“The Trading Desk” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 28)

Michael Lewis is a prolific nonfiction writer, author of The Big Short, Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, as well as hundreds of articles for The New Republic, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times.

The Trading Desk, which appeared in the March 30, 2003 edition of the New York Times Magazine, was adapted from his book Moneyball, which would later be made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. But even if you never read the book or saw the film, this 8900-word feature article would stand on its own. It’s a great story about the changing business of baseball, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, and the players who get moved around like playing pieces on a board.

Billy Beane

Photograph by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

At the heart of the story is the way Beane defied conventional wisdom about how to evaluate baseball players and build teams. With limited money to spend and fewer star players to use as assets for trades, Lewis shows Beane to be gutsy and resourceful, relying on mathematics, data, and personal charm to do what he can’t with a large payroll.

Here, he frames the larger context for all the action in the story:

For more than a decade, the people who run professional baseball have argued that the game was ceasing to be an athletic competition and becoming a financial one. The gap between rich and poor teams in baseball is far greater than in football and basketball, and widening rapidly. In the middle of the 2002 season, the richest team, the New York Yankees, had a payroll of $133.4 million, while two of the poorest teams, the Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, had payrolls of less than a third of that. A decade before, the highest-payroll team, the New York Mets, spent about $44 million on players, and the lowest-payroll team, the Cleveland Indians, a bit more than $8 million. The growing raw disparities meant that only the rich teams could afford the best players. A poor team could afford only the maimed and the inept, and was almost certain to fail. Or so argued the people who ran baseball.

But when you actually look at what happened over the past few years, you have to wonder. The bottom of each division has been littered with teams — the Rangers, the Orioles, the Dodgers, the Mets — that have spent huge sums and failed spectacularly. On the other end of the spectrum is Oakland. For the past four years, working with one of the lowest payrolls in the game, the Oakland A’s have won as many regular-season games as any other team except the Atlanta Braves. They’ve been to the playoffs three years in a row and twice taken the richest team in baseball, the Yankees, to within a few outs of elimination. How on earth did they do it? As early as 2000, Commissioner Bud Selig took to calling the Oakland A’s’ success “an aberration,” but that was less an explanation than an excuse not to grapple with the questions: how did they do it? What was their secret?

The story goes about the business of answering that question, using the example of one trade to reveal the thinking and strategy behind Beane’s maneuvers.

Lewis paints the big picture well, but he also zooms in to let us see Beane in action, wheeling and dealing:

He has two hours to find someone who will take Venafro off his hands. The Mets are a good idea. Beane picks up the phone and dials the number for Steve Phillips, the general manager of the Mets. A secretary answers.

“Denise,” Beane says, “Billy Beane, vice president and general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Denise, who is the best-looking G.M. in the game?” Pause. “Exactly right, Denise. Is Steve there?”

Steve isn’t there, but someone named Jimmy is. “Jimmy,” Beane says. “Hey, how you doin’? Got a question for you. You guys looking for a left-handed reliever?”

He raises his fist again. Yes! He tells Jimmy about Venafro. “I can make it real quick for you,” he says.

How quick?

“Fifteen minutes?”

Fine.

“I can give you names in 15 minutes,” Beane says. “Yeah, look, I’d do this if I were you. And I’m not [expletive] you here Jimmy. I’m being honest with you.”

Lewis’ work is great because he does two things very well: he’s a fine explainer, and he writes great scenes. He helps make sense of complex worlds of finance, professional sports, and business, but he doesn’t get buried jargon and acronyms. He doesn’t forget that ultimately, these stories are about people, and takes the time to give the reader a sense of who they are. He delivers a story about a big picture, but pays attention to the details of the people inside the frame.

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The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 17)

For most of us, NFL preseason games in August are meaningless. Few of the starters play, the games are sloppy, and nothing much seems to be at stake. The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot by Charles Seibert for the New York Times Magazine shows us that for a handful of college stars hoping to cling to a dream of making it as professional player, everything is at stake.

Pat Schiller

Photo credit: Christaan Felber for The New York Times

The story follows the summer and fall of former Northern Illinois University star Pat Schiller as he tries to make it onto an NFL roster. When his name doesn’t get called during the NFL Draft in April, his fate comes down to impressing coaches during offseason workouts and preseason games. Like many other athletes who are close enough to be considered for the league, but not quite good enough to get a guaranteed spot on a roster, it’s a uncertain time. His future swings in the balance: are his football days behind him, or can he make a few key plays at the right time that will earn him a chance to play in front of thousands of screaming fans in a regular season NFL game?

Seibert does a good job showing us the conflict and uncertainty around Schiller, the stress he faces being a hometown hero at the same time that he’s fighting for an unlikely roster spot on and NFL bench:

Later that evening, my last night in Geneva, Pat and I stopped into a few of the local haunts along his hometown’s historic main street (a location for the period film “Road to Perdition”). Wherever I went with “Mayor Schiller,” as one friend called him, drinks materialized and tabs disappeared. Owners, managers, friends and friends of friends all stopped by to ask how Pat was doing and to wish him well.

“It’s weird,” he said to me during a rare lull. “For some reason I’m cool because I’m able to play a game. And they don’t realize how hard and cutthroat it is now. They’ll say things like, ‘Hey, worst-case scenario, you’ll be on the practice squad.’ And I’m thinking, Are you kidding? That would be unbelievable. But these people are really counting on me, and I feel a lot of pressure to not let them down. That’s a big part of what drives me. And I like being the interesting guy, you know? I want to be talked about and turn heads when I walk into a place. Who doesn’t? It sounds so egotistic, but it’s what it is. And to think this is all going to be done one day, probably sooner than later, and I’ll have to face reality. Have a 9-to-5 job, not be Mr. Interesting anymore and never have the rush that I get before games. That’s scary to me.”

Like hundreds of other would-be NFL players, Schiller struggles with the possibility that at 22 or 23, his career as star athlete has peaked, and it may be time to drop a lifelong dream.

As Schiller continues to struggle to make the squad, his hopes start to hinge on the health of other players, and the reader gets to see the macabre but real aspect of the game: an injury to one player is an opportunity for someone else:

Somehow it wasn’t until we were watching postgame highlights that either of us noticed the backup linebacker, Robert James, whose former place on the practice squad Pat now held, had come into the game sometime during the fourth quarter. Pat sat bolt upright, grabbed the remote and scrolled back through the game to determine the precise moment James entered. He then went to the Falcons’ game thread on his computer, eyes narrowing, lips slightly parted in anticipation.

“Stephen Nicholas,” he muttered. “Ankle.”

For the next two days of my visit, we were on the Stephen Nicholas ankle watch. Texts and calls came from all directions. Everyone Pat knew, it seemed, was aware of Nicholas’s ankle. Gruder, with whom Pat had only exchanged a couple of text messages since Gruder was released in August, wrote, “You getting called up this week?” Chris Browning of ProForce phoned to ask the same thing. Over dinner the following night, the number of Dave Lee, Pat’s agent, flashed up on Pat’s cellphone. Pat held the phone to his ear. A protracted silence.

The story is a revealing, inside look at what it takes to make it as a pro athlete. Seibert lets us see the physical and psychological toll it takes on the players on the edges of the game.

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