Two of the things I love the most are (a) movies, and (b) baseball. What could be better than either of those? Why, what else – a baseball movie, of course.
Hollywood has produced a long line of baseball movies over the years, ranging from movies about great players (The Pride of the Yankees) to more fanciful efforts (Field of Dreams), or period pieces about important moments in baseball history (Eight Men Out, about the infamous 1919 Black Sox scandal).
Moneyball is a completely different kind of baseball movie. It is gripped in harsh reality. How does a team with a very low payroll manage to put a competitive team on the field against free-spending big market teams?
That is the dilemma the Oakland Athletics and their general manager Billy Beane faced in 2002.
The story of Moneyball opens with the Athletics loss to the New York Yankees in the 2001 playoffs – a team with triple the payroll of Oakland. It gets worse. The offseason upon them, and the A’s payroll is so low they can’t afford to make decent offers to keep their stars Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Jason Isringhausen. We see Beane’s frustrations in dealing with the agents, all of whom take their clients elsewhere. The team is gutted.
What are the Athletics to do? Fortunately Beane, played convincingly by Brad Pitt, hates losing.
Beane’s answer is to come up with some new way to compete – some way in which to get the talent they need within their miniscule budget, and still win on the field.
The story of Moneyball revolves around Beane’s efforts to rebuild the Athletics through sabermetrics and statistical analysis. The concept of “moneyball” is basically this: there are players out there who are deemed “misfits” by the conventional baseball community, players who are undervalued by all the other teams for various reasons but who can get the job done on the field at a discount.
Using computer-generated analysis of the players out there, you can find all the right pieces that fit your budget through trades or the draft, put them together, and you have a contender. So the concept goes.
Beane teams up with a lowly accountant who works for the Cleveland Indians named Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, and brings him to Oakland to share with Beane all these new cost-saving ideas.
The movie does a good job of giving us a sense of how radically different this kind of thinking was. Traditional baseball people were frightened by it, and we saw some of the fights and continuous second guessing that accompanied Beane’s new way of doing things – including the tension with manager Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and with the scouts.
We see how high the stakes are. If the new “moneyball” way flops Beane, who passed up an education at Stanford for a so-so baseball career, could lose his job and his whole livelihood. There’s a real human story to go along with all of this in Beane’s interaction with his daughter, who is an accomplished guitarist, as we find out in the movie.
Of course, baseball fans know what ultimately happened with the 2002 Oakland Athletics. The team ended up winning – a lot. In fact with the passage of time a lot of us forget how good the A’s were in 2002 and how dramatic a season it was for them.
The movie succeeds as an underdog story and as a story about the business of baseball, particularly the harsh realities of the sport.
Above all else, it succeeds in its genre as a baseball movie that stands on its own terms. We see in the movie how difficult it is to take on the old way of doing things and bring revolutionary change to the way baseball operates.
For all its success with the A’s (and later with the Boston Red Sox, who adopted many of the same ideas), the actual concept of “moneyball” practiced by major-league general managers isn’t perfect. It may give an opportunity to a lot of otherwise undervalued players, but players still get traded, demoted and cut in this system. Cutting and trading players is the toughest part of the job, as Jonah Hill’s character learns soon enough.
Nor does it prove to be exactly a sure-fire path to winning a title. There’s a great sequence in the movie where we see age seemingly catch up to David Justice in the outfield during a critical A’s game against Kansas City. Players’ flaws can and do become apparent at the worst possible time when you need to win a big game.
Yet the concept still proved to be the great leveler, the way in which the poor teams could stand a chance against the rich teams.
There’s a scene in the movie where Beane and Brand talk about what it could mean if the A’s were to win the whole thing at the end of the season. It would mean, said Beane, they will have changed the game. They may not have realized it, but they already did.
Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller and based on the best-selling book by Michael Lewis, is playing this week at the Capitol Theatre in North Battleford.