Moneyball Review #381
Okay, first things first: I am not a sabermatician. I have no interest in memorizing, using or developing mathematical formulas to measure baseball player performance. I’m pretty good at math, but a math class is something I’ve avoided like the plague since high school algebra.
What I am is a loyal sabermetric FAN.
As I confessed in these web pages a few years ago, I own every Bill James Abstract ever printed, even the early editions that were Xeroxed and stapled together. I recently became a member of SABR and attended my first convention. I now believe that OPS is the best way to judge a hitter’s value, and WHIP a pitcher’s. I religiously follow a slew of Internet baseball writers who discuss the game using new stats. Fire Joe Morgan, the site that regularly impaled ignorant sportswriters who refused to take the stats seriously, had me on the floor laughing.
But guess what? Over ninety percent of moviegoers and many, many baseball fans still have no clue what VORP and WAR are. Which is why Moneyball is not only the best film about the game since Sugar (and my favorite since Eight Men Out), but very possibly will grow to be the most influential baseball movie in history.
The baseball stat revolution has been coming for years (to keep crusty old-timers from feeling any more threatened, let’s call it a stat integration), but most of its salvos and heated skirmishes have been relegated to the online bubble world, and either been over the heads of most casual fans or barely thought of at all. Baseball broadcasters have finally begun to use some of the new stats, (though newspapers are still way behind, those dinosaurs them), but look for more of that very soon. Because what Bennett Miller’s film does is construct the desperately-needed suspension bridge between fans and deep numbers, and does it entertainingly.
The core of the movie are the earlier, slower scenes between Billy Beane and his roomful of elderly, old school baseball scouts. Some of these buzzards are sitting there recommending players based on their looks, and when Beane suggests the A’s need a new way of thinking to compete with the rich Yankees of the world, the story’s main conflict—adapt or die—becomes crystal clear.
Moneyball may be a “baseball movie”, but it’s closer to a classic man-against-the-system-at-impossible-odds film, along the lines of my favorite MATSAIO movie ever, The Verdict. Paul Newman, a hopeless drunk of a Boston attorney, takes on a big hospital negligence case, gets his personal crap together and not only wins the case when he seems to have absolutely no chance, but makes evil defense attorney James Mason pee in his pants in the process.
Baseball economics may be the less-profound arena Moneyball plays in, but the drama is no less evident. Brad Pitt is superb as Beane, driving every scene with his intelligence, charisma, and anger, and the fascinating world of big league general managing is documented like it never has been before.
For me, though, the true genius of Miller’s film, and the near-perfect script by adaptation all-stars Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin, is the way it takes a predictable, often sappy genre—the sports film—and creates something artful, original, and emotional, yet ferociously devoid of clichés. When Beane ditches a few malingering players halfway through the ’02 season and appears in the A’s locker room to make what we think will be a traditional sports movie speech, he gives up after a few sentences and walks out. There are so many moments where the film uses long silences or sudden, explosive noises, still shots of Beane or manager Art Howe (an overweight, prickly Phillip Seymour Hoffman) that linger on the characters longer than normal to let us wallow in their feelings. It would have been nice if Miller didn’t resort to the oldest sports movie cliché in the books, the slow motion action climax, but even that is done well, with a block of shivering silence accompanying an earlier game-tying homer by Mike Sweeney.
Again, because I am merely a sabermetric fan, I’m not going to dissect any minute facts and figures about Beane and the A’s the movie got wrong. Sabermaticians can pick these things apart all day; it’s what they’re good at. Like the marvelous 1919 art direction in Eight Men Out, the film got many details perfect, like ANA on the out-of-town scoreboard for the 2002 Angels. The movie does a bang-up job of incorporating real MLB footage when needed, and the story is so engaging you’re never distracted by actors playing a handful of known players like David Justice and Scott Hatteberg.
As your average intense baseball and film buff, I enjoyed every inch of Moneyball. Not one drop of advanced baseball stats knowledge is required to have a good time, but I can guarantee when you leave the theater you will have learned something. That’s what I call a movie home run.