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“Moneyball” and Spiritual Leadership

October 6, 2011


The management of the 2002 Oakland Athletics found itself in a bind. The team had performed very well the previous year, making it to the playoffs, but in the offseason, three of its best players were lured away by lucrative contracts offered by East-coast powerhouses. In a relatively small market and with a very limited budget, the A’s had to find a way to compete. Their general manager, former big-leaguer Billy Beane, stumbled upon a revolutionary strategy to make the Athletics winners while remaining within their means. It doesn’t sound exactly like the kind of storyline that Hollywood would embrace with enthusiasm, but it provides the foundation for a terrific film called “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt as the visionary general manager. “Moneyball” is not only a great baseball film; it is also a compelling exploration of the dynamics of leadership and the psychology of success. And as such, it is a movie that teaches a great deal about the spiritual life. 

Beane’s breakthrough occurred through the ministrations of a young, untested, Yale-trained, junior executive named Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill). Setting aside the assumptions that had, for decades, determined the way baseball talent was assessed, Brand asked a pair of elemental questions: what wins games? Answer: scoring runs. And what makes scoring runs possible? Answer: getting on base. Therefore, he concluded, if you want to win games, you have to acquire players who have a knack for getting on base, through hits, walks, getting struck with the ball, etc. He had developed a metric for determining precisely who had that ability—and found that, more often than not, baseball executives and scouts overlooked or undervalued those very players. 

Inspired by Brand’s vision, and armed with his statistics, Beane assembled his scouts for a meeting regarding the acquisition of players for the upcoming year. Over and again, the grizzled and experienced baseball men spoke of the “look” or the “body” of a player, the way the ball “jumped off the bat” of one prospect, the “confidence” of another. Exasperated, Beane shouted, “But do they get on base?!” He was implying that a great looking, athletic, skillful player might not actually be the kind of player that wins games. He wanted his scouts, who were beguiled by the romance of the game, to share his own clarity of vision in regard to their ultimate purpose. Needless to say, the old veterans didn’t jump right on board. Neither did the manager; neither did the sports writers; neither did the fans. And when Beane’s team, assembled according to Brand’s calculations, started the season slowly, the critics came out in force, accusing the general manager of arrogantly standing athwart years of baseball common sense. But Beane stuck to his guns, and the team of “misfit toys” began to gel, and then to excel, and finally to produce the longest winning-streak in American league history.

The single most important quality of a leader is clarity of vision, and his second most important quality is a willingness to do what he has to do in order to realize that vision. Lincoln, for instance, was no great economist. He did not have extensive experience in government nor was not a particularly skilled legislator. But at the most dire moment in American history, he saw with crystal clarity what the country needed and he had the intestinal fortitude to make it happen. “If I can save the Union by freeing some of the slaves, I will do it; if I can save the Union by freeing none of the slaves, I will do it; if I can save the Union by freeing all of the slaves, I will do it,” he famously said. Then, in the course of the war, despite choruses of criticism, he fired and hired a whole bevy of generals until he found the man he needed. When people complained about the drunken General Ulysses Grant, Lincoln said, “I can’t spare this man; he fights,” and then, playfully, “Send a case of Grant’s whiskey to all my other commanders.” The President knew that he had to win the Civil War and that in order to win the Civil War he needed a general who would bring the battle to the enemy. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus turns on two young men who are following him and asks, “What do you want?” It’s an indispensably important question. Many people go through life not really knowing what they most fundamentally want, and accordingly, they drift. The correct answer to Jesus’ question is “eternal life” or “friendship with God” or “holiness.” This corresponds to Billy Beane’s “scoring runs” or Lincoln’s “winning the Civil War,” for it is the simple, clear, unambiguous articulation of The Goal that any believer should have as he endeavors to “lead his life.” Now other people may know, more or less, what they want spiritually, but they lack the courage and attention to pursue that end in the face of distractions and opposition. They know that they should be growing in holiness, but the secular culture proposes sex, pleasure, power, and honor so attractively, that they lose their way. Or perhaps, they receive withering criticism from those who are stuck in the old, standard way of life, and they give in. 

What is true at the personal level obtains at the institutional level as well. How many Catholic dioceses can clearly state their objective, what it is, precisely, that they are trying to accomplish through all of their programs and activities? How many bishops can see past old patterns and tired strategies that are no longer serving the purpose of making people holy? How many can resist (or dismantle) bureaucracies whose raison d’etre is self-preservation rather than the proclamation of the Gospel?

“Moneyball” is a portrait of leadership in the world of baseball. But its lessons apply to any seeker on the spiritual path.