Column: Dominican ‘Moneyball’ exploits an unfair game

By Alex Moss

The story of “Moneyball,” which opened in theaters this weekend, is, for the most part, the story of Billy Beane. Appointed as general manager of the Oakland Athletics in 1998, Beane inherited a 65-win team that, because of the limited market, had little payroll flexibility. Just a few years later, the team was winning with such relentless consistency that Michael Lewis had already begun researching and writing his best-selling book that would serve as the basis for the movie.

Of course, the GMs of winning baseball teams don’t generally have books devoted to them. What made Beane so interesting was the apparent improbability of his team’s success. The 2001 Athletics outspent only one team in all of baseball while winning more games than all teams but one. In football, with only 16 games to decide things, that kind of quirk can happen at random. But while baseball is as vulnerable to chance as any other sport on a game-by-game basis, over the course of its considerably longer season the irregularities get ironed out. Hot starts fade. Pitchers settle down. By the end of the season, it’s pretty easy to tell which teams are good and which aren’t — just look at the standings.

Usually, the teams at the top were big spenders. Were the Athletics not an exception, but an anomaly? No — anomalies don’t generally last a full season, and they certainly don’t last several. How, then, did they pull it off? The answer is Moneyball.

The concept at the core of Moneyball was not by any means a new one in competitive environments. It wasn’t even a new one in baseball — the information had been kicking around for years, ignored until then by most people in a position to use it (with the notable exception of Beane’s predecessor in Oakland, Sandy Alderson). Players are goods, and as such they need to be evaluated and paid for according to that evaluation.

What Beane saw in his competitors was that their evaluations were coarse. Scouts and GMs were often using commonly accepted but inaccurate statistics, ignoring more effective ones. There were, in short, inefficiencies in the way teams were assessing and paying for value. Beane took advantage of those inefficiencies, paying less for more, and in doing so hoped to field the best team possible for the least amount of money. It worked, well enough to become arguably the most influential idea in baseball’s history.

I thought about Beane when, on the same day that “Moneyball” came out, a four-year veteran pitcher on the Florida Marlins named Juan Carlos Oviedo was being sent back to his native Dominican Republic to deal with legal problems. For more than a decade, Oviedo had been using the name of his childhood friend, Leo Nunez. His uniform said Nunez, his paychecks said Nunez — his teammates reportedly called him “Nuny.”

More players come from the Dominican Republic than from any other foreign country, and the scouting that happens there is intense and begins early. Oviedo’s teammate and fellow reliever Edward Mujica clarified what it means to sign a contract after you’re 16: “At 17 years old, you maybe lose $100,000 or $150,000 when you sign … 18, you sign for $5,000 and maybe they give you an opportunity.”

Players are worth more to teams when they’re younger because they have more potential. That’s how scouting departments operate — those are the rules that a 17-year-old Oviedo had to navigate. So he broke the rules. His best friend Leo Nunez was a year younger, after all.

Although Oviedo returned home, he was not deported and he will not face criminal charges in the Dominican Republic. He was, however, placed on MLB’s restricted list. He is out of a contract. Given U.S. laws on immigrants admitted into the country under false pretenses, it’s unclear whether he will be able to return at any point in the near future. I’m not in a position to say with any authority whether or not these consequences are fair.

What struck me instead about Oviedo’s detention and the release of “Moneyball” on the same day was the similarity of the protagonists’ actions and the disparity in both their motives and reception. Beane and Oviedo (and all Dominican players with false papers) each looked at the established order of things and decided that there was some advantage to be gained.

The full title of Lewis’s book is “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” The subtitle was left off for its movie counterpart, but within it is the story’s heart. Beane was an underdog — the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers were routinely spending three times as much as Oakland. Beane would do anything to find another $100,000 that he could in turn spend on a would-be diamond in the rough. Oviedo wanted that $100,000 because it was, in all likelihood, more money than he had ever seen and because a big league contract meant that his family would be taken care of.

Though there are certainly differences — Oviedo broke laws and lied; Beane merely schemed — it’s not much of a stretch to look at Oviedo’s actions and determine that among all the options that a young, poor Dominican kid has at his disposal in that situation, he chose the one closest to the ideal that Moneyball represents. Find the inefficiencies in the system, exploit them and succeed. How else is one supposed to win an unfair game?

For Beane, that system was baseball. For Oviedo, it happened to be life. And although I would like to close cynically, note that Brad Pitt is playing Beane as Oviedo worries about his future. Ask what that says about how where we start in the world dictates where we end up. “Based on a true story” sports stories are a gold mine and Hollywood knows it. I’m thinking Freddie Prinze Jr. as “Nuny,” 2015.

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