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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
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"I think he's a good broadcaster," Neyer says. "He knows a lot about a lot of stuff. If I wanted to have somebody come in and teach how to hit, turn a double play, steal a base, he'd be the guy. But stats analysis is not what he does well. He certainly has a blind spot."

A small community has developed around that blind spot. Not long ago, a man named Mike Carminati found himself reading Joe Morgan's ESPN.com chats and routinely deconstructing them in e-mails with a friend. When he started a blog in 2002, Carminati moved the chat recaps online, and so began Joe Morgan Chat Day, in which Joe would be compared to some of the world's great thinkers. The site, while not the first to titter at Joe's many fallacies, at least epitomizes much of the Morgan-bashing: bemused, mordant, and, above all, a little disappointed. Joe, these people seem to be saying, many of them the geeks playing video games, should be one of the good guys. Joe Morgan: Judas of the nerds. The blog Athletics Nation now offers a T-shirt that reads "Joe Morgan can kiss my bunt!"

"When he started broadcasting," Carminati says, "there were things he'd say that were completely counter to the way he played the game. It was the way he'd combine certain ideas. He'll make a reasonable statement, then combine it with a totally outlandish statement that makes no sense whatsoever." How do you think we got Enron? "His logic takes this leap. It's kind of ingenious in its own way." (Surprisingly, Carminati enjoys the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts. "You have to be in the right frame of mind," he says. "It's like watching Reefer Madness.")

Many have tried to explain Morgan's attack on statistics -- that it's a reaction against his famously numbers-obsessed teammate with the Reds, Pete Rose; that it's barely suppressed anger toward the A's, a team he once tried, and failed, to buy as part of an ownership group; that it's just a corollary of what Carminati calls "things were better in my day"-ism. "That's why small-ball will always beat Moneyball for Joe," Carminati says, referencing a style that emphasizes bunts, stolen bases, hit-and-runs, all things that Moneyball suggests are statistically self-defeating. Carminati channels Morgan: "These whippersnappers have it too easy today with the plentiful homers and theme music playing before every at-bat." There also may be an element of fear, or at least a feeling on Morgan's part that something like Moneyball is a threat -- that the nerds are at the gate. Tradition, says Will Carroll, who writes for Baseball Prospectus, has "this amazing death grip" on baseball. "One of the most interesting things about Moneyball was that we saw it as, 'Wow, this is an interesting story that tells interesting things, that takes a look at baseball differently.' But so many baseball people said, 'Holy crap, this is gonna cost me my job.'"

ESPN's Miller rightly points out that Moneyball depicted a polarized baseball world, with Harvard grads on one side with their laptops and spreadsheets and old scouts on the other with their Skoal and their gut feelings -- an exaggeration, some say, but clearly not far off the mark. "I think [Morgan] is irritated that he got put into a group of old baseball people who were ignorant and stuck in old ways and uneducated and whatever," Miller says.

There's a good reason for that characterization, though. On the field, Morgan may have been the Moneyball ideal; he may have even been the smartest player of all time. But on the air, or at his keyboard, he has shown an unwavering ignorance of statistics and their application, and, more damningly, a complete lack of curiosity about the revolution for which his career is a sort of standard. "I've read excerpts of things from Bill James," Morgan says. "I've read excerpts of Moneyball. But I don't read either one of those books, because I don't think statistics are what The Game is about, and so I'm never gonna agree with it, and I don't care -- I'm not saying it's wrong. You can look at it that way. I don't look at The Game that way.

"I played The Game," he says. "You're reading it from a book. I played. I watched. I see everything. I know what happens out there. ... My baseball knowledge is accumulated over 20 years of playing, 20 years of watching The Game, so that's what I care about. I can't care if next week somebody comes up with a new way to evaluate The Game. Am I supposed to say, 'Aw, that's good. I'll go that way now'?"

It's not just the "new ways" that confound Morgan. He has never been very good with numbers. One egregious example will suffice: He once wrote that a hitter's value is best measured by runs scored and runs batted in (statistics entirely dependent on the performance of the player's teammates and therefore mostly worthless as an individual metric), and a pitcher's by wins and losses (similarly dependent, similarly worthless). "Run production is how you measure hitters," he wrote with the patness of Scripture. "Wins and losses are how you measure pitchers. Batting averages and ERAs are personal stats." This bit was published in a book Morgan co-wrote. Its title: Baseball for Dummies.

About The Author

Tommy Craggs

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