red Sox on the brink, but Boston won the next two, and then, in the decider, held onto a 4-3 lead in the final inning to take the series, allowing them to go on to meet their doom against the Yankees in the Championship Series. Derek Lowe, a Boston starter who had somehow turned into a closer, threw the final pitch against the A’s to send them to defeat. It struck out an Oakland batter called Terence Long, but Long didn’t miss it. He just didn’t swing at it, because he had been trained not to swing unless it was strictly necessary. He clearly didn’t think that the final pitch of the most important game of the year was such a moment. Any other team might begin to wonder if they were cursed. But not Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics. Scott Hatteberg, the player Beane had rescued from the Red Sox, and who led off the final inning by taking a walk, told reporters afterwards: ‘These five games, it’s like flipping a coin.’