Island of misfit toys

Recently I revisited the movie Moneyball and was reminded how much I love not only the underdog stories, but how important limitation are on problem solving, creative solution engineering and disruptive innovative technologies that have the potential to transform entire industries. If you haven’t read the book or watched the movie it’s a great story of Billy Bean who has just about the lowest budget to create a team for the Oakland A’s. Bean has done all he can within the accepted system of recruiting and training players- so well in fact that he became practically a training ground to be plundered by bigger budget franchises. He found great talent, prepared them and got them working well just in time for another team to offer them much more money and pull them out which constantly left Bean to begin again scouting new untested players. 

Bean’s limit was financial which is the most common limit most of us think we are facing- however we can be limited in many ways we cannot control that aren’t as obvious. I feel like my life in recent years has become a study on how limiting factors can become a strength and so this story particularly resonated with me.

The hero of the story was doing his level best to keep from going completely under but it was when his path crossed with Yale school of economics graduate and baseball fan Peter Brand that everything changed. Point two of this story: disruptive technologies and paradigm shifts that revolutionize an industry almost always come through an outsider. To his credit, Bean noticed there was something valuable going on with Brand although at first he couldn’t understand what it was- he was determined to find out. 

Brand understood that the statistics and numbers held an answer that were overlooked by those who had the big budgets. In fact, the big budget teams had a reason to keep the system- it was rigged in their favor. Those teams were throwing out money to buy talent- the obvious way to build a team. The economics nerd baseball lover Brand could see that was an inferior model. The system was wasteful and being mismanaged. If you looked at the value of hits and bases and you went all in to a system of building a team basically buying runs instead of most valuable players you didn’t have to spend near the money the big teams were throwing out. That’s where one of my favorite quotes of the movie comes from:

Billy, of the twenty thousand knowable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty five people that we can afford. Because everyone else in baseball under values them. Like an island of misfit toys.

Peter Brand in the movie Moneyball

The island of misfit toys. 

This is what I feel like on a regular basis when I glance around my life. And it makes me smile.

I am woefully under-resourced and the amazing (only 1/4 Arabian) mare I adore is not a natural endurance athlete. She’s not fancy bred for anything forget for being a top endurance competitor. Then there’s the fact that she’s the first horse I started from nothing with no other trainer ever working with her and basically unhandled her first four years of life. Oh did I mention I had never had a riding lesson or ridden a non-gaited horse before her, so my riding skills were at zero as well. So the process on every front has been s-l-o-w.

From 2015… attempts at some groundwork with only a makeshift “flag”!

All these limitation have demanded that if I didn’t want to give up I would have to get creative with what was in my hands. I would have to look for things that others who had a more established, systematic, clear path don’t have the need to explore. Who takes something that “ain’t broke” and gives a lot of valuable time to “fixing” it? Sure everyone wants to get better- who doesn’t like tweaking the sauce a little to perfect it just a bit more?  And yet anyone who has been in a place where things are going wrong will agree it’s a different amount of desperation that demands a new way of thinking.

I know I am not alone. I think there are a fair amount of you on some version of the island of misfit toys as well. Take heart my friends… it is actually the best place to be!

It takes some pretty aggressive deconstruction on Billy Bean’s part to throw all his chips into a new paradigm. He is committed but his people are not fully on board. His manager doesn’t have the vision, thinks it’s a suicidal idea and refuses to play the team the way it was put together. He is afraid of looking like an idiot-failure. So at first, as things go terribly wrong, Billy has to go even farther in slashing the few “higher value” players her still had. He had to double down and commit. Do I believe it or not? That is another life lesson, those who want to dabble in new ideas might get some benefit, but it’s that jump into the new world that brings the most power. If you try to meld the new and the old system together you’re going to make a monstrous mess. The team got way worse with the misfit players being played in the old system thinking. 

Which brings us to the next truth in the process. Those people in the system who saw it as working just fine for them will see you tank for a while as things change over and anytime a major shift comes it always gets worse before it gets better. They will roll their eyes, laugh at you, and call you a little cray-cray. At best. You might get shrugged off and ignored- that’s not so bad. Many will talk about you hopefully mostly behind your back, but because you apparently are unbalanced they might try to talk sense into you directly as well. You took a chance and it failed… so pull yourself together, admit defeat. Come back into the system that everyone agrees has been studied, tweaked and works.

Billy Bean knows that system cannot be for him anymore so he is desperate enough to do everything it takes to go all in. He leaves his manager with nothing left, no bridges to the mainland and together on that island they have to find a way to survive together. The manager is convinced this is his death knell but at least he’s not the big boss and can begin putting together a resume to find an old system job after his contract expires. 

**Spoiler alert!!**

But when they go all in, something changes. They start winning. In fact they have a record breaking winning streak that the world can’t help but notice. With the “reject” players that were undervalued by the system they began to win and win and win and win.

For real spoiler alert***  if you don’t know the story and want the magic of watching it play out… you can save the blog and come back…

Billy Bean knows that none of this matters if they don’t win the World Series. He knows that real legitimacy only comes when you take the top prize. And he doesn’t. They get so close, they do amazing things and break records. His team completely is turned around, but they still don’t win that “last game” that proves the system is ready to come down. 

All for nothing? 

Another favorite moment in the movie for me comes toward the end when the owner of the Red Sox, John Henry, asks to meet with Bean and offers him a job. Bean reminds him that his plan didn’t work. He went all in and the system still came out ahead when it mattered, in the last game. Here is what Henry tells Bean:

I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall — he always gets bloody. Always. It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds, it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods. It’s threatening their jobs. It’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people who are holding the reins — have their hands on the switch — they go batshit crazy. Anyone who is not tearing apart their team right now and rebuilding it, using your model, they’re dinosaurs.

Boston Red Sox owner John Henry in the movie Moneyball

My limited understanding of baseball is that Henry saw this disruption for the future it could bring and he then powerfully married together the model Bean and Brand developed with the much better financing advantage the Red Sox had access to, and they made history too. They finally won that “last game” that broke a historical recording losing the World Series. I suppose they had slightly upgraded misfit toys to work with. The real magic comes when the best things from the old system are left to now be run by the new paradigm thinking and an entirely new thing is created.

I love new things!

What does this have to do with an endurance journey? 

To me it means that my limitation of time, money and geography could actually be in my favor if I use those limitations to seek out smarter ways to manage my horse and her career. It means I can take heart when I’m willing to risk something new and I learn from it but don’t get immediate success. For me it means I have a long view that is bigger than a couple rides or even a couple seasons. For me it means seeking out people who I see finding creative solutions that are somewhat out of the mainstream way of doing things. 

It means I am constantly looking for people who have found something that to me sticks out of the “norms” and catches my attention. It might be the only odd thing they are doing and so it might not look incredibly exciting in it’s habitat… like Peter Brand working for a team still heavily set in the old system. Someone had the sense to bring him on board, but when Bean asked him: why do they listen to you? Brand replied: mostly they don’t.

It took a Billy Bean to pull him out and give him a bigger role. What I hope to do is notice the Peter Brand moments that have a small role in someone else’s program and explore the value they might have in creative solutions.

One such moment came from a picture of a woman I do not know. I saw her picture on a completely non-endurance platform and I recognized that she was riding over cougar rock (in the Tevis cup- our World Series) in a Balance dressage style saddle (these saddles give the horse a ton of freedom for back muscles to work but about the least rider stability, so one must be a very good rider to be successful in them), and she was riding with only a neck rope. Not even a halter on the horse. I don’t know if that is the kind of success plan everyone should be hoping for- it’s quite extreme and I don’t know that I would ever have a horse who could be ridden in such a big public event without any head control whatsoever. I’m not even certain riding a demanding 100 without a bit to help give support to the horse is in the horse’s best interest. Maybe this horse was truly that developed in physical strength.

Photo permission given to use in Greento100 blog by Traci Falcone

Traci Falcone riding CCR Viking Prince finished Tevis in 21 hours and 16 minutes, and the picture from that day resonated with me deeply. She didn’t come in first or even top 10 at Tevis. That would not make them eligible for best condition. But she did something few people can do, and the partnership with a horse to do that I believed was more valuable than any point standing or mileage patch. I know Traci isn’t the only one to ride with a neck rope, but for perspective, cougar rock is optional because for many it’s a realistically frightening rock summit to take on with a horse, and I imagine few people take on cougar rock in a saddle that won’t make the rider feel secure and basically… no hands. To me that was unusual.

As I reflect on this, I am generally not that interested in who finishes the Tevis Cup in first place, or even who wins the coveted “best condition” prize. I guess for me that’s like getting excited about the Yankees winning another World Series [apparently they don’t win so much anymore 😆] The things I dig into are who takes on cougar rock with no headgear on their horse in a generally “unstable” saddle designed to give the horse the most amount of movement in their topline… or who has the longest record finishing Tevis on the same horse… or who has the oldest horse to complete the Tevis Cup. Those people are often doing more interesting things to me than the ones who ride into Robie Park first.

I don’t know Traci and she may not have dealt with the limitations I’m talking about, but her example to me is the stand out relationship and physical strength the horse had to have are unusual things that many people I know nod toward and move on. It doesn’t tun into a wormhole with them, they cock their heads ask: who does that and why? And then shake their heads because obviously that person is odd… and move on. 

But that picture is one example of Billy Bean noticing Peter Brand off to the side in a meeting. It was unusual enough for me to ask: how large a part does willing cooperation play in success? How about the kind of rider skill and topline strength that comes from being able to ride in a Balance saddle successfully?

And those values have become pillars in the program I am working on developing for my horse and me. To me the island of misfit toys is about becoming more aware of the oddities that could have powerful connections. Things that are overlooked buy the mainstream. Undervalued. 

The time and effort it would take to work toward riding with that kind of connection takes a lot of time investment, and might slow down the process. Considering many endurance people I know agree that a horse has a limited age window of peak competition- why would one waste it with fanciful useless things like learning to ride in a neck string? Yet when we start looking at things differently we begin to see value differently. Then we can start to pair powerful otherwise undervalued pieces together creating a new thing

My little herd of misfits…

Therein, at least for me, is something worthy of investing some time into. Therin, at least for me, lies the fun.

Published by JaimeHope

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

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