Archive for September, 2011

Lessons in law from Moneyball

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

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, 8-7Rays 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.

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Lessons in Life from Fantasy Baseball, Part 2

Monday, September 19th, 2011

Never underestimate your assets.  Had I started Matt Joyce—a streaky, often under-performing hitter for the Tampa Bay Rays—yesterday, instead of the tried and true Carlos Gonzalez of the Colorado Rockies, I’d currently be sitting in the championship match-up of my fantasy baseball league, having edged out a much stronger opponent on the basis of one spectacularly good week.  Joyce’s three runs batted in yesterday would have converted a narrow 6-7 loss to a 7-6 triumph and cemented my place as a baseball genius (at least, in my own mind).  As it is, I sit in the third-place game—fuming a bit, I’ll confess—playing just for a spot on the dais.  It’s another good life lesson from my favorite online pastime.

I was feeling compelled to put up another post about fantasy baseball by the fact that the movie version of Moneyball opens this week.  The book was a revelation to baseball stat-geeks everywhere because it documents the quest of Billy Beane, manager of the Oakland A’s, to build a competitive team based on the principles of SABRmetrics—those odd little statistics that add up to success on the baseball diamond.  Beane changed baseball by focusing the attention of an entire major league club, not on the traditional measures of hits, homeruns, and runs-batted-in, but on more obscure stats like OPS (on-base, plus slugging percentage), BABIP (batting average on balls in play), and—the bane of the traditional baseball writer—VORP (value over replacement player).  In doing so, Beane changed the way professionals see the game and changed the very process for evaluating baseball talent.  Beane’s strategy (or something close to it) has been followed by other notable managers, including Theo Epstein, under whose management the Boston Red Sox finally shook off the “Curse of the Bambino” and broke their championship drought.

The lesson of Moneyball (and of yesterday, for me) is that you should never underestimate present performance based on past performance.  Sure, past performance is a good indicator, but in my business—civil appeals—pushing the envelope goes with the territory (and, as one who often represents plaintiffs in Texas, the book’s subtitle–The Art of Winning an Unfair Game–certainly applies, too).  You can’t win once without losing quite a bit, first.  Sometimes, a good idea just needs fertile ground to take hold and change everything.  But, of 69 RBIs this entire season, Joyce has to wait until yesterday to rack up three of them?  Seriously?  Oh, well.  Just wait ‘til next year…..

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9/12

Monday, September 12th, 2011

September 11, 2001, was a horrible day.  It was Pearl Harbor for a generation, perhaps, multiple generations.  It was the day that terror from abroad came to America, and it is a day none of us will soon forget.

Like many, I know what I was doing that day.  Even as the jets slammed into the sleek, towering buildings of the World Trade Center in New York, I was sitting at my desk on the third floor of a dumpy little office building in downtown Houston, Texas, just two blocks from the courthouse.  I couldn’t work that day.  The news on my computer screen was too horrific, and the mantra echoed over and over in my head, “This can’t be happening.  This can’t be happening.  This can’t be happening….”

I got home that night and saw the images on the news.  Survivors covered in dust.  Bodies—some still alive—falling from on high.  And that awful, awful image of the planes hitting home; striking us in our core, as a nation, as a people.  I saw the images of dancing in the streets in the Middle East, and I felt the bile rise.  I felt a rage like I had rarely felt.

But something happened the next day.  The sun came up.  The horror was still there.  It’s been there ever since.  But something was different.

It’s always been my tendency to intellectualize everything—whether it’s good things, bad things, whatever.  Put simply, I think too much.  In my line of work, it’s sort of inevitable.  It’s what I do.  But I couldn’t help thinking that those faceless criminals—faceless, at least, at that time—had somehow missed the point.  They thought they were striking at America.  I wept, yes, I wept.  But I didn’t weep for America.  I wept for the lives lost, for fathers and mothers ripped from children, for sons and daughters ripped from parents, for brothers and sisters ripped from each other.  But I didn’t weep for America.  Because they never attacked America, and that’s what “they” will never understand.

The planes on 9/11 were targeted at the World Trade Center—a symbol of America’s economic might; at the Pentagon—a symbol of its military; and, my guess would be, at the White House—a symbol of its executive authority.  But I suspect that there was never a plane aimed at the Houses of Congress.  Or at our United States Supreme Court.  And there was never a plane aimed at any of the 50 statehouses and the countless courthouses in this nation.  That is where the Republic lives.  That is where democracy reigns.  That is our heart.  And our soul.

This morning, I was returning from a meeting with a client, driving up I-45.  I saw many flags flying at half-mast—I assume as a remembrance of 9/11.  But today is 9/12.  Ten years ago, we saw a re-birth of a spirit of giving, of volunteerism, of togetherness that grew spontaneously as a reaction to the horror that we had all witnessed.  It was a fitting tribute to the victims of 9/11.  Let’s do it again.  Raise those flags to full staff.  Remember that they died on 9/11.  But remember why they lived on 9/12.

 

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How to know you’re in for an interesting day in court?

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

When you’re appearing because of an order like this one, from Hon. Sam Sparks of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas at Austin:

Apparently, someone–multiple someones, in fact–didn’t play nice.

Judges don’t like dealing with discovery disputes or penny-ante arguments between lawyers, but it’s only once in a while that a judge finally blows his stack sufficiently to warrant an order like this one.  I suspect this isn’t the first dispute-that-never-should-have-been that Judge Sparks dealt with in the course of this case.  It’s a lesson for all lawyers:  don’t be “that guy.”  It’s not just that you get chewed out by a federal judge; it’s also that you get subjected to ridicule every time this order gets forwarded in someone’s email.

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