How To Build A Ballclub

The first time that Brant Colamarino, a 23-year-old first baseman from the University of Pittsburgh, took off his shirt in an Oakland Athletics minor- league clubhouse, he flashed something that would've made the other 29 franchises in major-league baseball happy that they'd never even considered drafting him. Colamarino, his coaches noticed, had breasts. He was fat. To those 29 teams, it didn't matter that Colamarino tore up college pitching. He simply didn't look the part. Only the man who drafted him, Oakland's uncannily successful general manager, Billy Beane, seemed to grasp that being fat has nothing to do with hitting a baseball. It should be obvious. After all, what's the one thing we all know about the game's most famous slugger? Babe Ruth: fat. But if you read Michael Lewis's new book about Beane, "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game"--and anyone who cares about baseball must read it--you'll quickly learn that the major leagues aren't so swift.

The reason baseball is "unfair" is because it asks teams to compete for the same prize, a World Series title, with wildly different resources. The New York Yankees' player payroll this year is $126 million. Oakland's is just $40 million--and yet in the past three years, only one team has won more games. (Not the Yankees.) How did Beane do it? He found good players the market didn't value--because he couldn't afford the ones it did. He signed guys "dismissed by [his] own scouts as too short or too skinny or too fat or too slow," Lewis writes. "Young men who failed the first test of looking good in a uniform." In the retelling, Lewis also spins a smart psychodrama: Beane was a highly coveted prospect who flopped in the majors. He thought too much. He dwelled on his failures. So once he became a GM, Beane avoided players who reminded him of himself.

Lewis's obsession with business iconoclasts has resulted in best sellers about Wall Street ("Liar's Poker") and Silicon Valley ("The New New Thing"). It's no wonder that he warmed to the charismatic Beane--maybe a little too much. (For one thing, he gives him a free pass when he chalks up Oakland's three straight playoff collapses to mere "bad luck.") Fans of baseball, though, who have long suspected that their favorite team is run by morons will be delighted to hear that they're probably right. (If you're a Mets fan, like me, you're definitely right.) The thrill of "Moneyball" is that you finally find out why.