The Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies are out. Was Billy Beane right about small-market teams?
At first glance, baseball's post-season this year would seem to dovetail nicely with the theme of the recently released Brad Pitt movie Moneyball, based on the Michael Lewis bestseller of the same name. The big money teams--the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies--are out, and the networks are left to contemplate a World Series in Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, or Dallas--a field of decidedly less-lucrative baseball television markets.
But just because the big dollar teams are out doesn't necessarily mean that the success of those smaller-market teams is due to the kind of statistical maneuvering Lewis stressed in Moneyball. Not that managers don't look at statistics. Or that smaller-market teams don't have to get more creative in how they compete against teams with payrolls almost twice their size. It's just that writers, looking for a hook that will sell a book, sometimes focus overmuch on "the thing" or "the answer," when the reality is more complex than that.
Yes, the Oakland A's, the team Lewis profiled in Moneyball, made the playoffs five times in the early 00's--a record Lewis attributed to their rogue statistical approach to baseball. But as a couple of recent articles have pointed out, they never won a championship, and they haven't even made the playoffs since 2006. So--despite the fact that the philosophy highlighted in Moneyball has achieved guru-status fame in the business world--how powerful was that approach, really?
I found an interesting take on that question from--appropriately enough--a former MLB ballplayer who now coaches in the Rangers' farm team system. Casey Candaele might not be a household name, although he played nine years in the majors (Montreal Expos, Houston Astros, and Cleveland Indians) before joining the Rangers' coaching staff. But Candaele comes from memorable baseball stock. His mom was Helen Callaghan--the woman portrayed by Geena Davis in the hit movie A League of Their Own. After leading the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in batting average, homers, hits, doubles, and total bases in 1945, Callaghan got married and had five sons. All five played baseball, growing up, but Casey was the only one who went pro.
In an interview with his brother (writer and filmmaker Kelly Candaele) last week, Casey weighed in on the Moneyball philosophy. An excerpt here:
Question: Billy Beane and the people who agreed with his philosophy operated under the assumption that the old way of analyzing ball-players was mostly about a lot of talking and guessing and that they had a more scientific way of going about this. What was your sense of this?
CC: "I retired in 2000, so the Moneyball approach started a bit later. The thing that struck me about the movie is that the A's were actually pretty good. They had Eric Chavez, a young third baseman who had been playing for a number of years. Miguel Tejada had over 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs that year, I think. Jemaine Dye was on that team and had a great year. They also had Terrance Long, who was in the running for Rookie of the Year the year before.
But most importantly, and this is the film's major problem, I think--the A's had a great pitching staff. They had Tim Hudson, who led the league in ERA and wins a number of years in a row. They had Mark Mulder, who won 19 games, and Barry Zito, who won 23 and was on the top of his game. The pitching was outstanding, but the movie doesn't even mention those guys. So this team was not like the Bad News Bears.
In terms of the Moneyball philosophy, I guess it makes sense to combine people on the team who can get on base consistently with guys who can drive them in. And as it said at the end of the movie, the Red Sox used this philosophy and went on to win the World Series. The Sox had many great players at the time and they are not a small market team, so they spend money. So I don't think it is a matter of assembling a team of all players that have a high On Base Percentage, which is what the movie portrayed. You have to have some people who can drive those guys in quickly."
Question: What was realistic about the film?
CC: "What was realistic was that Beane made a decision about how to re-create the process of how to win in a small baseball market. In that respect, it was unique, as they were trying to find a way to compete, and they had a good year. But, as I said, they had a really good team those years."
other words, the simple, win-by-numbers revolutionary secret that made Moneyball
such a phenomenon ("You, too, can beat the Yankees (or any other
competition) at just half the cost!") appears, on closer inspection, to be
not quite so simple. That's true of most easy, secret formulas for success, of
course. But in baseball, as opposed to business, happiness, health, or other
fields where sure-fire strategies for success abound, I think we're actually
half glad to discover that truth.
On the one hand, we don't want to think that money decides everything. So the idea of an outsider like Beane being able to beat the monetary odds and win appeals to us. On the other hand, we don't really want Beane's underdog success to be the result of some impersonal and predictable accountant's formula.
One of the reasons baseball retains such national appeal is its unspoken parallels to life and human attempts at achievement, in general. It is not only a product of our heartland sandlots, but also a metaphor--a microcosm of human striving, individual and collective effort and achievement, disappointment, defeat, comeback, redemption and ... sometimes ... unexpected victory.
If the game's outcome could be reduced to predictable, formulaic numbers, it would cease to resonate as a metaphor and salve for our own sometimes-frustrating and often unpredictable lives. It would also lose all its poetry. For poetry comes from those moments of perfection, discovery, alchemy and victory that catch our hearts and attention--and are so achingly and unforgettably sweet and magical--precisely because they defy expectation. Poetry is perfection stumbled upon, not perfection engineered.
One of the most perfect moments of baseball poetry I ever witnessed, in fact, occurred not in a traditional baseball stadium, but in the streets of lower Manhattan. And it involved a Candaele. Not Casey, but his brother Kelly.
Kelly had often said that he'd wished he'd inherited his mother's baseball swing. It was, he said, a thing of beauty; a seamless movement of power and grace that led to her success at the plate. He didn't, of course. Casey was the one who got the swing. Kelly went on to other pursuits of writing and film production. But the longing and legacy were still there, underneath it all.
One fall day a number of years ago, as baseball moved, once again, into its post-season games, I met Kelly for a late lunch in New York. After the meal, we wandered the streets of the East Village, taking the long route back the subway to enjoy the fall afternoon. A couple of blocks north of Houston Street, we came across a group of tough-looking teenagers playing stickball in the street. And with bravado I'd never have attempted, Kelly walked up to the guy at bat and asked if he might have a turn.
The response from the group was half-ridiculing, half-menacing. But it was clear they had no interest in the proposal. Tough street kids in New York do not let 40-ish, academic-looking old guys in on their stickball games. But Kelly persisted. He pulled out a $20 bill and offered it to the group in exchange for a single swing. The group laughed. Not only was this guy old, he was a sucker, too. But, hey. If he wanted to throw away his money, well, that was okay with them. They exchanged glances, nodded, and the batter took the money and handed Kelly the stick.
Kelly got in his stance, and the pitcher wound up and delivered the ball across the "plate." Kelly tensed his muscles, swung--and connected with nothing but thin air. The teenagers laughed, guffawed, and swaggered their ridicule all the way down the block. Watching from the sidewalk, I cringed in vicarious embarrassment. But Kelly was undeterred. He asked for another swing. The stickball players scoffed, reminding him that he'd paid for a single swing. I thought, for a moment, that it might turn ugly. But Kelly persisted, cajoling and friendly, until they agreed to give him one more try.
I shook my head, wishing he'd just quit and get us the hell out of there. But there he was, instead, calmly loosening up his shoulders, pulling the stick through a couple of practice swings, then poising it just above his shoulder, waiting for the pitch. The pitcher wound up, released the ball, and I braced for the humiliation that was surely going to follow.
But then, something magical happened. Kelly set the stick in motion, and there it was, out of the past--a swing that resonated with power, grace, and athletic perfection. His mother's swing. And it aligned perfectly with the fast ball delivered down the alley. There was a loud crack as stick and ball connected, and then all heads turned to follow the ball as it arced high and straight above the pavement ... right out of the ballpark. It cleared the blocks north of Houston, cleared the wide, multiple lanes of Houston Street itself, and finally descended back to Earth, bouncing off the pavement halfway down the block on the other side.
The stickball players stood, motionless, suddenly bereft of all taunts, menace, or cockiness, arms limp at their sides and jaws hanging open in stunned, wordless awe. Kelly himself was dazed for a moment, then just smiled, handed the stick back to the batter he'd supplanted, called out a cheerful thanks to the other players, and walked away.
No rational formula would have predicted that outcome. But that's what made it so poetic. And the possibility of victories like that, defying all the numbers, is a big part of what gives baseball its appeal. It might be harder to market that appeal to business audiences looking for a sure-fire edge, of course. But the truth is, what gives us hope, in the long history of human struggle, is that sometimes, we are more than the numerical sum of our parts. Yes, strategy matters. But so do intangibles like heart, will, and the magic that is created, sometimes, when the parts of a person, or the parts of a team, somehow click in ways stat sheets can't predict.
Whether it's the magic of the 1973 Mets, who went from the bottom of their division to the World Series in a matter of weeks on the strength of a relief pitcher's cry of "You Gotta Believe!" or the magic of a middle-aged man finding a perfect swing on a New York City street ... it's those moments in which we find not only only poetry, but a measure of hope, redemption and belief in possibility that helps us get through all the rest. And the fact that that kind of alchemy and magic is impossible to quantify, package and sell is precisely what makes it not only so powerful, but so valuable, as well.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Immediately, the pings from fellow journalists (and media-adjacent folk) came pouring in, all saying something along the lines of, “Can you actually let me know what you find out? I’m addicted to that stuff.”
They mean “addicted” in the jokey, dark-chocolate-and-Netflix-streaming way, but the habit can border on pathological. For me, rock bottom was a recent, obscenely long workday during which an entire 12-pack of coconut La Croix somehow made it down my throat, can by shining can.
The Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers, but neither Peyton Manning nor Cam Newton seemed able to prove their worth.
Now more than ever, the NFL is all about the quarterbacks. The buildup to Super Bowl 50 proved no exception: In the two weeks prior to Sunday night’s game in Santa Clara, the national conversation largely centered on the signal-callers, whose styles of play and off-field personas were pored over in every manner imaginable by an army of reporters and analysts. The game’s two possible outcomes were pre-cast as career-defining triumphs for the passers. If the Denver Broncos won, it would be a rousing sendoff for the potentially retiring all-time great Peyton Manning. If the Carolina Panthers won, it would be a coronation for Cam Newton, this season’s Most Valuable Player.
The Broncos beat the Panthers, 24-10, but the game featured none of the displays of virtuosity fans of Manning or Newton might have hoped for. It was a plodding, mistake-riddled affair, all stuffed runs and stalled drives. Maybe the most miraculous thing about the game was that it ended at all; it seemed for a time that it might simply give out somewhere along the way, leaving the Denver and Carolina players to wander around Levi’s Stadium until the resumption of football next fall.
Thenew Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, is smooth and charming, but he hasn’t found his edge.
It’s a psychic law of the American workplace: By the time you give your notice, you’ve already left. You’ve checked out, and for the days or weeks that remain, a kind of placeholder-you, a you-cipher, will be doing your job. It’s a law that applies equally to dog walkers, accountants, and spoof TV anchormen. Jon Stewart announced that he was quitting The Daily Show in February 2015, but he stuck around until early August, and those last months had a restless, frazzled, long-lingering feel. A smell of ashes was in the air. The host himself suddenly looked quite old: beaky, pique-y, hollow-cheeky. For 16 years he had shaken his bells, jumped and jangled in his little host’s chair, the only man on TV who could caper while sitting behind a desk. Flash back to his first episode as the Daily Show host, succeeding Craig Kilborn: January 11, 1999, Stewart with floppy, luscious black hair, twitching in a new suit (“I feel like this is my bar mitzvah … I have a rash like you wouldn’t believe.”) while he interviews Michael J. Fox.
The charismatic senator’s candidacy was flying high—until he hit turbulence at Saturday’s debate. Will it stall his surge?
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—Until Saturday’s debate, it was clear that this was Marco Rubio’s moment.
The moment he had waited for, planned for, anticipated for months, for years: It was happening. He had surged into a strong third-place finish in Iowa, outpacing the polls and nearly passing second-place Donald Trump. He’d ridden into New Hampshire on a full head of steam, drawing bigger and bigger crowds at every stop, ticking steadily up into second in most polls, behind the still-dominant Trump. The other candidates were training their fire on him, hoping to stop the golden boy in his tracks.
And then, in the debate, he faced the test he knew was imminent. They came right at him. First it was the moderator, David Muir of ABC News, leveling the accusation put forth by his rivals: that Rubio was merely a good talker with nothing to show for it, just like another eloquent, inexperienced young senator, Barack Obama.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Hillary Clinton’s realistic attitude is the only thing that can effect change in today’s political climate.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz have something in common. Both have an electoral strategy predicated on the ability of a purist candidate to revolutionize the electorate—bringing droves of chronic non-voters to the polls because at last they have a choice, not an echo—and along the way transforming the political system. Sanders can point to his large crowds and impressive, even astonishing, success at tapping into a small-donor base that exceeds, in breadth and depth, the remarkable one built in 2008 by Barack Obama. Cruz points to his extraordinarily sophisticated voter-identification operation, one that certainly seemed to do the trick in Iowa.
But is there any real evidence that there is a hidden “sleeper cell” of potential voters who are waiting for the signal to emerge and transform the electorate? No. Small-donor contributions are meaningful and a sign of underlying enthusiasm among a slice of the electorate, but they represent a tiny sliver even of that slice; Ron Paul’s success at fundraising (and his big crowds at rallies) misled many analysts into believing that he would make a strong showing in Republican primaries when he ran for president. He flopped.
What happened when 11 exiles armed themselves for a violent night in the Gambia
In the dark hours of the morning on December 30, 2014, eight men gathered in a graveyard a mile down the road from the official residence of Yahya Jammeh, the president of the Gambia. The State House overlooks the Atlantic Ocean from the capital city of Banjul, on an island at the mouth of the Gambia River. It was built in the 1820s and served as the governor’s mansion through the end of British colonialism, in 1965. Trees and high walls separate the house from the road, obscuring any light inside.
The men were dressed in boots and dark pants, and as two of them stood guard, the rest donned Kevlar helmets and leather gloves, strapped on body armor and CamelBaks, and loaded their guns. Their plan was to storm the presidential compound, win over the military, and install their own civilian leader. They hoped to gain control of the country by New Year’s Day.
How a Mexican gangster turned a cartel into a cult
Nazario Moreno Gonzalez—also known as El Chayo, or El Mas Loco, the Maddest One—first died in December 2010. Mexican federal police claimed they killed Nazario, one of Mexico’s most brutal criminal warlords, during a ferocious battle involving 2,000 federal officers and about 500 gangsters. But his henchmen carried his corpse away.
A grave appeared with his name on it. (Apparently, police didn’t want to dig it up and check.) The president at the time, Felipe Calderon, trumpeted the crime lord’s demise as a grand victory in his war on the drug cartels. But after Nazario’s supposed death, his followers began venerating him like a saint, and statuettes and shrines appeared. Even more bizarrely, people reported seeing his ghost wandering around his home state of Michoacan dressed all in white. Under the leadership of this phantom saint, Nazario’s criminal organization, which took the name Knights Templar after the legendary warrior monks of the Middle Ages, became more powerful than ever.