Thursday, February 23, 2012

Baseball, Innkeeping, and the Principles of Parsimony

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. You may have heard about the movie starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill--in fact, Hill is nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award in this year’s Academy Awards. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I suspect it’s a bit of a departure from the book. All movies need a strong plot, and Moneyball doesn’t have one, unless we consider the journey of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team and primary subject of this book, the plot. But even that’s a stretch.

The main character in this book isn’t Beane (portrayed by Pitt in the movie). The main character is really a philosophy. What Lewis lays out for the reader is a contrast, a clash, between perceptions and reality, between custom and innovation, between intuition and fact. That’s where the real conflict lies.

For over a century, baseball--like every culture--developed its own mythology. Don’t think of mythology in terms of angry gods here; think instead of engrained customs that become truths. Every culture has them: nations have them, professions have them, clubs have them, families have them. These customs-cum-myths are human observations that become gospel to the culture. The word becomes flesh.

In the baseball mythology, author Lewis fixes the old scouts of the Oakland organization as the keepers of the myths. He even refers to them as a “Greek Chorus” (Lewis 242). The scouts represent all the lore we associate with baseball, things like the ability to project a player’s future based on his performance in high school baseball. The most notable example of this is high school pitchers, who look fantastic because they’re 18 years old and their arms are still all rubber and steel, and they haven’t had to pitch 150 innings a year and sleep on buses and deal with minor league groupies and beer and whatever else the development leagues bring.

The reality--the mathematical and numerical reality--is that, “high school pitchers were twice less likely than college make it to the big leagues” (Lewis 16). Think about that: the scouts are always pushing to draft high school players despite the fact that it’s twice as risky as drafting a college player. So why would anyone waste a high draft pick on a high school player?

The explanation that Lewis lays out is that the scouts, who represent the old, traditional way of doing business in baseball, work on a mixture of gut feeling and nostalgia. They see what they want to see, and it goes directly against the philosophy that Billy Beane, after inheriting it from previous GM Sandy Alderson, perfected: find players who get on base, and do it for cheap. Beane adopted this philosophy because he used to be that highly-touted high school player. He was drafted by the New York Mets in the first round in 1980, and he went on to have a forgettable major league career, playing in 148 games and batting .241 over six seasons (Baseball Reference). In other words, he was a bust, and the Mets should have seen it coming in high school, because all the statistical warning signs were there, even back then, but the scouts ignored them. Billy Beane was a stud, a god, and the scouts loved worshipping gods, so he went in the first round.

When his playing days were over, Beane had the ability to look back, and instead of mythologizing himself, he recognized his flaws and the realities that caused them, and he vowed not to become a part of the system that had produced him in the first place. When he became the GM of the Athletics, he acquired a secondary impetus to ignoring the Greek Chorus: money. The Athletics hired Beane and, like Alderson before him, gave him almost no money to build a team with. And it’s that combination of parsimony and anti-establishment conviction that forms the theme of Moneyball.

Just as Beane bucked the notion that, “You gotta spend money to make money to succeed” with the Oakland Athletics, so too do we run our inn with the same principles of parsimony--but not because we’re cheap or poor. The idea of running an inn like a sieve through which money, material, and people are filtered appalled us. We were drawn to innkeeping because of the genuine connections we’d made with innkeepers over the years, and because of our intense desire to share what we had, which amounted only to us and our experiences, not our rooms equipped with iPod docking stations, satellite televisions, or bathrooms with fireplaces next to the toilets.

The fact that Billy Beane bucked the system with his own system doesn’t reflect on the reality of systemic approaches. Instead, it speaks to the reality of facts and data, and the courage to look at the scientific truth of a situation--in Beane’s case, baseball players; in our case, affordable rooms in a pricey town--and play to those strengths, instead of analyzing the market and funding business inadequacies with someone else’s money.

In Moneyball, Billy Beane suffers ostracism within his own organization, and within baseball. Even after he turned the Oakland A’s into a winner with perceived has-beens like Scott Hatteburg and David Justice, Beane’s approach was scoffed. Finally, in 2008, Beane could reap some satisfaction, though not for himself, when the Tampa Bay Rays won 97 games and finished first in the American League East, ahead of the mighty New York Yankees and defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, with the second lowest team payroll in baseball of $42 million. The Yankees led the league in payroll that year at $209 million; the Red Sox were third at $133 million. To put this in some perspective, the Rays spent $432,000 per win; the Yankees spent $2.3 million per win, and the Red Sox spent $1.4 million per win (ESPN).

Billy Beane knew what one of my innkeeping friend’s knows: a dollar saved is a dollar earned, and efficiencies will outweigh overspending in the long run. It also makes for a more genuine experience when you’re staying with innkeepers whose focus is on the big picture and not on you or the bottom line. It makes for good baseball, and it makes for good innkeeping.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

There's Snow in Them Thar Hills!

There’s been a lot of talk about snow this year. Specifically, where it is, and where it isn’t. In Alaska, there was so much early season snow that entire towns were abandoned until spring, which, in Alaska, takes a long time to arrive. Recently, the Rockies have broken their snow fast and received a massive dumping of mid-season snow. And out East, the talk is of the lack of snow.

People from the Northeast Corridor--that bright band of incandescent life stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C.--are gabbing about their lack of snow. Compared to last year, when buildings were collapsing in Connecticut under the weight of snowfall, this year is a precipitation desert. I recently heard a news report that said last year at this time, over 60% of the continental U.S. was covered in snow; this year, it’s less that 16%.

In Northern Vermont, we have snow, and plenty of it. Despite our ability to evade a single major snowstorm this winter, there is snow on the ground, and, more importantly, on Mt. Mansfield. In his weekly missive in last week’s Stowe Reporter, Kim Brown said that the snow total at the stake on Mt. Mansfield was only a few inches behind its seasonal norm, and that’s encouraging. Even more encouraging is the massive snowmaking operation that’s allowed Stowe Mountain Resort to build a solid base of snow to augment the erratic natural snowfall we’ve received.

Up here, there’s been a lot of grousing about the media and its hyperventilating about the lack of snow up north. But there’s also been a lot of reporting about the ski areas that are doing fine despite the lack of snowfall. The truth is that we’re not in the midst of a record setting snowfall year, but the skiing is outstanding. Even the natural snow in the woods is fine. Less time negatively interpreting the free press and more time talking with people about the excellent conditions would help assuage skiers’ concerns about coming to Vermont. And with the impact of social media (you’re reading this blog, after all, aren’t you?), there’s no reason to blame anyone but ourselves for not getting the word out.

So take heart, skiers and riders, there’s snow in them thar hills. Just give us call and get the local report, because all knowledge is local, and from where I’m sitting, the snow looks pretty good.