Thursday, September 29, 2011

Two nights of baseball

Baseball is a unique sport for Americans. Compared to basketball and hockey it is slow. Compared to football it is less exciting. Compared to soccer...well it is much better than soccer, but I guess compared to soccer (and the other sports) it doesn't have a clock. It is called America's pastime, but more people will watch a random NFL regular season game than the World Series. Think about that for a second. More people will watch a game that will most likely not matter in one sport compared to the ultimate pinnacle in another sport.

For me baseball is even more unique. I loved baseball growing up. It didn't really matter that I couldn't hit the ball (I could bunt and walk) and that my chance of making it to the majors was zero. I loved the stats, the stories and the game. I vividly remember watching the taped games of the 1991 World Series between the Braves and the Twins. My Dad stayed up and taped the games and after the dramatic game 7, I can only imagine what he was thinking the next day when he put the video in. He had to have known that I was going to see one of the greatest baseball games of all time.

Then their was the 1994 strike, which I have said many times before, destroyed my love for baseball. After that I might have had a casual curiosity in baseball, but that interest was easily eclipsed by my interest in football and basketball. It took the 2006 Twins to bring back my full interest in baseball, and only then it was focused on the Twins. Still to this day I don't know if I would call myself a baseball fan, but rather a Twins fan. It is strange because I would easily pay a lot of money to see the Twins play in the World Series, but if another team makes it I might not even watch. That same thing doesn't happen in basketball or football because I make plans to turn on the NBA Finals and Super Bowl regardless of who is playing.

It is always surprising when something in baseball that isn't Twins related catches my attention. Over the past two nights I didn't spend 1 second watching the Twins play (I am glad they avoided 100 losses), but baseball was the theme of both evenings. The first night I went to go see Moneyball (M and I were supposed to go on Friday, but that didn't work out) and then last night I watched the wild card drama in the AL.

Moneyball was a disappointing movie. I agree with Joe Posnanski (like normal) when he wrote that his expectations were too high and there was no way that they would be filled. How could a movie come close to recreating the enjoyment of my favorite book? The answer is that it couldn't. The movie was slow, boring and something I never really want to watch again. M liked it, but she also missed many of the main points of the movie/book.

I know I was supposed to look past some of the obvious Hollywood gloss-overs (is that a word?). It is impossible for the director of a 2 hour movie include every detail about the 2002 Athletics and the concept of Moneyball. It made it difficult, but not impossible to enjoy the movie knowing full well that a lot of the context is completely omitted from the movie. This is what Michael Lewis does so well in his books, and one that made the book Moneyball, so great. He had the time and the pages to go through the details and in a book about statistics the details matter. The details are the reason for the book, because the action (players taking walks, a team losing in the 1st round) is pretty boring. The details bring to life a concept that is fascinating. The fact that there is value in challenging conventional wisdom is one of the main themes in the book, and to understand that you need to fully understand the context of both sides.

The movie only had two hours to explain the details and a lot of that time was spent with Billy Beane talking to his daughter (I don't remember one sentence being used on that in the book) and driving around while a game was being played. There was just too much for the movie to try and explain in that short of time, and the only chance it had of being successful would be if it was a documentary. However, this was to be a big picture, Brad Pitt movie and from the beginning that set the movie up to be a failure.

The movie might give you a small glimpse into the impact of stats in baseball (the used the phrase small sample size), but in the end it was a fulfilling as low-fat kettle corn. The book should have never been made into a movie.

Tuesday night might have been disappointing because of the movie, but last night was as thrilling as it was unexpected. The Rays came back from a 7-0 deficit to defeat the Yankees 8-7 in extra innings. During this time the Red Sox lost a 3-2 lead, when they had the Orioles down to their last out and nobody on base. The swings in both games were truly amazing. Below is a graph showing the wild card probabilities from the site

The games last night didn't feature the Twins and really I had no investment in the Rays comeback, but still it was sweet to see the underdog overtake the heavy favorite. Tampa Bay spent $42M on payroll, while the Red Sox spent $160M. That nearly 4 to 1 ratio is absurd when you think about it. The Red Sox top 3 players (Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Carl Crawford) on the payroll make more than the entire Rays roster. In fact the Red Sox 4-6 highest paid players (JD Drew, David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon) combined also make more than the entire Rays roster. The Red Sox have 10 players that make more money than the Rays highest paid player. Check out the numbers for the Red Sox compared to the Rays. How did the Rays win more games than the Red Sox?

The underdog winning over the heavy favorite is one of the reasons I watch sports. There is something about watching Boise State challenged the BCS conference schools every year. Or watching Appalachian State beat Michigan. Maybe it is because I went to a MAC school or come from a much maligned state, but I can relate to the underdog. Congrats to the Rays and good luck in the crapshoot.

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