The Interrobang Book Club

July 22, 2012

[from the “Bizarro Jerry” episode of Seinfeld]
Elaine, admiringly: “They [Kevin and his friends] read!”
Jerry, defensively: “I read….”
Elaine: “Books, Jerry!”
Jerry: “Oh … big deal!”

Like Jerry, I hardly ever read books. Novels, biographies, self-help manuals…. You name it — I haven’t read it.

Since the joy of books alone isn’t enough to get me to pick one up, I’ve thought that I should join a book club so that the “assignments” would provide extra motivation. But then I’d be reading books chosen mostly by others rather than the books I wish I could get myself to read. The only solution, it seemed, was to form a book club that I would be in charge of.

And that is how the Interrobang Book Club came into existence. It consists of me, my companion LZ, and LZ’s friend TM.

the cover of Moneyball

The IBC’s inaugural meeting focused on Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Moneyball is the true story of how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane has used novel statistics-based methods of evaluating players to make the A’s a perennial contender despite a very limited budget.

LZ is not especially drawn to the game of baseball per se, so she was most interested in the inefficiencies of the baseball “market” and how Beane has taken advantage of them. But she agreed with me that the vignettes of underappreciated players — such as Scott Hatteberg, Chad Bradford, and Jeremy Brown — were fascinating and moving. These were guys considered defective by most baseball scouts and managers: Hatteberg can’t throw, Bradford pitches underhanded and with poor velocity, and Brown is fat. But Beane identifies them as bargains and gives them a chance to shine, to their initial confusion and eventual delight.

It’s easy to root for these unassuming underdogs. Beane himself is an underdog too — a general manager trying to outsmart teams that literally have three times as much money as the A’s. He shows admirable grit in repudiating deeply entrenched beliefs about how to judge talent. He’s also a bit of a maniac who is prone to temper tantrums. The detailed portrayal of Beane allows us to appreciate his insight and charisma, yet be glad that we don’t work for him.

LZ raised the question of whether a Billy Beane-style team, with its emphasis on efficient production of runs, is less fun to watch than a conventional squad of good-looking stars. Do fans want to see a bunch of unheralded misfits patiently draw lots of walks? The book seems to conclude that, if a team is winning, its fans will embrace it, regardless of the details. Whether the average fan can appreciate the challenges of competing against much richer teams is another matter, but for those who are interested, Moneyball provides a compelling explanation.

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