Moneyball is an ugly name for such an exhilarating film. Indeed, it seems a misnomer, though the filmmakers were more or less stuck with it, since Michael Lewis’ explosive 2003 book of the same name, on which the film is based, made such an impact on the baseball world that the word has passed into sports jargon.
Lewis (who also wrote The Blind Side) apparently used the word to describe how an iconoclastic approach to player statistics allowed Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane to defy the market economics that give deep-pocket teams like the Yankees and Red Sox an intractable advantage over underfunded teams like the Oakland Athletics. Wouldn’t “moneyball” be a better term for the big-market teams’ strategy of pricing the best players out of the range of teams like the A’s?
As depicted in the movie, Beane (Brad Pitt) eventually achieves improbable success by ignoring traditional concepts like a player’s “tools” (hitting, running, throwing, fielding), as well as tea-leaf reading criteria like evaluating a player’s self-confidence, and focusing ruthlessly on a set of neglected statistics (an approach called sabermetrics). Over and over, the criterion cited most often is how reliably a player gets on base. Perhaps instead of “moneyball” this approach could have been called “base-ball.” Oh wait.
An iconoclastic baseball movie almost seems a contradiction in terms. An almost mystical aura still clings to the national pastime, one embraced and mythologized in movies like Field of Dreams and The Natural. No other sport has generated so many good movies, and especially so many movies that work for both fans and non-fans of the game.
Moneyball hits that sweet spot about as solidly as any baseball film — any baseball film that my Yankee-loving father and his sports-indifferent critic son both enjoy is by definition a winning sports film — but like the 2002 Oakland A’s, it takes an unconventional route to getting there.
It’s a movie that is knowing about the esoterica of the game — the wonky player stats, the ruthless recruiting and trading that reduces players to commodities, the caste system of privileged large-market teams and handicapped small-market teams. Yet the real action is off the field, in back rooms and front offices, and in the battle of nerves between Billy and the rest of the world as his crazy scheme seems to be failing — and the more difficult battle of nerves in Billy’s own heart when it finally starts to succeed.
Like last year’s The Social Network, with which it shares screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s crackerjack dialogue, Moneyball is really the story of a revolution: the story of a visionary, or a pair of visionaries, who see a world that no one else sees yet, and whose vision turns the world upside down so dramatically that those behind the curve struggle to grasp how the rules have changed.
While Moneyball may not be a better movie than The Social Network, it has a stronger story arc, and I suspect it sticks closer to the book it’s based on — and to the facts — though, of course, liberties are taken, history conflated and characters composited.
Pitt’s co-star Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, a wholly fictional replacement for Billy’s real-life partner and assistant general manager, Paul DePodesta (who was originally featured in the screenplay, but felt that the character was too far from reality and requested that his name not be used). The A’s’ winning 2002 strategy is depicted as a brand-new technique cooked up that year by Billy and Peter Brand, a young economics whiz working for the Cleveland Indians, rather than something Beane had been working on for years, based on the pioneering sabermetrics work of baseball historian Bill James.
Pitt has never been more crucial to a film’s success. He plays Billy not as a man who is larger than life, but as one who is trying to be, whose charisma is a mask hiding gnawing uncertainty, self-doubt and regret, radiating easy self-confidence and authority not because he knows what will work, but simply because he knows what won’t work.
What won’t work are the assumptions at work in a bull session of the team’s talent scouts. “I like Perez,” says one, but another objects that Perez has no self-confidence. Evidence? He has an ugly girlfriend. Clearly new thinking is needed.
When Brand confides to Billy, “Baseball thinking is medieval,” Billy is ready to hear it. He hires Peter away from the Indians and puts him to work calculating the worth of available players in a new way. There are algorithms; there are spreadsheets, and, in the end, the value of each player is reduced to a single number.
This approach is galling to baseball traditionalists, Billy’s colleagues among them. Can a player be reduced to a number? Doesn’t that take the heart and soul out of the game? What about intuition and gut instinct? What about heart and teamwork?
No, perhaps players can’t be reduced to numbers. But wins and losses can be. Billy hasn’t abandoned intuition; after all, finding Peter was a matter of intuition, and when the going gets tough and it’s not clear that Peter’s approach will work in the real world, he continues to trust in Peter, largely on gut instinct.
On the other hand, intuition can also reflect biases, guesswork and wishful thinking. Billy bitterly remembers an impressive speech a scout made to him as a young player, a speech that wooed him away from a full scholarship to Stanford University—and how wrong the scout was. One of the things he likes about Peter’s method is that Peter wouldn’t have wanted Billy as a recruit (Peter admits he would have placed Billy in the ninth round with no signing bonus). Had the scout who met him used Peter’s method, Billy probably would have gone to Stanford.
But it’s not all about numbers. The players Billy and Peter recruit still have to be forged into a team. Billy isn’t much at inspirational speeches (“You may not look like a great team … but you are, so … play like it”), but he hits on the idea of recruiting one of the veteran players to set the pace for the others and try to build a sense of team spirit.
In the end, no matter how many times the numbers have been crunched, the outcome may still seem somewhat magical. There’s a touching moment when Billy is driving down the highway on the phone with his young daughter Casey while his team is poised to make history in the most momentous game in their history. Billy has never watched the games his approach made possible—and Casey knows why. “Dad, you won’t jinx it!” she protests.
Casey is played by 13-year-old Kerris Dorsey, and the effortless give and take between her and Pitt make their scenes together among the most affecting in the film. Of all the people in Billy’s life, Casey is the one who most wants to believe in him, and who sees through him most clearly. In the end, moneyball being what it is, Billy is offered a substantial numeric incentive to relocate to another city and another ballclub. But not everything comes down to numbers.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: A couple of obscenities and much crass language; a few sexually themed references; divorce and remarriage back story.