Behind the Playoffs: 'Field of Dreams' vs. 'Moneyball'

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."

In 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.

Image credit: Universal/Columbia