Saturday, September 24, 2011


“It’s so hard not to be romantic about baseball,” says Billy Beane near the end of Moneyball. He’s right, it is. Indeed, it’s so hard not to be romantic about baseball that the makers of Moneyball just went right ahead & romanticized it. The result is that a sports movie set mostly in the front office & concerned with a purely quantitative approach to success turned out, improbably, as one of the more engrossing big-studio films of the year.

Billy Beane, played here by Brad Pitt, had a mostly forgettable career as a player in the Major Leagues—stints with the Mets, Twins, Tigers & Athletics. He found his niche in management: he’s been the GM in Oakland for more than a decade. During this time he is credited with making the franchise as cost-efficiently successful as any team in the Majors, through his application of analytical principles of the sort pioneered by the maniacal baseball writer & statistician Bill James, of Baseball Abstract fame.

Beane’s story was told in the 2003 Michael Lewis book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Steven Soderbergh was at one time slated to direct the film adaptation, but his approach was reportedly too unconventional, & he was replaced by Capote’s Bennett Miller. The script was also reworked—the finished product is credited to Steve Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin.

Interesting though it might have been to see Soderbergh’s take on this material, it’s hard to argue with the quiet tension & wit of Miller’s elegant, leisurely-paced work here, or with the lively, idiosyncratic dialogue. Miller is somehow able to use just the sort of romantic & sentimental notions that run counter to Beane’s management style—superstition, jinxes, crazy longshots—without violating the cool, dryly humorous tone he’s established. There’s even a tingly sports-movie climax, though the film ambles on for quite a while afterwards.

It’s hard to argue with the performances, either. Fresh from intense work in The Tree of Life, & looking almost laughably beautiful, Pitt turns in another gem here. His Beane is laconic yet tightly-wound, in the vein of his scary, overlooked performance as Jesse James in that Jesse James movie with the cumbersome title—the same bullying aggression under the bonhomie, the same sense that he’s nagged by melancholia.

Wide-eyed under the weight of Beane’s imposing presence is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a fictionalized version of A’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta. An Ivy-Leaguer with a degree in Economics, Brand schools Beane in anxious, intimidated blurts, & their relationship is the movie’s core. There are other fine performances—by Steven Bishop, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Arliss Howard, & especially by Chris Pratt as catcher-turned-first-baseman Scott Hatteberg & Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s daughter—but they’re basically glorified cameos; the godlike Pitt, & Hill as his nebbishy Sancho Panza, carry the movie.

To the degree that I understand it—never a profound degree, where statistics are concerned—Bill James-style baseball analysis is intended to replace conventional wisdom with empiricism. It challenges, most famously, the reliability of batting average as an indicator of a player’s value to a team, especially by comparison to on-base percentage. In other words, it’s an attempt to apply hard rationalism to an activity that makes a great show of valuing the traditional, the intangible, the ineffable.

Somehow, though, even those of us for whom baseball has almost the quality of an orthodox religion—a set of grandly absurd ceremonial flourishes that seem, against reason, to add up to metaphysical significance—may not find this approach offensively reductive, maybe because the mad-scientist number-crunching of James & his disciples is so clearly born of a love of the game. Or maybe it’s because it points to a democratizing effect—it means that the rich teams won’t always win.

In any case, in professional baseball, what owners & managers actually value is money, & what paying fans generally value is winning. It was likely that any formula that promised to deliver the latter for a minimum expenditure of the former would sooner or later be given a try.

The question, of course, is—why should we care if it succeeded? Even if we love baseball, why should we care? At one low point Beane reassures his sweet, worried daughter that “I’ve got uptown problems, which aren’t really problems at all.” Again, he’s right (more coarsely, these are sometimes called “white people problems”). In human terms, Beane’s career fortunes matter even less than, say, the King’s stutter in The King’s Speech, & since the movie is about taking mushy-brained poetic thinking out of baseball, we really shouldn’t even grant this story metaphorical importance.

Skillful filmmaking can get you to care about almost anything, but when you think over the wistful tone of Moneyball’s final act, you may laugh out loud that you sat still for it: In a season in which he set a landmark record & revolutionized sports management, Beane is saddened because he didn’t win the World Series. He still hasn’t, & problems don’t come much more uptown than that.

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