Playing Moneyball with Poetry

Two Hollywood people I like, Steven Soderbergh and Brad Pitt, had teamed up to film a baseball movie I’d actually pay to see (well, rent at least) — but it was axed at the last minute by the studio.  And I really mean last-minute — the film crew was on its way, and they’d already built a replica of the Oakland Coliseum in Phoenix.  There’s a great article about A’s GM Billy Beane and  “Moneyball” the movie over on ESPN.com.  It’s  shame, I would have loved to see Pitt as Beane, and Soderbergh’s blend of fiction and reality — real players playing themselves, documentary footage thrown in.  Damn you, Columbia Pictures!

It got me thinking about how I try to run Rattle on Moneyball principles. Not directly, but maybe incidentally — it’s been years since I read Moneyball, and all Beane really did was introduce common sense into a field where testosterone prevailed.  It’s more incidence than influence.

Here’s the gist:  Billy Beane, a failed ballplayer himself, took over the front office of the Oakland A’s in 1998.  The second team in what should be a one-team town (the Bay Area is only the 13th largest population center in the country, and 9 of the cities above it only have one team), the A’s don’t generate enough revenue to afford signing star players.  Teams like the Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox have two to three times their payroll, which is always one of the smallest in the league.  So the only way the A’s can compete is by recognizing and pursuing undervalued commodities.

Ten years ago, baseball was still in the statistical dark ages, with thinkers like Bill James looking from the outside in.  For over a century, scoreboards had been listing batting average, home runs, RBIs, and stolen bases, as if those were the most important metrics of a good ballplayer — and salaries responded accordingly.  But there are a lot of external influences that go into those stats that a player doesn’t control — the size of his home park, the strength of his lineup, and even chance itself.  Beane recognized that there were better measures of a player’s worth that weren’t overvalued by the market.  If he could find players, for example, with low batting averages, but who drew a lot of walks and so still reached base, he could sign them cheaply, relative to their true value — could sign a whole team of them, and so compete with the rich organizations, despite his small payroll.

And that’s exactly what he did, entering each season with one of the poorest teams in baseball, and then still making the playoffs.  His success spread throughout the league, and in 2003 Michael Lewis wrote a book about him called Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

When it comes to poetry publishing, Rattle really is an organization much like the Oakland A’s.  We’re a major league team, no doubt, but our budget pales in comparison to the big franchises.  We have a staff of two and spend one-fifth to one-tenth of what the big institutionally and pharmaceutically backed magazines do.  The only way we can compete with them is by recognizing and utilizing the traditionally undervalued commodities.  These include:

  • Customer service. We received 780 email entries to the Rattle Poetry Prize over the weekend, and I personally checked each file and confirmed that it met our requirements.  I’ve also got this blog, where I make everything we do transparent, I’m very accessible and friendly by email, and so on.  Poetry magazine could easily hire some extra staff to do that, but you’d be talking to an intern, not an editor — and I think there’s value in that.
  • The daily blog. We’re still one of the few to recognize the value of the blog format, and how beautiful the medium is for poetry.  Over 1,000 people log in to read our poem of the day every day.  Other magazines have great websites, far superior in design to ours, but they don’t provide this steady flow of new content.
  • Lesser-known poets. This is the big one, our version of On Base Percentage.  Unless you have some nice writing credentials, your chances of having a poem published in one of the big journals is pretty slim.  But credentials don’t make any one poem any better — well-known poets might write better poems on average, but there are plenty of great poems written by poets you’ve never heard of.  And there are thousands of poets you’ve never heard of, chomping at the bit.  So while Poetry magazine acts like the white shark, and gives birth to a few fully developed Pulitzer prize-winning man-eaters, Rattle makes like a frog, letting the fittest survive from two million tadpoles.  So in the end we get a magazine that reads just as well, if not better than Poetry, but without the same kind of big-name-clout.  We sign the Jack Custs of the world, instead of Alex Rodriguez — they’ll both hit their share of home runs, but Cust will do it for $20 million less, even if he does set the major league record for strikeouts in the process.

And poetry readers want lesser-known poets.  I think that’s the principle that the big franchises haven’t caught on to yet.  Almost all poetry readers are writers themselves — far more important than a few big names on the cover is the sense of fairness and equity in a magazine.   I think poetry fans want to read the best poems they can, regardless of reputation.  Poetry might acknowledge it with an asterisk next to newbees in their bio section, but they haven’t embraced poetic democracy like we have.  They still list the over-priced all stars on the cover, and they don’t encourage submitters like we do.  And that’s fine, they can afford to set their own values.  But Rattle is small-market; we can’t.

It didn’t take long after the publication of Moneyball for Beane’s strategy to spread across the league.  The Red Sox hired Bill James and won a world series.  On Base Percentage is no longer the undervalued metric — the market flipped, and Beane is building a new team around the fast, athletic defenders that are now the best value to be found for cheap.

The same is sure to happen to us — eventually the rest of the league will catch on, and we’ll lose our edge in friendliness and accessibility, and maybe our democratic philosophy will even spread.  Either we’ll find a new niche, or fade to the back of the pack.

The problem is, I really believe in our niche — I want to focus on friendliness, I want to support as many poetic voices as possible — so maybe we’re destined to fade.  We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.