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Say-It-Ain't-So Joe 

Why does Joe Morgan -- the best second baseman in history and a prominent TV broadcaster -- hate Moneyball? And Billy Beane and his Oakland A's? And you, too, if you think the statistical revolution that's overwhelmed Major League Baseball has any

Wednesday, Jul 6 2005
The earth beneath Joe Morgan's feet is impossibly flat, every bump smoothed over, every blemish manicured into oblivion, all so that a white cork-filled ball might roll straight and true, the way it has for a hundred years. I am standing with Morgan, the ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame second baseman, at the edge of the emerald grass at SBC Park, where in two hours the San Francisco Giants will play the Oakland A's, a game Morgan will explain to America from a booth high above the field. This is his job: to elucidate the game, or, more precisely, The Game, which is what old ballplayers like to call baseball, and which Joe pronounces with infinite reverence and implied capitalization, the way some people say, "The Pope."

From the margin of the field Morgan half-watches the Giants go about their batting practice. There is an easy Sunday rhythm to the proceedings, and the field stretches out before us bright and green, a true American candyland. It's on days like this that baseball -- The Game -- has its best stuff working, the kind of afternoon that has sent workaday newspaper hacks into deadline reveries and inspired every egghead dilettante in a bow tie to get a book deal. None of this is on Joe's mind, however. In fact, he is shaking his head and looking displeased. "You guys are a joke," he is saying, and it occurs to me that Joe Morgan might be thinking about strangling me.

He is a small man -- they called him "Little Joe" in his playing days -- and you can see his 61 years in the gray around his mustache and the slight hitch in his walk, but standing here, fairly gleaming in his ex-jock mufti, Joe looks young, fit, and content. His shoes are fine and tasseled, his suit is a resplendent cream, his jacket is slung insouciantly over his left shoulder -- an iridescent look that falls somewhere between churchgoer and deckhand on the Love Boat. Morgan, who grew up in Oakland and lives in Danville, is the analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. In a few hours he will appear on hundreds of thousands of television screens across America. He will have a microphone positioned beneath his chin and an easy, welcoming smile on his face. First-time viewers will think him a pleasant, patient, good-humored man. They will be wrong.

"You're a joke, too," he says to me now, and in a moment his right cheek will start to twitch, and his voice will hit its querulous upper registers, and a few sportswriters will crane their necks and listen in. Joe Morgan -- the greatest second baseman who ever lived and an Emmy-winning analyst who also happens to be the most insufferable sportscaster since Howard Cosell returned to his mother ship -- is angry. And why is Joe Morgan angry? It has something to do with a book Joe Morgan hasn't read.

"Both of you are jokes," he is saying, and what I will learn is that there are many jokes in Joe's world. We are jokes, those of us who dare have a thought or a theory about The Game though we have never worn the flannels of a baseball team; we are jokes, those of us who think a catcher has an effect on base stealing; we are jokes, those of us who believe in science and reason. The Oakland A's, if I may extrapolate, are a joke. Their general manager is a joke (though he played The Game). The front office of the world-champion Boston Red Sox is a joke. The guy in the chat room who had the temerity to question Joe Morgan's wisdom is definitely a joke. The author of Moneyball? Joe's not sure who that is, but he's sure he's a joke. The writer Bill James is a joke, and so for that matter is the entire masthead of Baseball Prospectus. I'm a joke. You're a joke. We're jokes, if not all of us, very, very many of us.

So I wonder: Why isn't Joe Morgan laughing?

Socratic exchange with Joe Morgan No. 1, on the subject of Moneyball, base running in the 2002 American League Division Series, and the use of statistics in baseball:

Me: It seems that you almost take [the book] personally.

Joe: I took it personally because they had a personal thing about me saying Durham should've stolen second base in the game that they lost -- he stayed at first base, and they hit three fly balls, and the A's lose another fifth game.

Me: And that's the chief reason you don't even wanna read the book?

Joe: I don't read books like that. I didn't read Bill James' book, and you said he was complimenting me. Why would I wanna read a book about a computer, that gives computer numbers?

Me: It's not about a computer.

Joe: Well, I'm not reading the book, so I wouldn't know.

Me: I'm not --

Joe: Why would I wanna read the book? All I'm saying is, I see a game every day. I watch baseball every day. I have a better understanding about why things happen than the computer, because the computer only tells you what you put in it. I could make that computer say what I wanted it to say, if I put the right things in there. ... The computer is only as good as what you put in it. How do you think we got Enron?

Somewhere between the playing field and the sky sits the broadcast booth, a sort of nursing home for former players, or at least for those former players who can get from subject to object without spraining an ankle. The booth is where old ballplayers go to turn senile. There, the utmost commonplaces are dispensed with the air of commandments -- Entertainment Weekly once referred to Fox's Tim McCarver as the "Master of the Obvious" -- simply because the head from which they issue once bore the hat of a major-league ball club. It wasn't always so. Time was, the color analyst was brought in just so Howard Cosell would have someone to condescend to; he was comic relief. Today, however, the analyst is regarded as an ambassador of The Game. Not only is he, as a former player, keenly attuned to frequencies no casual fan could ever hear, he is a man with Important Opinions on How The Game Should Be Played.

About The Author

Tommy Craggs


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