Blockbusters on Baseball: Moneyball

Moneyball makes you think you’re watching the death of irrational romance in baseball. Instead, you’re watching the link between the anecdotal and the analytical. 

Moneyball’s climax begins with Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane speaking to his daughter (Kerris Dorsey) from his car. The 2002 Oakland Athletics—for whom Beane is the General Manager—are a win away from setting an American League-record 20 game winning streak. But Beane isn’t on his way to watch, which his daughter chalks up to a jinx. To this point, we’ve seen glimpses of Beane harboring some superstitious tendencies—like for instance, how he doesn’t watch Athletics baseball beyond peeks at someone else’s television—but it’s the first time he’s accused of factoring a jinx into his decision-making. Jinxes should not exist in the moneyball concept. They’re too inexplicable and too old school.

Beane flips on the radio in his truck and gets a quick recap of the game to that point. Greg Papa’s voice relays some great news: six in the first, one in the second, four in the third. Athletics 11-Royals 0. Suddenly, Beane veers hard towards the nearest highway exit, intent on getting to the game. Not because he doesn’t believe in jinxes. Not even because he thinks them conquered.

Up 11 runs with 18 outs to go, Billy Beane is just betting on better odds. His developing knowledge suggests the jinx won’t win this time. It’s just logic.

This is Moneyball’s greatest trick: director Bennett Miller’s (Capote, Foxcatcher) film based on Michael Lewis’s enlightening—and polarizing—book on the turn-of-the-century Athletics fools you into thinking it’s the death of the irrational romance that’s hung around baseball since the last turn of the century.

Instead, you’re watching the link between the anecdotal and the analytical. That link is Billy Beane.

Moneyball Box Score

Released: 2011

Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt

Director: Bennett Miller

Written By: Aaron Sorkin, Steve Zaillian

Production Companies: Columbia Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, Michael De Luca Productions, Plan B Entertainment, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment

Awards: 6x Academy Award Nominee (including Best Picture)

The Short of It: Bennett Miller’s big screen adaptation of Michael Lewis’s necessary read pulls off the tense transition between the old and the new while bringing the two in constant contrast of one another.

Moneyball starts with the Athletics and the New York Yankees locked in a win-or-go-home ALDS tilt. A text card tells us about an $80 million payroll disparity between these teams. Oakland and New York may share the same field, compete in the same league, and are facing the same stakes, they’re anything but equals. Two teams can count balls and strikes in fours and threes, but that’s the extent of their similarities.

Oakland loses, and they’re immediately faced with the sobering reality of their actual status, one that a 102-win season doesn’t imply: The Athletics are a feeder franchise. Their top players ply away in Oakland’s cavernous concrete ballpark through their youth, then cash in elsewhere, with the Athletics left behind to rebuild.

Beane comes to terms with his reality, and the 102-win Athletics are dismantled. Gone are Giambi, Damon, and Isringhausen, off to greener pastures.

The concept of moneyball comes in full relief. Most baseball fans will know the philosophy by now, but a quick primer: baseball is an unfair game. On the highest level, the teams with the biggest payrolls own an advantage over their moderate-to-meagerly endowed contemporaries. To compete with the cream of the financial crop, teams like the Athletics have to shirk conventional wisdom and double down on identifying undervalued success precursors, often with the help of advanced statistics.

While the influence of this radical strategy is clearest in the team’s overall performance, Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network) and Steve Zaillian’s (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) screenplay brings the tug and pull of the moneyball revolution down to personal levels.

Beane and his hand-picked Assistant General Manager, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), are met with resistance at nearly every turn. In meetings with scouts, Beane dismisses their chatter (“He’s got an ugly girlfriend”) as nonsensical and irrelevant. When he identifies the players he wants, the groans are cacophonic. “Adapt or die” is his advice to Ken Medlock’s Grady Fuson, the head scout of what might as well be the Oakland “Old Ways.” His clashes with manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) are cringe-inducing for their passive-aggressive mutual disdain. The old guard leverages experience and/or blind faith and/or witchcraft, take your pick. Any of these governing properties are difficult to unlearn.

When the Athletics get off to a rough start, radio vultures come out in flocks. When they win, their success is incomprehensible. In a movie that trumpets logic and understanding, a lot of time and narration is given to romanticizing the incomprehensible. Which is good, because it helps a dramatic retelling of true events date itself. There was a time when the radio chatter we hear wasn’t absurd.

Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Beane pulls divergent conflicts together. He’s cold, but his icy demeanor is a calculation. His Billy Beane struggles with being a first print. He’s collected, but he’ll throw a chair. He shies away from sentimentality in any professional setting, but tears swell when his daughter sings. A failed high school prospect, his history intercuts present-day adversity, yet he denies it had any influence on his front office ethos. Don’t talk to him about kids and god, and don’t ask him to travel with the team. Beane views personal and empathetic conversations as needlessly compromising. Pitt’s interpretation shows that adaptation takes effort. Especially from the joint in the middle.

Sorkin and Zaillian give character and arcs to the players, too. David Justice (Stephen Bishop) is in the twilight of his career, and his investment in the Athletics Way is uncertain. Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) is too damaged for his native position, but he has a kid, a mortgage, and a high on-base percentage. No one respects Chad Bradford (Casey Bond) because he throws funny. And on and on, the replacement Athletics are the sparest of spare parts whose flaws need to be triumphed over as a group. Like Hill’s Brand says, these players are misfit toys, and Oakland is their island.

Miller’s shot framing confirms that a story about spreadsheets is very much human. Each baseball scene is tight to the players and lit like a stage play. The rest of the stadium obscures and the focus is on the faces under the caps. Baseball the spectator sport has a level of anonymity built-in; the close seats see numbers and surnames, while the nosebleeds and the far-off bleachers see white and gray blurs in turn.

But films can get between foul lines. We can see Miguel Tejada (Royce Clayton) purse his lips when a ball gets kicked around. We can watch Justice’s eyes light up as he decides at the last split-second to take a pitch. When Hatteberg hits a home run, we’re closer to the bat than the catcher is. What the viewer is watching is the translation of numbers starting in decimals, but it isn’t the death of an archaic language at the tongue of another. It’s the liveliest of live look-ins, accomplished in a way Moneyball’s premise doesn’t imply.

Even the conclusion and epilogue is up the middle. After the A’s reach the 20 wins in a row milestone, Beane and Brand sit in their video room discussing what’s important. To Beane, for what they do to matter—to solidify their legacy, to be remembered—they need to win it all.

In the end, for everything these Athletics accomplished, they didn’t win it all. Which sucks, but in many ways, is a logical potential outcome of the moneyball strategy. Early in the film, Beane says to his cantankerous head scout that neither of them have a crystal ball. As in, neither of what they know about baseball makes their pursuit a sure thing. After the Athletics lose, a voice that sounds like famed moneyball denier Joe Morgan (it’s not him technically) thinks he knows why, but he doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter, because at this point of the revolution, those who don’t understand moneyball (that’s a vast majority of us in 2002) think it’s a zero-sum strategy. But romantic baseball has been telling us such certainties aren’t a thing for over a century.

More than the camera work or the untidy conclusion, Pitt’s Billy Beane is the point of the film personified. He is the bridge between gaps, not a bridge burner. In a lot of high-stress situations, he eats or dips (which, in the acting metaverse, is a Brad Pitt trope). In the climactic game #20 scene, he starts in the park, and as the supposedly insurmountable lead dwindles, he moves to his subterranean superstitious safety, farther and farther from actively watching the game. When Hatteberg hits a walk-off, Beane allows himself a moment of sentimental relief. Just a moment, though. Shoulders lower, he does a fist pump, and then it’s back to business.

John Henry (Arliss Howard), owner of the Red Sox, tells Beane that the first guy through the wall takes the greatest punishment. Precisely because Billy Beane is the first guy through is why Moneyball isn’t an obliteration of the old way. As a moviegoer, we’re trained to look for clues of good and evil, and watching Moneyball appears to be no different. The guys with the archaic habits are the bad guys.

Except, the good guys have old habits, too. It might be easy to dismiss Beane’s idiosyncrasies because he’s the proverbial hero. But you shouldn’t. Instead, Moneyball challenges its viewers to look at these idiosyncrasies—and conventional wisdom and experience etc.—and try to make sense of them. If you can’t, challenge them. They can still exist in a moneyball world. They just can’t continue to simply because they’ve always been.

It’s art at work with science. Together, they keep the romance in-play.

B2B Rating: Hall of Famer

Quick Pitches

  • Moneyball’s baseball scenes are well done, even with Hollywood drama (slow-mo, the music of This Will Destroy You) attached. This isn’t a surprise; many of the actors portraying ballplayers played ball themselves. most notably, former All-Star Royce Clayton plays former MVP Miguel Tejada.
  • The dialogue is fantastic for its delivery. Most conversations are just that—conversations. Actors don’t sound like they’re reading off a script when they’re negotiating. They sound like, well, two guys negotiating.
  • On the topic of scripted dialogue: though a sports movie, Moneyball seems aware enough to avoid sports movie tropes and even openly lampoons them. In the Spring Training scene, Brad Pitt’s Beane taps Jonah Hill’s Brand and says, “This better work.” It’s a known sports movie cliché, and when Pitt reveals it’s just a joke a couple of seconds later, Hill’s exhale was a personal shared experience.
  • Hill’s character is a conglomerate of Billy Beane apostles. Given the time-period of the film, he’s a stand-in for Paul DePodesta, now an exec for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
  • Being a young(ish) baseball fan, it’s always really cool to see film portrayals of guys you actually got to watch play. Sweeney, Guardado, Chavez, names like Cintron and Koch. Very surreal and very cool.
  • I don’t think any art is required to place itself in a given time even if it’s set in the real-world, but the 2001 ALDS—Moneyball’s opening scene—was exactly a month after 9/11. It may not have been relevant to this baseball story, but it was very important to the baseball narrative of that season.
  • The Yankees aren’t traditional villains here, but they might as well be. I wonder, in the history of baseball movies, how often are the Yankees the bad guys?
  • Per IMDB, “Joe Morgan-like voice” is actually character actor Ron Canada.
  • Editor’s Note: B2B assigns film and book grades that roughly translate to a 1 to 5 rating scale. Obviously, our scale is baseball-themed: Non-prospect(1), Journeyman(2), Replacement Level(3), All-Star(4), Hall of Famer(5)

Khurram Kalim is a contributing writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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