14 June 2012

A New Way of Seeing: What I Learned From Moneyball

by Dr Mark McConnell

A recent story doing the rounds through Facebook is that Facebook itself makes people more dissatisfied with their lives. Research carried out by Utah Valley University sociologists shows that, “looking at happy pictures of others on Facebook gives people an impression that others are ‘always’ happy and having good lives”. Perception and how we interpret reality deeply affects us. And much of the time we bring this on ourselves by constructing, consciously and unconsciously, a set of rules by which we judge ourselves and others. Through this “way of knowing” we interpret the world and in many instances feel that we are not only losing out, but we ourselves might even be losers. What we need, is another way of seeing reality.

This is the key message in the Oscar-nominated movie Moneyball which is out on DVD this month. In this somewhat fictionalised account of true events, Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. The movie opens with Oakland (with a $40 million payroll) losing to the New York Yankees (with a $120 million payroll). Beane knows the game is unfair and therefore knows that if he continues to compete according to the accepted rules, he will continue to lose.

The accepted “rules” state that players are chosen by the gut instinct of scouts on the basis of a certain athletic look and particular combination of skills. This is the way it has been for 130 years. And it is this way of “seeing” that Beane sets out to change. Rather than players winning games, it is actually runs that win games. And so it doesn’t matter what a player looks like or what combination of skills they have – what matters is how many runs they can get. This, says Beane to his own backroom team, requires looking at the game differently than they have ever looked at it before. It requires them to pull at a thread that might unravel their whole world.

And of course, this is hard to do. One of the scouts admits that he just doesn’t see it. Beane’s response is simple: “That’s okay [but] we won’t be victimised by what we see anymore.” So, in the long history of baseball, why hasn’t anyone thought like this before? As Beane’s co-conspirator (a young economics graduate from Yale) answers, “High functioning people can live under the spell of an inexplicable mental lapse when they think as a group.” To see things differently requires what feels like a step of faith. Taking this kind of risk, Beane assembles of team of players that most of the other teams would have rejected, and with these players goes on to win a record 20 consecutive games.

The movie ends with Beane driving home from a meeting at the Boston Red Sox who have just offered him a $12.5 million salary. However, Beane is able to see beyond the accepted rules of life so that he does not need to accept a salary which would have made him the highest-paid general manager in sports history. To do this might make him a loser in the eyes of some, but as his daughter reminds him in a beautifully poignant bringing-back-down-to-earth song at the end of the movie, “You’re such a loser Dad, so just enjoy the show”.

In our increasingly competitive culture where we so quickly evaluate our own lives on the basis of the apparent lives of other, we need a new way of seeing… even if it means questioning traditionally held convention which in the end might unravel our whole world. This is what the Gospel is about – interpreting reality through Jesus Christ who allows us to see our own lives, the lives of others and the world in quite different terms: faith, hope and love. The Gospel frees us from simply being victims of an old way of seeing.

It is not about competing according to the rules. Rather, it is all about changing the nature of the game.

Mark also blogs at fourthopinion.net

Disclaimer and Policy