Friday 4 November 2011

Take me out

From the occasional reviews series - Michael Lewis's Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.


There's something about American sportswriting that I just love. Or perhaps there's simply enough distance that what sounds banal and often ridiculous when it's written here in New Zealand (witness the outpouring of adjective, cliche and nation-building around the Rugby World Cup) sounds mythical and meaningful when it comes from offshore. Perhaps I'm just buying in to the romanticism that this book seeks to unravel. But I don't care - I love it, I loved this book, and you should read it.

As there's a movie just about to come out starring Brad Pitt based on 'Moneyball', I probably don't need to go deep into exposition. To keep it as short as possible: Lewis spent a year bedded into the Oakland Athletics, studying how general manager (and ex pro player) Billy Beane and a small number of his colleagues sought to ignore the folk wisdom that has traditionally governed how a baseball team is put together and instead assembled an assortment of unlikely, unfavoured and unheroic players on the basis of a bunch of carefully crunched statistics, and came out on top.

I might be one of the few people who expected more data and less sport from 'Moneyball'. Even though I know barely anything about baseball (a couple of seasons of softball as a kid is the sum total of my knowledge) I was able to skate past the unintelligible passages, and soak in the sections that made sense.

And soak in them you certainly can. Lewis has a hardbitten, salty, yet occasionally love-struck way of writing that makes this book the unexpected delight it is (my single favourite sentence: 'When it suited his purposes Billy Beane could throw the best pity party this side of the Last Supper.' The chapters dedicated to analysing single players - a batter with the best record of laying off the first pitch in the league, a pitcher with an amazing way of keeping runs down, but who looks all wrong - are beautiful character studies. And the overall story of Billy Beane, the guy who seemed to have it all going for him but couldn't make it, and who came back to rewrite the way teams were put together so guys like him were no longer the guys you wanted, is told with clear-eyed affection. Even if you have no interest in baseball, this is a remarkable book about the tenacity required to do something dramatically different.

I share my reviews on Goodreads (fair warning, I'm prepping to review a book about New Zealand YA writing, so there's going to be a lot in that vein coming up, starting with Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter and Dreamquake.

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