They say to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. Until recently, it never occurred to me that this should include both fiction and nonfiction (excepting for the better books on writing). Many of you are probably saying “Duh”… but writers hear me out, because Moneyball by Michael Lewis provides a great study in something I think of as ‘narrative momentum’, an important facet to writing a compelling story.
Moneyball is a book published in 2003 about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his use of sabermetrics (a form of statistical analysis) to determine a player’s batting effectiveness. At the time, the use of sabermetrics was quite revolutionary. If there is any institution stuck in its traditions and the thought structure of “well, it’s how we’ve always done it” mentality, it’s the game of baseball. The baseball purist will generally be proud of this blinders-to-the-real world thinking… or used to be. Billy Beane and his assistant Paul DePodesta built a mathematical system to predict how many wins a team would have based on the players on its team versus the team’s opponents. This allowed Beane and DePodesta to select quality players nobody else wanted at bargain prices. Because Oakland maintained the third lowest payroll (something around $45,000,000 a year) in the major leagues, finding quality bargain players was necessary in order to compete for a championship.
So Bean and DePodesta built a team their computer estimated would win 95 games. The A’s went on to win 103 games and place first the toughest division in baseball (though they ended up losing in the first round of the playoffs). Along the way, they won an American league record 20 games in a row.
This story doesn’t sound terribly exciting for anybody but mathematicians and baseball general managers. Perhaps throwing Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill into the mix amps up the interest for the masses (and me)… plus, I saw an interesting interview with the author on the Jon Stewart show, so I decided to read the book.
While the book focuses on Beane, his draft day antics, his hysterical tantrums, the dismay and disbelief of his staff and players, he isn’t the driving force behind the book. No, the driving force is the story of a little known player named Scott Hatteberg.
Michael Lewis builds the heart of his narrative around Hatteberg, a likable and congenial guy, beginning with his waning days as a Boston Red Sox catcher. Hatteberg was injured in a manner that meant he could never play the position of catcher again. He’d always played catcher. Going as far back as his little league team. Lewis gives the reader a bit of background about Hatteberg’s life, playing catcher, the positive role baseball played in his life. The Red Sox let Hatteberg go, even though he was an effective hitter.
Billy Beane offered Hatteberg a contract with one caveat–Hatteberg would have to play first base because Oakland needed to use someone else in the DH position. Lewis gives us scenes of the player and his wife and child hitting him ground balls in the rain in their backyard. His coaches tell us cringeworthy stories about Scott and his inability to play first base in game situations.
Through all this, Michael Lewis has been generating reader sympathy for Scott Hatteberg. He’s also been pushing the narrative forward smartly interspersing the larger, less emotional story of Billy Beane and the A’s transformation with that of the underdog first baseman.
The book reaches its climax when the A’s are playing the hapless Royals. They have won 19 games straight, tying the record. Lewis slows down time, giving us a near inning by inning breakdown. The A’s jump out to a large lead… 11 to 0, with their ace pitcher on the mound. The record looks in the bag. Then the unthinkable happens. The Royals mount an incredible rally. The A’s go from ecstatic record breakers to the gang of losers the league still believes them to be. The Royals tie the game and send it into extra innings, tied 11 apiece.
The manager, disliking Billy Beane’s strategy, had decided to sit Scott Hatteberg in favor of a more preferred player. So Scott had spent most of the game in the players clubhouse drinking coffee rooting for his team. The manager calls on Hatteberg to pinch hit. He has to hurry to prepare, even grabbing the wrong bat (most players in the big leagues sign with Louisville Slugger to use specially designed bats for their exclusive use).
Hatteberg, with two strikes, blasts a walkoff pinch hit homerun. The A’s go wild. And good ol’ Hatteberg, the player nobody wanted, the player other made fun of at first base, the player even the manager didn’t want, saves the day and gives the A’s the record.
Win one for the little guys, right?
In the book’s denounement, we’re told Hatteberg went on to become well-regarded for his fielding skills at first base, that the A’s won 103 games, and before long just about every team hired a sabermetrics expert.
As an editor, I recommend that a great way to engage the reader is to keep your story surging forward, usually on the back of a sympathetic character. Being nonfiction, Michael Lewis had a real-life one tailor made in Scott Hatteberg. Naturally, writing and being successful in creating narrative momentum is easier said than done. Sometimes you need to read a good book to get a handle on certain arts of the craft of writing. And sometimes, you’re given examples of craft in the most unexpected of stories.