September 26, 2011

The True Value of Winning

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What does it cost to win? More specifically, what does it cost to win a baseball game? That is the question that Moneyball asks. The movie places General Manager Billy Beane’s small market Oakland Athletics in stark contrast financially to the New York Yankees, among other large market teams. For a team like the A’s, it is impossible to compete with the Yankees in payroll spending. So Beane looks for an alternative — a more cost-efficient way of translating player salaries into wins.

After losing some of its most important players from the previous year heading into the 2002 season, the A’s won as many games as the Yankees without picking up anybody notable during the off-season.

Toward the end of Moneyball, Beane interviews with the Boston Red Sox, who offer him a much larger contract than he had at the moment or could ever hope to have with the A’s. Yet he decides to stay with the A’s. In the context of Beane’s situation, why would he turn down more money when it meant more financial resources to spend on wins? Sure he had discovered a cost-efficient formula for winning, but it seems reasonable to believe that more money used along with this strategy might yield even greater dividends. After all, despite equaling the Yankees in wins in 2002, Oakland still did not win the World Series — although the Yankees failed in that respect as well.

I do not know why Beane decided to stay in Oakland in real life. Also open to interpretation is the message that the film was trying to get across through Beane’s decision not to leave. Winning is undeniably satisfying, but it is also true that there are factors that mitigate how satisfying winning can be, and the cost of this satisfaction cannot necessarily be counted in money. There is a satisfaction that comes with a deep attachment to a particular team. It is difficult to stay loyal to your team when it is constantly losing, yet it will be undeniably that much sweeter of a victory if and when the team eventually triumphs. Winning in Boston would have felt very different for Beane than winning in Oakland.

For a player who wants to be on a winning ball club, it is much easier for that to happen today than it was before the beginning of free agency. Not only is it relatively easy for players to move from team to team, but franchises bound for a championship are always looking for players to add late in the season. It can be argued that for a player, the value of winning has been diminished in an age where it is much easier for that player to be on a winning ball club. Furthermore, the constant movement of players throughout the league breeds a lesser sense of attachment to any particular team. I believe this sense of attachment is another tool that can make winning that much more satisfying. Even if LeBron James wins half a dozen championships in Miami, will any one of them be as satisfying as winning in Cleveland would have been? This is not a criticism of James’ decision. I’m just observing what the possible effects of such a trade-off are. I would have probably left for Miami, too.

From a fan’s perspective, it is much easier to root for a team that constantly wins, and therefore less satisfying to experience that victory. (I’m talking to you, Yankee fans). But I must admit that as a Lakers fan I have also gotten used to seeing the Lakers win on a consistent basis. As satisfying as it is to see them win, I do feel that all the wins and all the championships do not have as much value when experienced on such a consistent basis. As a Dodgers fan, I’m sure I would feel far more satisfied seeing them win the World Series, as opposed to the Lakers winning another championship. I can only imagine what it would feel like if and when the Cubs deliver a championship to their long-suffering fans.

Furthermore, the continuity in a team’s composition as well as the relationships that the players build with the community undoubtedly have an impact on how a championship affects those fans. The Dodgers of the late 1940s and 1950s, a team with basically the same group of players each season, lived in the same neighborhoods as their fans and consistently fell short year after year. When the team finally won a championship there was utter exuberance in Brooklyn. That team and its eventual championship meant so much to Brooklyn that it inspired Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer.

Winning is great. In fact, winning is the point of competitive athletics, as I have argued in previous columns. Otherwise it is merely recreation. But there is also a satisfaction that comes from winning that cannot be replicated by just any victory. There are varying degrees of satisfaction that can be more deeply felt when things like attachment and ease of winning are taken into account. Since 2002, the A’s still have not won a championship. The Yankees have won once since then and the Red Sox have won twice. I’m sure that if and when Beane does win a championship, it will be that much more satisfying.

Original Author: Brian Bencomo