Even in years when my home team, the Astros, gives me very little reason to be interested in the game, September baseball still finds a way to drag me in. The Astros have been pathetic this year, owning the worst record in the majors and losing over 100 games for the first time in franchise history. But yesterday I found myself awake near midnight having caught the tail end of two American League games and watching highlights over and over.
The evening began when I got out to see Moneyball—the movie version. I’ve long been a fan of the book, an entertaining read about the numbers behind the game and how a smart general manager started using them to build a team on a shoestring budget. There’s a line in the movie where a scout complains that “baseball is about people, not numbers.” The scouts—a personification of “old-style” thinking—are some of the villains of the piece in the movie version. In the book, the numbers take center stage. But ironically, the movie—as it really needs to be to tell its story—is more about people than numbers.
Afterward, I returned home and caught Moneyball in real life, starting with the end of the Boston Red Sox duel with the Baltimore Orioles. The Sox went into the day at the tail end of an epic slide from a lock for the American League playoffs, holding a one-and-a-half game lead over the New York Yankees for the division and a nine-game advantage over their nearest wild-card competitor at the start of September only to find themselves in a dead heat with the Tampa Bay Rays for the final playoff spot, with each club having one game to play. The conventional wisdom said that both would likely win and force a single-game “play in” game. Neither the Orioles nor the Rays’ opponent—the Yankees—had any particular reason to play hard, other than pride. The Yankees’ ticket to the playoffs was already punched, and the Orioles had already sunk into playoff irrelevance for yet another season. But both opponents had other plans.
After eight and a half hard-fought innings, plus an hour-and-a-half rain delay, the Sox found themselves headed into the bottom of the ninth inning with a one-run advantage over Baltimore. The stands of Camden Yards, the Orioles’ home field, seemed about three-quarters full of Red Sox jerseys and t-shirts. And on came Jonathan Papelbon, the Sox’ closer, to seal the deal. Papelbon is one of the best closers in baseball, having accumulated 31 saves with only two blown to that point in the season. This gave him a save percentage of over 90% meaning that, literally, better than nine times out of ten, Papelbon was going to get this done, and for the first two Orioles hitters he faced—both strikeouts—that certainly seemed to be the case. But then a hard hit double by Chris Davis put a runner in scoring position. A second double, moments later, by Nolan Reimold brought the runner home and tied the score. And then things got dramatic. A single into shallow left by Robert Andino that bounced just under the glove of Red Sox left-fielder and 14-million-dollar-man (this year), Carl Crawford, brought Reimold home. Game over. Sox lose, 4-3.
Meanwhile in Tampa, the Rays had begun their contest with the Yankees in horrible fashion, falling behind 7-0. Eighth inning heroics from the entire team made it 7-6 heading into the bottom of the ninth. A solo homerun on a 2-2 count by Dan Johnson—a season-long .119 hitter who hadn’t managed a base hit in his previous twelve games—tied the game in the bottom of the ninth. Three innings later and three minutes after the Sox’ slide became complete, Evan Longoria hit another solo shot over the left field wall. It was a quintessentially Moneyball-esque homer–sneaking over the extreme left side of the wall at its lowest point in the shallowest part of the outfield. Game over. Rays win, 8-7. Rays go to the playoffs; Red Sox go home.
In terms of payrolls, the 2011 Red Sox and the 2011 Rays couldn’t be much more different. The Red Sox boast the third-highest payroll in baseball this season, weighing in at over $161 million. In contrast, the Rays have the second-lowest payroll—just over a quarter of what the Red Sox have spent—at a shade over $41 million. (Indeed, the top-four highest-earning Red Sox’ salaries, combined, exceed the payroll for the entire Rays roster.) The disparity is even greater than what Billy Beane faced in Moneyball, but it didn’t stop the Red Sox from falling flat against a resourceful opponent.
As it goes in baseball, so it often goes in law. Clients pay large sums of money for high-dollar representation that can’t guarantee anything. General counsels of any number of companies talk a good game about searching for creative cost solutions, alternative billing plans, and ways to shrink their ever-growing legal fees. But when faced with the task of choosing counsel, they often spend like the Red Sox rather than the Rays, concentrating on names and glamor rather than cost-effective results. It makes me think that Moneyball should be required reading.