‘Moneyball,’ Brad Pitt, and the romantic side of baseball nerddom

Brad Pitt in Moneyball. (Sony Pictures)
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It's hard not to be romantic about baseball. —Billy Beane, general manager, Oakland A's

Billy Beane is speaking about himself in Moneyball when he says that, but he could also be talking about the fans. Baseball isn't just baseball, we've been told a million times. It's a connection to childhood memories, it's the pure joy of a night at the ballpark, it's the best of America (as James Earl Jones reminds us in his baseball monologue in Field of Dreams), and on and on and on.

But the game itself: what about that? Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, may be one of the purest baseball movies of all time in that it is actually about ... baseball.

Bull Durham is a baseball movie that's really also a love story. Field of Dreams is a baseball movie that's really also the story of a man haunted by the imperfect relationship he had with his father. There's also The Sandlot, The Rookie, Eight Men Out, The Pride of the Yankees, The Natural, Bang the Drum Slowly, Major League and (sorry) Fever Pitch.

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One thing these movies all have in common is that they are about baseball, yes, but they are also about more than baseball. They tap into our feelings about baseball, and use baseball as a vehicle to talk about all kinds of other life experiences. Moneyball is emphatically not that. It keeps its eye on the ball, and rarely lets us leave the bowels of the Oakland A's rat-trap of a stadium.

Based on the bestselling book of the same name by Michael Lewis, Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane, the eccentric general manager of the cash-poor Oakland A's. Despite their lowly financial status, "something strange [was] happening in Oakland", as one sportscaster put it, because although the team could not afford to pay top dollar for players, they consistently were making it to the playoffs, year after year after year. They were sometimes winning 100+ games a season.

It was understood that rich teams like the New York Yankees had a leg up on everyone else, due to the fact that they could buy the most expensive players. But they didn't get all the best ones, it turned out.

Michael Lewis' book examines what exactly it was that Billy Beane was doing in Oakland, and how he took the team to the American League playoffs four years in a row (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003). In 2004 and 2005, the A's placed 2nd in the AL West, and in 2006 they placed first, and went to the ALDS again, beating the Minnesota Twins and then losing against the Detroit Tigers.

What the hell were they doing in Oakland? Turns out that Billy Beane had begun to incorporate the use of computer-generated statistical analysis in his evaluation of players, believing in numbers instead of the popular wisdom of baseball people and gut-based hunches of baseball scouts. If he couldn't buy back Jason Giambi, whom he lost to the New York Yankees in 2002, then he could at least replicate the effect of having Giambi with a bunch of different undervalued players who didn't get a shot "the show" because they looked weird, threw weird, or had something eccentric about their playing style.

Old-school scouts valued home runs, powerful swings and a certain body type. But Billy Beane couldn't afford the whole package, and so he would piece it together, placing a special emphasis on the unglamorous statistic called On-Base Percentage, which measures the frequency with which a player manages, by any means, to avoid getting out.

Moneyball starts by establishing the A's as losers, as they suffer a loss to the Yankees in the 2001 American League Division Series, followed by the defection of a couple of star players they can no longer afford, including Jason Giambi (who went to the Yankees) and Johnny Damon (who went to the Red Sox, but eventually wound up with the Yankees, too).

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), heartily sick of the limitations of running a small-payroll team, goes on a rampage of creative hiring, remaking his team, and blowing up a generations-old template used by major league teams for doing so.

In one of his meetings with the Cleveland Indians, he notices a shlubby kid in a suit who seems to have some sway over the Indians' general manager. The kid turns out to be Peter Brand (Jonah Hill).

"Who are you?" he quietly asks Brand, his eyes twinkling in a way that seems both menacing and exciting. Peter Brand has a degree in economics from Yale, and this is his first job. He's not really a big baseball fan, but he is a statistician, and has worked out vast amounts of computer code in order to evaluate players (without even seeing them in person). Brand tells Beane that "baseball thinking is medieval." Beane is intrigued enough to buy the young kid away from the Cleveland Indians and bring him to Oakland.

The introduction of new ways of thinking into an tradition-bound organization is always going to be met by resistance. Moneyball is the story of innovation meeting tradition, of having belief in an idea even when you are surrounded by mocking incomprehension. The first glimpse we get of this is in a terrific scene between Billy Beane and all of the scouts for the Oakland A's, as they throw magnetic strips with players' names on them up onto a board and try to create a valid team. The scouts, all of whom stroll out of a perfect Central Casting office, talk about players by saying things like, "He has a great pop off the bat," and "powerful swing," and "He hits it far."

The script, by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, is superb in picking up the nuances of baseball speech, and also the vast stretches of silence between comments as we see Billy Beane thinking, thinking, thinking. The script allows for thought, for long stretches when it seems like nothing is happening. But something is happening. Billy Beane is thinking, and there is nothing more interesting in cinema than watching someone think. In a way, it is what the movie camera was invented for. Bennett Miller knows that. It gives Moneyball a quiet, almost anxious energy. Billy Beane lives on coffee and Twinkies. Moneyball feels like it does, too. Everything extraneous is stripped away. It is thrilling to watch.

Pushback on statistical analysis comes from the scouts as well as from Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the manager. Howe (who the A's eventually managed to unload on the Mets, of course) is already unhappy because he has only been given a year's contract, showing the team's lack of faith in him. And now Beane, in his damn sweatsuit, who never even watches the games, is telling him who to put on the field and where? The tension is immediate, the conflict intense. Beane, with Brand as backup, sticks to his guns. He doesn't make any new friends, that's for sure.

The side stories in Moneyball, the acquisition of injured catcher Scott Hatteberg (whom Billy Beane hired to play first base) and David Justice (who was too old to be valued anymore by other teams) bring the sabermetrical-analysis storyline front and center, making it explicit to those in the audience who may have no idea what any of it means.

Hatteburg (played by Chris Pratt) is troubled, injured, and fears his career may be over. When he gets the call from Billy Beane, he is thrilled, and then horrified, because Beane wants him to play first base. He is a catcher. You don't just switch positions in baseball. But Beane doesn't care about Hatteburg as an infielder, he cares about his on-base percentage as a hitter. That is why he wants him. The same is true for David Justice (Stephen Bishop). Then there is Chad Bradford (Casey Bond), a pitcher with a delivery so odd you have to see it to believe it. These people are misfits in the game. They don't look right, and they make people nervous.

The payoff is not immediate. Billy Beane has nerves of steel. He encounters condescension and outright hostility when he starts to implement the changes from the front office. He spends the games in the weight room pumping iron. He can't watch. As a former baseball player himself, his feelings about the game are conflicted. He was overvalued. He did not do well. He disappointed a lot of people. With an echo of Miracle, the story of the hockey team that won the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics under the innovative coaching style of Herb Brooks (who had been cut from the 1960 Olympic team at the last minute), Beane is haunted by what might have been. He recognizes that baseball, at its heart, is a very unfair game. He accepts that. He has lived it.

Sorkin and Zaillain's script thankfully does not turn Moneyball into a redemptive psychodrama, with Billy Beane putting to rest the ghosts of his own past through his vindication with the Oakland A's. But the hints are there. Beane is not a happy guy. He is troubled, thoughtful, obsessive, and impatient. He hates losing. Everyone hates losing, but Beane hates it so much that he was driven to look at how the game itself was analyzed, and to throw a wrench into The Way Things Are Done.

He was so successful that he was courted by the big-payroll Red Sox as general manager. Beane turned them down, but the Red Sox went on to adopt Beane's management style, and in 2004 they won their first World Series championship since 1918.

Brad Pitt is 47 years old now, a long way away from the smooth-bodied, smooth-talking hustler in Thelma and Louise that rocketed him to fame. Talk about an undervalued player. While he obviously is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, his talent as an actor has consistently been underestimated, often because he's written off as a pretty boy.