September 26, 2011 by Zack
Out of all of the sports in America, baseball has the most mystique. That’s always been the pull, I think, in its history. Funny game. Can’t figure it out. We try. We’ve been trying for over a century to put a finger on the pulse of the game. But really, with all of its tradition, its pattern behavior, its rock steady consistency, baseball can be all over the place. We try to normalize it by using statistics to define it. Is this guy a good player, or just a good hitter? We use terms like “5-tool” to quantify how good a player can be. Is there any other sport that we do this for? There are specialists in baseball, but they’re not every day players, like in another sport. In basketball, a scoring specialist can still be in your starting five. In football, a guy with velcro hands will most likely be among your starting wide receivers. In baseball, a guy who just steals bases will be a pinch runner. A guy who can hit in a tight spot is your pinch hitter. If you’ve got a guy with a killer curveball, he’s your 8th inning set up guy–or just someone to bring in to get one guy out. Maybe it’s a lefty-lefty matchup.
In “Moneyball”, the GM of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), along with his numbers-crunching economist, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), are faced with a very common problem among any team that isn’t the New York Yankees. Beane is given a very small payroll, and his team’s been gutted. It’s 2003, following a disappointing 2002 post season series loss to the Yankees. Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen, all blue chip players, are gone. So he’s left to replace these players, which he knows, of course, is impossible. After a dubious meeting with the general manager of the Cleveland Indians to try and re-build his team, he takes notice of a kid that nixes a deal that would send a good prospect to the Oakland A’s. Beane is taken by the kid, a recent Yale grad, who is good with numbers, but isn’t very respected by his bosses. Peter Brand thinks there’s a better way of looking at players–their value, rather than just their name or their hitting ability.
Beane assembles a team of players who don’t even know the position they’re supposed to play (one player is a former catcher who can’t throw anymore, and is expected to play first base). Beane faces opposition from not only his team of scouts, but of his team’s manager as well (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). He’s taking a big risk by doing something this unconventional, and his team starts off extremely poorly, leading to more criticism from the world of baseball.
He’s also haunted by his own past as a can’t-miss prospect baseball player who was actually considered a “5-tool” player by scouts. He was offered a full scholarship to Stanford, but turns it down in favor of playing in the big leagues for the New York Mets at the young age of 18. What happens in his career isn’t uncommon–he can’t keep up with the game. He eventually is out of the game, and returns as a scout. What’s interesting about Beane is that he’ll look at players the same way he looked at himself. He’s a general manager who was also a former player. He has more of a stake in evaluating the talent of a player, in theory.
Not every move Beane makes works out, and what is very obvious throughout this story is that it’s not all about the wins and losses, although Beane can’t stand to lose. He says nothing matters until you “win the last game of the series”. But what he does is put together a team that finds ways to win because they play a very fundamental game. Nobody steals; everybody is supposed to get on base. It’s small-ball.
Eventually, Beane’s approach does start to work out, though, and even leads to an historic 20-game winning streak by the A’s that puts them in front of the American League West division. There’s a great sequence in which the clinching game starts off as an 11-0 laugher in the 4th inning that convinces Beane to, for once, actually watch the game. He is never seen watching a game prior to this. What he sees in front of his eyes, though, is what every fan goes through when it comes to jinxes. He watches as the 11-0 lead is bled to the point where the opposing team actually ties the game at 11 all. The manager, who had been opposed to Beane’s approach for most of the season, finally puts in a player that Beane had selected. This is the guy who can’t play first base. All he’s brought in to do is get on base. What he does, however, is hit a home run that wins the game.
In that whole sequence, we see what baseball is, and what effect it has on people like Beane. Everything from curses, miracles, redemption, and just the oddball nature of baseball, is illustrated in that scene. It defines what the movie is about. You can’t control baseball–but you can enjoy the ride, sometimes.
Some criticism of the film’s portrayal of the events may be directed at the fact the A’s did not “win anything” while this philosophy was implemented. While Beane himself wants to win, the movie’s agenda and Beane’s isn’t exactly one in the same. What you see are the good little stories that come out of a team that was predicted to be laughing stock of the league. And who says there can’t be great teams that didn’t win a championship? How about the Bills teams of the early 90’s? The 2001 Seattle Mariners that won 116 games. The ’85 Boston Celtics. Sure, a lot of it comes down to your own perspective. But the point of this movie isn’t about winning; it’s about innovating. It’s about striving to change. Baseball is always going to remain the same; but that doesn’t mean you have to go through the motions. And eventually, change works, as illustrated in the last line of the film displayed on the screen about the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004.
As much as this movie involves baseball, those who don’t follow the game or care about it could still enjoy this film. There’s a universal human element to it that can be appreciated by anyone who’s had to face adversity in their life…so pretty much anybody could relate to some of the themes. The performances are strong, and the film has some really big laughs that you don’t necessarily have to understand baseball in order to get. It’s a feel-good type of movie but it isn’t manipulative or patronizing. It’s about as natural flowing as a good, clean, non-Joe West umpired game of baseball.