Is “Moneyball” Ruining Baseball?

I was sitting in Naples 45, an Italian restaurant near Grand Central Station in Midtown Manhattan, awaiting with eagerness for my dinner. I am a part of a foundation called the Emma Bowen Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to providing internships to minority college students in the media industry, and our annual conference had begun with our trip to Naples 45.

As I sat with other Emma Bowen scholars, anticipating our soon-to-be delicious Italian dinner, a group of us weren’t concerned with eating. We picked the table nearest to a television screen to watch the second half of the United States vs. Portugal World Cup game.

Our anticipation for food turned into anticipation of hunger for a victory from the US. Win and they’re in. Draw, and they’re almost in. Lose, and have to face Germany in a must-win situation to move on from group play.

We sat and waited, for our food and for a goal. And it came, and the restaurant erupted in applause. Clint Dempsey, with an apparent crotch shot, netted the ball and gave the US a 2-1 lead in the 81st minute of the game. The waiting game for a goal now turned into waiting for the game to finish.

The 90th minute came and bad news along with it. 5 minutes of stoppage time added to the game. Portugal still had life. With mere seconds remaining, Cristiano Ronaldo, as only Ronaldo could, kicked a flawless ball to the center where Silvestre Valera’s head made contact with the ball. US goalie Tim Howard flew behind him as the ball went through the goal posts.

A collective AGH! filled the restaurant. The US and Portugal game ended in a draw. Not bad, but not great, but to some in the restaurant, they were utterly speechless.

As the aggravation left the room and people turned back to the pizza, pasta, and chicken cutlets, my eyes remained on the TV. Baseball was on. It was the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (breath) vs. the Texas Rangers for Sunday night baseball. But that didn’t seem to appeal to the restaurant’s customers.

Nobody watched and a question popped into my head that I posed to the group I was with that joined my pondering: Is Moneyball ruining baseball?

Before the introduction of sabermetrics courtesy of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, baseball captivated the country. It was America’s past-time, what you got your kids involved in with pee-wee and little league, and a game you did not complain was three to four hours. My favorite game to this day was the 10-run eighth inning by the New York Mets to come back down 8-1 against the Atlanta Braves in 2000. The game lasted 3 hours and 25 minutes, combining two things that would cause fans today to turn off the television or shift over to reality television: Down by many runs and going over three hours.

Sabermetrics could not explain why this ten run inning occurred. Before Robin Ventura’s RBI ground out that began the 10 run inning, the Mets had a 1% chance of winning the game. It was the best game because the game just occurred by chance.

While it isn’t a smart move for the front office to just make moves by chance, it was the reality until Beane and the A’s. Scouts subjectively looked at players, paid attention to the sexy stats of home runs, RBIs, batting average in hitters and wins, strikeouts, and ERA for pitchers. It wasn’t intelligent nor geeky enough. It was simple, inexperienced, but it created a game that captivated our country and others along the way.

Now, as I watched the Angels and Rangers go at each other, there was no excitement, no game of chance. It was a real-life game of Stratego, strategizing based on data collected by front office to create the team that can create the most runs and therefore create the most wins. The romantics of chance, gone, and complaints of a long season, long games, no fun, but lost in these complaints is this.

Could the mathematicians that changed the game forever, ruin the game forever? This article is not a persecution towards these pioneers in sports as I am interested in the practice, but the fan in me, the little boy who watched his lowly Mets, down 8-1, come back and score 10 runs with 2 outs in one inning, can’t help but wonder if, sadly, the geeks like me have toppled the mean jocks and ruin the game of baseball. It’s like finding out Santa isn’t real, you don’t want to believe it, but evidence points to it being true.

On Thursday, the entire country will sit and watch with bated breath, at work, at home, or at a viewing party in their respective locations as the US goes against Germany in their last group match for a chance to move on in the World Cup. Baseball, once upon a time, did this exact thing across the country, with fans tuning on TV or packing a ballpark to watch their team. But while the World Cup possesses the element of chance and suspense, baseball has outgrown that stage, thanks to the evolution of statistics in sports.

We have to thank these people who have changed the sport, but at the same time question if they changed it, not for better, but for worse, for good.

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