MONEYBALL: I Want It to Mean Something

Moneyball (2011) – Directed by Bennett Miller – Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kerris Dorsey, Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, Robin Wright, and Spike Jonze.

I understand that Brad Pitt has 94 kids and is married to Angelina Jolie, who people keep insisting is the hottest woman ever despite my objections, so I can understand him not wanting to leave the house and spend weeks or months shooting movies. I mean, acting is what he does, but the guy must have enough money squirreled away so that none of his descendants would have to work for at least a couple generations. If he woke up one morning and decided to pull a Brando, buy an island, get humongously fat, and only return to TV to make out with Larry King’s corpse, I would totally respect that.

But I’m glad he hasn’t.

There are still people out there who like to cling to the notion that our movie stars aren’t good actors. Perhaps we can blame this on the 1990s, when the Schwarzeneggers and Stallones took over the box office, but I think we’re living in a pretty fantastic age of acting stars. Or star actors. Many of our biggest stars are also damn fine actors, and Brad Pitt is one of them.

All of this is to say that he’s pretty fantastic in MONEYBALL, Bennett Miller’s 2011 film based on Michael Lewis’ 2003 book about baseball and economics. Pitt plays Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s General Manager (for those not versed in baseball, the GM is the man responsible for putting the team together) who’s trying a new method of assembling his team. The film opens at the end of the 2001 season, with the A’s being defeated in the playoffs by the New York Yankees. It’s a story of the Little Engine That Almost Could, as the A’s were at the low end of baseball’s economic ladder and the Yankees were at the very top. Losing is bad enough, but the A’s became symbolic of the systematic flaw (or “flaw,” if you’re so inclined) in baseball’s economic model – rich teams prosper at the expense of poor teams. The A’s lose three of their biggest stars that off-season to big market clubs: Jason Giambi signs with the Yankees, Johnny Damon signs with the Red Sox, and Jason Isringhausen moves on to the St. Louis Cardinals.

It’s a bit of bad luck that all three players were entering the final year of their contracts, but that’s baseball. With their key components moving on, the A’s are stuck with the classic quandary of what to do to replace them, and the solution that Beane and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill – playing a character based on Paul DePodesta) come up with is the golden idea that turned baseball on its head: Moneyball.

The idea behind Moneyball was to find players undervalued by the market, allowing Oakland to sign them on the (relative) cheap. They began to value players who got on base and who threw strikes. It was a non-traditional approach to our most traditional sport, and Beane’s idea to rely on the numbers-driven, Yale-educated economist caused all sorts of baseball traditionalists to have their brains melted.

The worst of the baseball traditionalists are the sort of folks who want everything to be like it was in 1935 – you know, whites on top, blacks excluded, everyone else a non-issue. They cling so desperately to their precious notion of what the game “should be” that they turn a blind eye to progress, and a whitewash the game’s early days in such a hazy nostalgic glow that they forget many of these early stars were awful, horrible, racist assh*les. The traditionalists are often completely entrenched in the past, holding up baseball like some grand symbol of Americana that they refuse to acknowledge that the world is changing around them, and that, for the good of the sport, they occasionally need to change with it. Traditionalist mouthpieces have fought everything from the racial integration of the game in the 1940s, the elimination of the reserve clause, the advent of free agency, the creation of the Designated Hitter in the 1970s, the addition of the Wild Card in the 1990s … everything. So Beane’s idea to be the first GM to jump on the Sabremetric wave ruffled all the fundamentalist feathers.

MONEYBALL the movie presents Beane as a man at his wit’s end, angered at the economic state of the game and desperate to try something new. He visits the Cleveland Indians’ offices to try and work a deal and he’s intrigued by the chubby, quiet guy in the back of the room, so on his way out he stops by the guy’s desk and plugs him for information. Peter Brand is a numbers guy, focusing on a player’s .OBP, or On Base Percentage, which quantifies the number of times a player gets on base versus his plate appearances. (Basically, it’s Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch over At Bats + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Sacrifice Flies.) Beane is taken with Brand’s approach because it’s different and it can save him money.

While Beane is the center of the film, it’s really Brand’s ideas that propel the plot forward. Beane is cast as the guy sitting between the newfangled ideas and the traditional ways of doing things. Because he’s the boss, Beane takes all the heat – from his owner, from his scouts, from the public, and from the baseball cognoscenti. What’s striking is that Beane has to be taught this new system by Brand, which means he suffers from all kinds of doubt when the A’s start the season off rather terribly.

Which leads us to the villain of the piece – the A’s manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Beane puts the team together but Howe is the guy that puts the team on the field, and he refuses to put the team on the field that Beane and Brand wants. At the center of contention is Scott Hatteberg, a catcher with a shot elbow that Beane signs to play first base.

No one but Beane and Brand think this is a good idea, including Hatteberg. On the surface, it’s a ludicrous idea to bring in Hatteberg to replace Jason Giambi, but Beane/Brand aren’t trying to replace Giambi with one guy but three. The scouts throw a fit at this and Beane pushes right back, totally emboldened by this idea.

There’s a subplot here, too, on how Beane was the wet dream of this traditional thinking back in the day. When Beane was a high school player he was a “five tool” player, meaning he could do anything and everything scouts look for in a player. Beane’s career fizzled out and the head scout tries to play this as the reason Beane is making this shift. It’s a stretch because baseball is just too random, but it makes a nice point of contention.

Pitt is wonderful as a guy trying to find something to believe in, but while he’s great with the baseball folks, he’s even better with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey). Beane’s divorced and shares custody with his wife (Robin Wright) and her new husband (Spike Jonze), but the wife and new husband are almost insignificant, except to give us another scene to show Beane uncomfortable. The scenes with Beane and his daughter are just awesome, though. Pitt is great with Dorsey, encouraging her interest in music and trying to protect her from the realities of his job. Dorsey is equally fantastic with Pitt; it’s always nice to see smart kids in movies, and this is one of them. She knows more about the precarious nature of her dad’s situation than he wants to let on.

With the A’s spiraling and Howe refusing to buy into Beane’s system, Beane hits his lowest point – is he all in or not?

Well, as you can imagine, he’s all in, or else we wouldn’t have a movie.

Beane trades away some pieces that have been preventing his ideal line-up to take the field, and thus Howe is forced to start playing Beane and Brand’s guys. The results are, literally, historic. The A’s start winning, eventually running off a 20-game winning streak. It’s important there’s this win streak, because the cruelty of the season sees the A’s bowing out of the playoffs, yet again, robbing us of that traditional sports movie ending.

And that’s what makes MONEYBALL such an interesting watch – it’s a baseball movie and so we have to have some of the traditional ticks in here, but it’s really a movie about the intersection of belief and science; it’s a movie about the old way of doing things versus a new way of doing things and just how scared people are at trying something radically different. Beane becomes a True Believer in this new system; as he tells Brand after the A’s fall to the Twins in the playoffs, “I want it to mean something.” He also can’t completely let go of the past, though, remarking at one point about the romantic nature of baseball.

In one of my favorite scenes of the movie, Beane is brought to Boston to talk to John Henry, the new owner of the Red Sox, about becoming the Red Sox new GM. The Sox are a big market club, but John Henry is intrigued about Beane’s methods enough to want to make him the highest paid GM in history to run his club. Henry is this wonderful combination of ultimate nerd and ultimate rebel, wanting to stick it to this entrenched system on principle as much as anything else.

Beane stays in Oakland by some mix of romanticism and stubbornness and desire to stay close to his daughter, and two years after he turns Henry down, the Red Sox win the World Series with his and Brand’s methods. The movie’s credits roll with Beane’s daughter singing a song, and cutely/cruelly singing, “You’re a loser, dad. You’re a loser, dad.”

MONEYBALL is a very good movie, and Pitt, Hill, and Dorsey are all great. I don’t think Hoffman has ever done less to get a paycheck, as basically all he has to do is look grumpy, fold his arms, and scowl, but he does it well. It’s one of the more unique baseball movies, because it’s as much an economic movie, as much a changing-of-the-guard movie, as it is a baseball flick. The film certainly resonates with those of us who think we need new ways of doing old things because the old ways have led us down a road we’d rather not be traveling. Bennett Miller does a really good job putting this story together, which is impressive considering Pitt seems to spend about 1/3 of the movie sitting in his truck. I won’t go so far as to say this is the best baseball movie I’ve ever seen, but it is a highly watchable, surprisingly funny movie, and you certainly do not need to be a baseball fan to enjoy it.

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4 thoughts on “MONEYBALL: I Want It to Mean Something

  1. “There are still people out there who like to cling to the notion that our movie stars aren’t good actors. Perhaps we can blame this on the 1990s, when the Schwarzeneggers and Stallones took over the box office, but I think we’re living in a pretty fantastic age of acting stars. Or star actors. Many of our biggest stars are also damn fine actors, and Brad Pitt is one of them.”

    I wanted to start applauding when I read this line. Far too often, I see people hate on famous actors for really no other reason than they’re famous actors.

    • Totally agreed, Percival. It drives me nuts when these guys get slagged – have they all delivered weak performances in their careers? Sure, but they’ve delivered some fantastic performances, too.

  2. One of the best things about MONEYBALL is that Brad Pitt performance which I am convinced is his homage to Robert Redford. There are scenes in the movie where Pitt uncannily looks and sounds a whole lot like Redford.

    • I hadn’t thought of the Redford angle, but that’s a great point. I definitely got the Redford vibe to it in the sense that Redford’s movies are often comments about contemporary America, no matter when they’re set, and you can see that here.

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