Monday, October 03, 2011

moneyball — how can you not be romantic about baseball?

As the Yankees have once more made it to the post-season — they are currently battling for the pennant in the American League Division Series — a recent viewing of Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, seems extremely appropriate. As a die-hard born-and-bred Yankees fan I might not be expected to be the major audience for this film, but Moneyball isn't just a condemnation of the "sport of millionaires." The Yankees do come in for a lot of finger-pointing, as a prime example of a major league team that also has major league bucks at their disposal to fill their rosters with the best players that money can buy. The Boston Red Sox also gets mentioned quite a bit. But Moneyball isn't just about the money. It's about a new way of looking at baseball.

Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manger for the Oakland Athletics. He's divorced, with a young daughter he'd like to spend more time with, if he wasn't always on the road. He's also haunted by his lackluster career in major league baseball — he never lived up to his promise as a player, and seems determined to bring the A's the success he never had. The movie begins with the A's losing the pennant in 2001 to the Yankees — they came so close to making it to the World Series. But close doesn't cut it in baseball. To add insult to injury, three of their best players, and also free agents — Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, and Johnny Damon — are also immediately scooped up by bigger teams, the Yankees, the Cardinals, and the Red Sox, respectively.

Based on journalist Michael Lewis’s 2003 book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the film chronicles how Beane tried to reassemble his team from the ashes. It's clear to Beane that the old way of doing business won't work, except to keep them at the bottom of the barrel. He isn't sure exactly what to do instead, but he knows he can't keep listening to the old-school, old guy scouts talking up the few players that they can afford.
"There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there's 50 feet of crap. And then there's us."
He isn't sure, that is, until he meets Peter Brant (a character standing in for Paul DePodesta, who didn't want to lend his name to the film, but since everyone knows that the character of Brant is basically DePodesta, why bother playing coy?), played by Jonah Hill, in his best work to-date. A Yale grad who majored in economics, Brant helps Beane use statistics (sabermetrics) to find players that are overlooked because they lack marquee value, but have one thing in common — they get on base — a lot.
"Your goal shouldn't be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. In order buy wins, you need to buy runs."
One of the most interesting aspects of Moneyball is how it takes the audience behind-the-scenes, not just into the locker room, but into Beane's office, and frequently, into his head. The camera closes-in on Pitt, so close you can practically count his eyelashes, watching him, waiting for his cork to pop. And it frequently does, as flashbacks to his time on a variety of teams shows — Billy Beane had a temper and like McEnroe, frequently let it rip. Director Bennett Miller effortlessly moves between scenes on and off the field, from Beane's athletic past to his present.

Beane's short fuse also fuels his ambition and business tactics. One of the best scenes in the film has him dancing between phone calls with other major league teams, negotiating a trade of players, with Brant feeding him names as he flips back and forth effortlessly from one manager of a team to the other.

What is really intriguing as one watches Moneyball is the realization that it is a sports movie that isn't only about winning. It doesn't follow the tried-and-true underdog-comes-from-behind narrative. Beane wants to change the way the game is put together before it is even played. He knows how unlikely it is that his team will ever be on a level playing field, but he wants to at least give his team a chance to play with the big boys. And he did. The trouble is that after the A's put their stats technique into practice and had a miraculous (for them) year in 2002, the rest of major league baseball followed their lead and put their analytics into practice, including the Boston Red Sox, who also still had the bigger bankroll. Some things in baseball changed, but some things didn't.

But as Billy Beane says, towards the end of the film, "How can you not be romantic about baseball?" The A's may never be able to assemble a team with the sorts of players whose individual salaries exceed the A's entire payroll. But they are still going to play baseball. With all of the numbers involved, the game is still played by people. Baseball evokes passion and emotion, from the fans, the owners, the managers, the players. Moneyball is romantic about baseball, which is great.
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