How much are you worth? Do you know your own value? If so, what metric did you apply to arrive at that metric?
It would seem that most professional athletes know their value: roughly what they’re being paid. And since most are paid extraordinary salaries by mere human standards, it should come as no surprise that their egos are as large as their paychecks.
But what if there were another way to determine value—value no one else can see? A less intuitive and more scientific way? And what if this method could give poor teams an opportunity to level the playing field against gargantuan franchises with pockets so deep you can dig to China?
That’s the crux of Moneyball, based on the 2003 book by Michael J. Lewis and ably adapted for the screen by Oscar winners Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List). What was described as a “biography of an idea” has translated quite nicely into what will no doubt make many a sports fan/cinephile’s greatest sports-movie list.
It’s 2001, and the Oakland A’s have managed to win 102 games and make it to the postseason against the three-peat champion NY Yankees. It looks like the A’s might just rip a hole in the house that Ruth built except … they don’t. And to add insult to injury, when the season’s over, those very same Yankees lure away three of the A’s best players: Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen. More important than loyalty to a team, to fans, to a home town, is money: and George Steinbrenner has a lot of it — a payroll of $114 million per annum, to be precise.
So what’s a poor small-market GM like Billy Beane to do, especially when his A’s payroll is a paltry $39 million? A team with almost four times your resources will always be able to outbid you for an A-list player. Is America’s favorite pastime doomed to be nothing more than another business, where the almighty dollar always has the last word?
Well, Beane has a plan. Actually, it’s the plan of 25-year-old Yalie Peter Brand, played with a charming nebbishness by Jonah Hill and based on Mets exec Paul DePodesta. The young economics major has spreadsheets galore to prove that you don’t need hundreds of millions to win games. Despite the insistence of old-time scouts that the key to reinvigorating the A’s is to find a Giambi or Damon knockoff, Beane and Brand crunch a different set of numbers. Instead of business as usual, trying to unearth potential superstars to replace the ones they lost, why not simply hire three guys who can just get on base, and who will be happy to do it for a few hundred thou? According to this new scheme, enough just-good-enough players who can get on base enough times can make up statistically for the big shots the A’s can no longer afford to keep on their roster.
You can imagine how this goes over with the Old School gang. Intuition, experience, a feel for the game and how it’s played … vs. “Google boy” and his computers. They would certainly have stood ready to testify to the truth of the apothegm “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
And thus the irony of Moneyball: to get back to a “purer” game, where the team is once again more important than feathering the nests of a handful of millionaire supermen, the A’s may have to take the Old School human element out of it and let the statistics speak for themselves. In other words, in order to go back to the ways things were—before free agency and luxury sky boxes—the team may have to take a giant leap forward. “Adapt or die,” Beane tells his manager, Art Howe, who frankly would rather die.
So Beane goes out and hires a triptych of aging, tired, and beat-up players with just enough life in them to get to first base. Which should be just enough statistically to win.
Before Moneyball, director Bennett Miller lead Philip Seymour Hoffman to his Oscar for Capote. Here Hoffman has the thankless role of playing Howe, the taciturn, no-nonsense manager who is stuck trying to manage his way with the team Beane has assembled, which includes Scott Hatteberg, a catcher with a dead arm no one wants. But Beane wants him. At first base. Which he can’t play. And is afraid to play. When Howe repeatedly refuses to acquiesce to the lineup changes Beane and his cohort Brand demand, the GM does an end-run around the manager by trading away the players he is playing, including their one genuine superstar, Carlos Pena, in effect leaving Howe with no choice but to arrange the lineup Beane’s way, including playing Hatteberg at first.
The result? Well, there wouldn’t be a movie to review if the new methodology hadn’t proved a startling success, such that the A’s make a run for one of the most elusive records in baseball—consecutive wins in a season by a team—and Hatteberg proves that “undervalued” doesn’t mean “washed up.”
But success is like pornography. No, not ubiquitous and downloadable. Difficult to define. Ask any athlete what constitutes success and he’ll probably tell you winning. Winning it all. As Vince Lombardi famously said: Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. (Although he probably said it without the semicolon.)
Beane has learned a couple of hard lessons about winning. You can never do it enough. And people have short memories: Sure you won last year. What about this year? For Beane, success isn’t necessarily a World Series ring; instead, he wants to do something that will last — and that’s change the way a team is assembled in the first place.
Moneyball may be primarily about the burgeoning influence of sabermetrics in the national pastime, but it is also a giant lesson in humility: for the scouts who have been used to doing business a certain way for thirty years, for players who think they’re entitled to squeeze every last dollar out of a franchise, for managers who think they know strategy better than the head office, even for sports announcers and journalists who think they understand why teams win and lose.
Beane, too, may be in for a humbling. If his new methodology fails, he will wind up, as he puts it, a 44-year-old guy with a high school diploma and no job. Is he willing to risk what credibility and professional future he has left because he has no other cards to play with this team? Or because his own experience of being drafted by the NY Mets right out of high school has proved to him that scouts know nothing about what makes for a winning career, which Beane’s most definitely was not? In short, is this about avenging himself in a left-handed way against the “professionals” who derailed him from a full scholarship to Stanford?
No mention is ever made of any other “value” that might determine a player’s, or a human being’s, self-worth. The film never rises above the merely material considerations that are the true focus of Moneyball. Things of the spirit are simply not on the script’s mind. Although there is Chad Bradford, the reliever with the goofy underhanded side-winding pitching motion who is seen praying in the locker room before a game, and who alone of all the third-string players takes time to thank Beane for the opportunity to play in the majors, something no one has ever done before.”No one?” Beane asks incredulously. “No sir,” says Bradford, who then goes on to say he’s praying for the GM and his family. Beane is taken somewhat aback, as if confused, but thanks him, then hustles out the door. That’s the born-again element in baseball to these guys, I guess: gracious but slightly weird.
Brad Pitt delivers an effective performance, and by effective I mean by no means his best, despite what many critics have been saying. He gets the job done, and doesn’t get in the way of the highly entertaining story (which, nevertheless, sags a tad in the middle). But it is far from Oscar material (although I may be overvaluing my own judgment). Pitt seems preoccupied through much of the film with how to come up with “business” to make his character more complex or dynamic. While there’s a backstory about Beane’s own disappointing playing career and failed marriage, which aids in providing some thickening agents to the GM’s motivation, he remains a guy who’s never quite there. (In fact, Beane was rarely there, preferring not to be in the stadium while the games were in progress for fear of jinxing the team.)
Nevertheless, there are plenty of winning moments, especially as the A’s make their 2002 comeback, which is nicely primed and pumped for all it’s worth by director Miller. But with the exceptions of the aforementioned Hill; Ken Medlock, who plays player scout Grady Fuson with real passion; and Park and Recreation‘s goofball shoeshine boy Chris Pratt as the supernaturally likable Hatteberg, the cast, including Hoffman, who looks out-and-out bored throughout much of this, never rises above rather flat interpretations of the uniforms they’ve been given to wear.
“It’s not hard to be romantic about baseball,” says Beane. Its deficiencies notwithstanding, not to mention the peril of reducing our much-beloved game to heartless calculations of another kind, Moneyball has no intention of being the exception that proves the rule. And in the cynical, trashy age we live in, that’s definitely worth at least two hours of your time.