Moneyball

Even though I’m a football guy, I have to admit that baseball is the popular American sport with the most cultural resonance.  It has inspired authors, essayists, filmmakers and even poets to heights that cannot be matched by the other sports.  To study baseball history is to study American history in the twentieth century.  Japanese soldiers in World War II would shout “To hell with Babe Ruth,” to goad American GI’s into unwise attacks.  Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio sacrificed prime playing years to enlist in the army during the war.  Jackie Robinson’s importance beyond the diamond is well documented and Curt Flood brought in the era of free agency and labor unrest.  Physicists have written papers on how curveballs curve.

And there has always been a geeky side to baseball.  If you ever go to a baseball game you will probably see somebody keeping track of every pitch in the game.  In his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov describes being a Yankee fan when he was a kid, not because he loved the sport—I don’t think he ever got to a game—but because he loved opening the paper to the sports pages every day and calculating batting averages and other stats.  Writer and statistician Bill James revolutionized baseball stats in the 80’s by creating new, more precise ways of measuring a player’s effectiveness than just batting averages and ERA’s.

Players, managers and other professional baseball men never had much use for these sabermetricians (a word coined by James from his organization the Society for American Baseball Research) and their relationship was the typical one between jocks and geeks.  But in 1995 when Stephen Schott and Ken Hofmann took over the Oakland A’s they ordered a drastic payroll cut that eventually resulted in the loss of first baseman Jason Giambi in 2001 to the Yankees, a general manager finally became desperate enough to try it.

That general manager was Billy Beane, played in the movie by Brad Pitt.  He takes over the position in 1998 and, unable to sign or keep any stars begins to use sabermetrics, with the help of Bill James disciple Peter Brand played by Jonah Hill.  Brand is a composite of several true life figures.  Trawling through masses of data, Beane and Brand identify several cast offs from other teams that don’t have complete games but can be role players.  They put together a team without superstars.  The approach succeeds, culminating in 2002 when the A’s went on a record 20 game winning streak.

Brad Pitt does a good job here, creating a portrait of an ex-jock who had once shown promise but ultimately couldn’t play the game, who now wants to succeed in the front office.  He works hard, mastering the business and people skills he needs to wheel and deal with the others.  He’s also a decent judge of baseball talent, having put together a playoff team with Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen.  But they all leave at the same time.  Pitt can show us the frustration Beane feels on his face, even as he hides it from everyone else.  It’s easy to think of Brad Pitt as a movie star, but if you look back over his resume, there are some bad films but none where he really sells out for cash.  And there are more than a few good performances.  He makes 20 million a film and seems to be worth it.

Jonah Hill as the geeky sabermetrician, really isn’t given the opportunity to explore the character.  What we see is fine but we don’t understand what makes him tick.  Whether this was a function of his not being a real character, I don’t know, but I was dissatisfied with his performance.

And with the film overall, I fear.  It’s slow and easily could have been twenty minutes shorter.  But beyond that it didn’t build to a climax.  This is surprising to me because the script was written by Stephen Zaillan and Aaron Sorkin, two of the best screenwriters working today.  My theory is that they were going for a theme about hidden success, situations where you seem to lose but actually achieve something else.  So they discarded all the usual trappings of sports movies.  It made for a dull film.

Unfortunately, Billy Beane never had the ultimate success with his approach to managing.  He’s never even been to a World Series as general manager.  This doesn’t mean his approach was wrong, however.  Sabermetric analysis is a part of the game now and other teams have used it to win the Series.  He changed the game forever.

That’s where Zaillan and Sorkin got the idea for their theme.  But they didn’t succeed either.

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