Thursday, October 6, 2011

Moneyball: More than a Ba$eball Film

More than just a movie about baseball and business and statistics (not that those topics aren't alright on their own but), Moneyball (2011) is a zeitgeist film. Not unlike The Social Network (2010) but perhaps on a smaller scale, it seizes on the spirit of the times and makes that abstraction human and more concrete.
Which is why, writing this and remembering, I'm smiling.

Moneyball's a movie about a down-on-his-luck Oakland A's General Manager who takes his underdog team and with the help of a meek, yet sure-of-himself statistician challenges the assumptions of a century-old system and achieves some (if not total) success, all without exaggerating the point or getting over-dramatic.

GM Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) has it rough: He's managing a team whose payroll is lower than low - $39.6 million to the Yankees' $138 million - he can't seem to win a championship, and his star players are being bought off by teams with bigger budgets. Besides that, his early star promise as a pro ball player out of high school has deflated under the pressure of insufficient success and low self-confidence, and now he's not only looking like a sub-par GM but he's also juggling divorce (and the lonely life that goes with it).

Enter Peter Brand.
While over in Cleveland trying (unsuccessfully) to wheel and deal with the Indians' GM, Billy Beane catches sight of the shy nerd (played by Jonah Hill), figures out he's graduated from Yale with a degree in econ and manages to get the guy to give his distinct angle on America's most-romanticized game - Baseball's more than heroes and home runs. And sometimes the oddballs and the mediocre, though undervalued, can still win a team games because, no matter if the way they do it's less dramatic, they get on base.
Which means, (as Peter Brand so simply puts it) "I believe there is a championship team that we could afford, because everyone else undervalues them. Like an island of misfit toys."

Billy Beane's all in.

It's a risky move and no doubt unpopular with Billy's team of scouts. They're old school. They operate more by some sort of unquestioned intuition and don't like the thought of losing their job to a smart, young person who's noticed that stats are important. More important than they'd thought.

And you think it'd be boring, or at the very least dehumanizing, to look so closely at statistics and be so far away from the thrill of the game. (Billy Beane only ever follows the games on TV or the radio.) And stats are scrolled past on the screen like we're watching a sports edition of the Matrix.

But with Aaron Sorkin as screenwriter, you know you'll have smart, snappy dialogue:

Billy Beane (assuring pitcher Scott Hatteberg [played by Chris Pratt] that it'll be an easy switch to being a hitter and first baseman) : It's not that hard [turns to scout Ron Washington] tell 'em.
Ron : It's incredibly hard.

And with Bennett Miller as director, you know you won't have to work hard to pay attention.

The emotion is understated - and why wouldn't it be when you've got so much sadness going on? you want to take it slow.

And the point being made, if indirect, is still persuasive - There's a new way to play baseball. By the numbers.

And if it happens you still don't win the world championship (but instead win an unprecedented 20 games in a row), end up turning down what would be the biggest GM salary in baseball managing the Boston Red Sox (so you can stick with the folks you've got in Oakland - your friends and family), and can't help romanticizing the game (even while you've put everything into a new thing called sabermetrics and no one, not even your manager Art Howe, believes it'll work - but then it does, and yet it doesn't, because like I said you still don't win the championship) at least you've tried. You've made the hard decisions. And you've been part of a story that's both real and inspiring.

Thanks go to Brad Pitt for being not only good-looking, but in his old age, becoming an actor I can admire as much as I do Robert Redford.
And thanks go to Moneyball for being a film that makes baseball into something bigger: about what it means to be human in our time.

That's why I'm still smiling.

1 comment:

  1. thanks jeff. I wanted t see this. now i will.