Moneyball

Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s best seller about the Oakland Athletics’ remarkable 2002 season, ends with one of those baseball moments that etch themselves into the memory. Jeremy Brown, an obese catcher for the University of Alabama, had been ridiculed endlessly in the press after the A’s named him as a first-round draft choice. In a minor-league game that year, Brown hit a line drive into center field and began hauling himself around the bases. “Between first and second base his feet go out from under him and he backflops into the dirt, like Charlie Brown,” writes Lewis. “He picks himself up, to scramble back to the safety of first base, when he sees his teammates in the dugout. The guys are falling all over each other, laughing.” As Brown looks around, he realizes the humiliation is all in his head: the ball has landed in the stands, and he’s hit a home run. In the new movie adapted from the book, A’s general manager Billy Beane watches this play on a video screen and asks in voice-over, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”

The question is ironic to say the least, because Beane has been accused of draining all the romance from the game. Faced with a daunting gap between what his team and the richest teams could spend on ballplayers—the A’s payroll for 2002 was about $40 million, whereas the New York Yankees’ was $126 million—Beane set out to reinvent his club by unloading overvalued players and shopping for bargains. Guided by the radical ideas of baseball statistician Bill James and assisted by Paul DePodesta, a young Harvard graduate with a degree in economics, Beane served notice to his grizzled scouting staff that they would no longer be judging prospects based on their looks, their builds, their personalities, or any of the other intangibles that scouts mystically invoked when trying to predict a player’s future performance. From now on, players would be reduced to a set of complex statistics that would reveal their ability to do what counted most—score runs.

All this makes Moneyball a fascinating business book but an unlikely candidate for a baseball movie. From Pride of the Yankees (1942) to Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) to Bull Durham (1988) to Sugar (2008), dramas about baseball have always been steeped in romance, whether they follow a winner on his way up or a loser on his way out. The central tenet of this romance is that a person can defy other people’s estimations of him and accomplish bigger things than he ever imagined. More than any other team sport, baseball focuses our attention on individuals trying to realize their true potential, which is what makes the grand slams so sweet and the strikeouts so bitter. Moneyball asks us to root for a team whose management saw every player not as a person capable of greatness but as a set of stats to be fed into an algorithm. If you’ve just lost your job as a result of some digital innovation, this is probably not the movie to cheer you up.

Screenwriters Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, A Civil Action) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War) certainly had their work cut out for them when they hired on to dramatize Lewis’s book. Interspersed with the narrative about Oakland’s 2002 season are long, unfilmable stretches in which Lewis debunks the misleading statistics that have governed baseball since the 19th century and explains the “sabermetrics” that Beane and Podesta used in their scheme to neutralize the money factor. For instance, players have long been evaluated by RBI—runs batted in—yet that figure involves so many uncontrolled factors (like the number of men who happen to be on base when the player comes to bat) that it’s almost useless for measuring someone’s contribution to the game score. Much more accurate, according to the sabermetricians, is OBP—on-base percentage, or the probability that the batter won’t cause an out. It’s engrossing stuff, but the screenplay barely touches on it.

Instead, Zaillian and Sorkin have mined the text for human stories and hung them, like Christmas ornaments, on the larger arc of the 2002 season. One of the more affecting subplots centers on Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), a catcher for the Boston Red Sox whose career appeared to be over when he ruptured a nerve in his elbow during the 2001 season. The movie introduces Hatteberg with a partly invented scene where he sits glumly in the family room of his home as the clock strikes midnight, marking the contractual end of his career. A moment later the phone rings: it’s Billy Beane, who’s literally standing outside the house with his infield coach, Ron Washington. Invited in, they greet Hatteberg’s wife and little daughter and then get down to business: Beane is mightily impressed by Hatteberg’s OBP and wants to sign him to the A’s, as long as he’ll take on the challenge of playing first base. After the two men leave, Hatteberg and his wife share a lovely moment together, rejoicing in their good fortune as his sense of self-worth is unexpectedly renewed.

The real protagonist of Moneyball, however, is Beane himself, played with great charisma by Brad Pitt. (With this movie and The Tree of Life competing against each other, Pitt could wind up cheating himself out of an Oscar this year.) Beane came to the Oakland A’s with a ton of baggage, though the movie only telegraphs this in a few abbreviated flashbacks. As a high school baseball star in San Diego, he was the sort of all-around athlete that scouts salivated over: he could run, throw, field, and hit (for his sophomore and junior years, his batting average was .500). During his senior year, in 1980, a scout for the New York Mets persuaded him to pass up a full scholarship to Stanford University, to his mother’s disappointment, and he was named one of the team’s first-round draft picks (along with Darryl Strawberry). But Beane never panned out as a professional baseball player; among other things, he psyched himself out in the batter’s box. After six lackluster seasons in the majors—playing briefly for the Mets, the Minnesota Twins, the Detroit Tigers, and finally the A’s—he asked Oakland for a job in the front office as a scout.

“This is all about your shit, isn’t it?” demands Grady Fuson, one of the Oakland scouts, after Beane announces his new strategy for the 2002 draft. Beane promptly fires the guy, but the charge sticks. Whatever Beane’s logical reasons for upending the conventional wisdom of his scouting staff, the personal one is clear: 22 years earlier, another professional wise man saw something in young Billy Beane that wasn’t really there, and because of it the boy lost out on a first-class college education. Who knows what he might have made of himself with a degree from Stanford? In the movie, when Beane first meets Paul DePodesta—or rather, the fictional character based on him, named Peter Brand and played by Jonah Hill—Beane asks him whether he’d have chosen the younger Billy in the first round back in 1980. After hemming and hawing, Brand admits, “I’d have drafted you in the ninth round. No signing bonus.” Beane likes this answer so much that he hires Brand as his assistant general manager.

As Michael Lewis reports in an afterword to the paperback edition, Beane was startled and not entirely pleased when Moneyball first appeared and he discovered that he’d become the book’s central character. Baseball’s old guard, angered by the case Lewis had made against them, singled out Beane for criticism, labeling him an egomaniac and in some cases misrepresenting Moneyball as his own memoir. If anything, the movie version only tilts the story more in Beane’s direction, adding a subplot that involves his ex-wife (Robin Wright) and his warm relationship with his 12-year-old daughter (Kerris Dorsey). There’s an irresistibly sweet scene in which Beane takes the girl to a music store to shop for a guitar and she shyly serenades him with the Lenka song “The Show” as he stares at her in wonder. This intimate moment doesn’t have anything to do with baseball, but it’s a subtle reminder of how much possibility resides in a young person’s talent.

What makes the scene particularly poignant is how it echoes an earlier one, in which young Billy Beane (Reed Thompson) and his parents sit at their kitchen table with Mets scout Roger Jongewaard. When Billy’s mother brings up the issue of his scholarship, the older man gently explains to her that Billy won’t be able to accept it if he becomes a professional player. “We’re all told at some time that we’re too old to play the children’s game,” Jongewaard tells Billy, nudging him toward a decision. “Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40. But we’re all told.” In this context his words sound like an invitation to manhood, but when they come back again in a voice-over near the end of the movie, they have an entirely different meaning. By then Beane has watched his own dazzling promise come to nothing, and his success at reinventing the Oakland A’s has been predicated on the grim notion that no player is likely to become much more than he already is. But as Jeremy Brown proves with his unlikely homer, seeing oneself clearly can be a victory all its own.