by George Sax
Really inside baseball
Bennett Miller’s Moneyball may be the best movie ever made about baseball. For that matter, it’s probably among the very best ever about sports. It’s almost certainly the most intelligent. And that achievement has come despite—or because of—taking its focus away from the playing field. Moneyball devotes scant time to showing us game action. (One scene in which a player hits balls in a batting cage is at least as long as the few that are set on the diamond.) The hackneyed visuals that directors have recourse to—slow-motion tracking of a homer, for example—are notably absent.
Early on, Miller has a scene in which a brooding Oakland Athletics general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), sits alone in a darkened, empty stadium listening to a radio report on the game his team has just played in, and that knocked it out of post-season contention. Beane fairly seethes. Shortly after, he meets with the team owner to ask for a bigger budget to counter the American League clubs that steal his stellar players, only to be told that he’s the manager of a small-market team and all he’ll have to work with is a small-market purse. Beane retires to lick his wounds, and, as the movie dramatizes so ably, he reconceives the whole project of team rebuilding and winning games.
Moneyball is adapted by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian from Michael Lewis’s popular 2003 nonfiction book of the same name. With the vital assistance of a young stats expert (Jonah Hill) whom Beane buys from Cleveland, which won’t sell him any players at the prices he can pay, he embarks on a startling new approach to team development. Beane and his new young expert reject the recommendations of the team’s scouting staff—to their dismay and anger—and select players who have been overlooked or discounted but who meet a fundamental test: They can get on base. “Buy runs, buy wins, don’t buy players,” Beane tells his adamantly unconvinced staff and a sullenly disgruntled manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman, largely wasted in a subsidiary role).
In his book, Lewis is acidly dismissive of the received wisdom of Major League Baseball’s establishment and its hangers-on, including much of the press. (He calls this regime “The Club.”) Baseball executives’ decision-making, he writes, revealed “how little they really knew about the people they were about to rain money on.” (It’s worth noting that Lewis is a business writer, not a sports journalist.)
Moneyball the movie is a condensed, simplified, and semi-fictionalized version of Lewis’s book, but it’s essentially faithful to his story and analysis. The movie is a journey into the guts of the game and a rendering of what gets said and argued over there. And rather than becoming dryly technical, it’s dramatically charged and humanly scaled. Miller can frame shots and build scenes, and Zaillian and Sorkin have written some crackling dialogue. Pitt’s Beane is a breezily personable but tensely driven competitor, and the movie revolves around him.
It’s been a long time since baseball was America’s pastime. Its reduced status has added another layer of elegiac appeal to the game. Moneyball, for all its specialized details, conveys something of that appeal, as well as its driving capitalist ethos. Near its end, Beane exclaims, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
Watch the trailer for Moneyball
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