Thoughts on Moneyball
SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK, DO NOT GO ANY FURTHER. IF YOU WANT TO MAINTAIN SOME SUSPENSE REGARDING THE MOVIE, YOU MIGHT ALSO WANT TO WAIT UNTIL AFTERWARDS.
The struggle to transform Michael Lewis’ Moneyball from a study of a business model into a compelling screenplay has been an ordeal, to say the least. Unlike Lewis’ later work, The Blind Side, the payoff wasn’t as easy or tailor-made for Hollywood. Still, what remains at the core of both narratives is a redemption story, based on a character overcoming incredible odds to attain real success. That makes the Brad Pitt vehicle a show of artistic symmetry, in that the movie’s success to come is nearly as improbable as the on-field exploits of that plucky 2002 edition of the Oakland Athletics.
The first thing that struck me about Pitt’s performance is how weathered he looks as Billy Beane. The bags under his eyes are reminiscent of Benicio del Toro. He shows a full range of emotions, from his portrayal of Beane’s well-known mercurial attitude towards the team to his surprisingly tender moments with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey) and Peter Brand, the assistant GM amalgam played by the now-svelte Jonah Hill. Every A’s fan knows how Beane has evolved in terms of finding greater efficiencies, from unathletic OBP/OPS types to undervalued defensive players and now decent minor leaguers blocked from promotion by established stars in the majors. Despite that evolution, there’s that lingering suspicion that Beane’s methodology was either a fluke or wholly flawed, simply because the A’s didn’t get to or win a World Series. Acknowledgment of that suspicion shows on Pitt’s face, which was constantly full of regret.
The audience may come away from the movie thinking that the 2002 A’s were the MLB equivalent of the Bad News Bears. They weren’t. They had the year’s AL MVP (Miguel Tejada) and Cy Young winner (Barry Zito), neither of whom gets much pub in the film. Neither do Tim Hudson or Mark Mulder, the other two legs of the Big Three, nor Eric Chavez, who would in short order become the face of the franchise. That shouldn’t stop anyone, A’s fans included, from enjoying the film. It was necessary to pare down the story into one big narrative with a limited number of subplots. The team itself, as was known by that year three of the contending window, was a notoriously slow starter and bullish second half performer. Tension regarding Beane’s job security was ratcheted up a bit, as his halo didn’t really get dinged until 2004 or later.
Finishing the movie is Beane’s trip to Boston, where Red Sox owner John Henry bowls him over with a tremendous offer to become the highest paid GM in baseball, only to be followed by Beane backing out of the job and staying with the A’s, where he’d eventually get a small ownership stake a few years later. He famously stated about his fateful decision to choose the Mets over a Stanford scholarship:
I made one decision based on money in my life… and I promised I’d never do it again.
Despite the ownership stake and a contract that runs through 2014, Beane is linked to the Cubs’ GM opening and could be linked to both the Red Sox and Yankees GM positions should they become available. If he stays true to that quote – and it’s always tough to turn down big money – I don’t think he’ll leave the Bay Area. I got that sense earlier in the week, when Beane made rare lengthy appearances on A’s TV and radio broadcasts, and on 95.7. He claimed that he had no inside information, but I’m not convinced in the slightest. He seemed barely able to hold back whatever he was not telling.
The film seeks to give Beane some form of redemption by explaining how a sabermetric-focused approach helped the Red Sox win the Series in 2004. It’s still not the kind of Hollywood ending that the masses want. Beane is a loyal guy to family and organization, even if players are treated as little more than commodities much of the time. I think if he really wants to shake the critics once and for all, he’s gonna have to do it on his terms, as the GM of the Athletics. After spending the last four years in organizational limbo while the stadium situation had no resolution, Beane may be finally sniffing that rebirth, that window opening again. By no means does that mean the A’s will have payroll parity with the Yankees and Red Sox, let alone the Giants. But I figure he’ll take that extra $25-40 million a year in revenue, be rid of the “50 feet of crap” that the A’s are under, and start dealing in earnest once again. Like the long, strange road trip the film took towards eventuality, the stadium may yet see such a resolution and that may be the boost Beane needs to turn the A’s from challengers to champs. It would be more than enough to turn Moneyball from bittersweet to just plain sweet. I’m looking forward to it.