Review: Moneyball (2011): On-Base Percentage Made Beautiful

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.” — Billy Beane, general manager, Oakland A’s

Billy Beane is speaking about himself in Moneyball but he could also be talking about the fans. Baseball fans can be a romantic bunch. Baseball isn’t just baseball, although the game itself is what hooks us in. It can be a connection to childhood memories, to the purity of joy in a night at the ballpark, it represents the best of America (as James Earl Jones reminds us in his famous “People will come” baseball monologue in Field of Dreams), and on and on and on. But the game itself: what about that? Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, may be one of the purest baseball movies of all time in that it is about the game itself.

What constitutes a “good baseball movie”? Is Bull Durham a baseball movie or a love story? Is Field of Dreams about baseball, or about a man haunted by the ghost of his father? How about Fever Pitch? (Even just mentioning Fever Bitch in Red Sox circles can cause a riot.) There’s also The Sandlot, The Rookie, Eight Men Out, The Pride of the Yankees, The Natural, Bang the Drum Slowly, Major League.

One thing these movies all have in common is that they are about baseball, yes, but they are also about more than baseball. They tap into our feelings about baseball, they work on the mythical shared-connection past, where baseball is caught up in all kinds of other life experiences. Moneyball isn’t really interested in all those other things. It keeps its eye on the ball, and rarely lets us leave the bowels of the Oakland A’s rat-trap of a stadium.

Based on the bestselling book of the same name by Michael Lewis, Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane, the eccentric general manager of the dead-broke Oakland A’s. Despite their lowly financial status, “something strange [was] happening in Oakland”, as one sportscaster put it, because although the team could not afford to pay top dollar for players, they consistently made it to the playoffs, year after year after year. They were winning sometimes 100+ games a season. In a 161-game season this was an astonishing feat. Rich teams like the New York Yankees supposedly had a leg up on other teams since they could pay for the best players. Michael Lewis’ book examines what exactly Beane was doing in Oakland, and how he took the team to the ALDS 4 years in a row (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003), losing each time, yes, but even making it that far was attention-getting (to say the least). In 2004 and 2005, they placed 2nd in the AL West, and in 2006 they placed first, and went to the ALDS again, winning against the Minnesota Twins and then losing against the Detroit Tigers. What the hell was going on in Oakland?

Turns out Beane had begun to incorporate the use of computer-generated statistical analysis in his evaluation of players, and this bucked against the popular wisdom of baseball people and baseball scouts. If he couldn’t buy back Jason Giambi, whom he lost to the New York Yankees in 2002, then he could at least put together a compilation of Giambi with a bunch of different undervalued players, those who didn’t get a shot “at the show” because they looked weird, threw weird, or had something eccentric about their playing style. Old-school baseball scouts valued home runs, powerful swings, a certain body type, and those who brought the whole package to the table. But Beane couldn’t afford the whole package, and so he would piece it together, keeping his focus on a very important statistic called the On-Base Percentage: the amount of times a player gets on base for any reason (with a couple of exceptions). Beane scoured devalued cheap players, and went on a hiring spree. This paid off, even under a bright light of controversy, confusion, and mockery.

Moneyball examines those years and looks into those “strange happenings” in Oakland in an inventive gripping way, and is also deeply romantic and emotional, a true baseball lover’s movie.

Moneyball starts with the one-two punch of the October 2001 ALDS, which the A’s lost to the New York Yankees, followed by the defection of a couple of star players, including Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon. Beane (Brad Pitt), gnawed by losing in any way, goes on a rampage of creative thinking and outright begging, to get back players to fill his roster. In one of his meetings with the Cleveland Indians, he notices a shlubby kid in a suit who seems to hold some sway over the Indians’ general manager. Beane homes in on this kid, who turns out to be Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). “Who are you?” Beane says quietly to Brand, his eyes twinkling in a way that seems both menacing and exciting. Peter has a degree in economics from Yale, and this is his first job. He’s not really a big baseball fan, but he is a statistician, and he has worked out vast amounts of computer code in order to properly evaluate players (without even seeing them in person). Peter informs Beane “Baseball thinking is medieval.” Beane is intrigued enough to buy the young kid away from the Cleveland Indians and bring him to Oakland.

The introduction of new ways of thinking is never welcomed at first. This is true in any organization. Moneyball is the story of baseball, but it is also the story of innovation meeting tradition, of belief faced with mocking incomprehension. The first glimpse we get of this is in a terrific scene where Beane sits down with the scouts for the Oakland A’s. The scouts throw magnetic strips with players’ names on them up onto a board, and try to create a valid team. The scouts use phrases like, “He has a great pop off the bat.””Powerful swing.” “He hits it far.” The script, by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, picks up the nuances of baseball speech, and allows for the vast stretches of silence in between comments, as we see Beane, thinking, thinking, thinking. Not only is Moneyball about baseball, but it is also about how we think about baseball. The script allows for thought, for silence, for long stretches when it seems like nothing is happening. But something is happening. Beane is thinking. There is nothing more interesting in cinema than watching someone think. In a way, it is what the movie camera was invented for. This gives Moneyball a quiet almost anxious energy. Beane lives on coffee and Twinkies. Moneyball feels like it does, too. Everything extraneous is stripped away.

Pushback on statistical analysis comes from the scouts as well as from Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the manager. Art Howe is already unhappy because he has only been given a year’s contract, showing the team’s lack of faith in him. And now Beane, in his damn track suit, who never even watches the games, is telling him who to put on the field and where? The tension is immediate, the conflict intense. Beane, with Brand as backup, sticks to his guns. He doesn’t make any new friends, that’s for sure.

The side stories in Moneyball (the acquisition of injured catcher Scott Hatteburg whom Beane hired to play first base, and David Justice, deemed too old by other teams), bring the sabermetrics analysis storyline front and center, making it explicit to those in the audience who may have no idea what any of this means. Hatteburg (Chris Pratt) is injured, and fears his career may be over. When he gets the call from Beane, he is thrilled, and then horrified, because Beane wants him to play first base. He is a catcher. You don’t just switch positions. But Beane doesn’t care about Hatteburg as an infielder, he cares about his on-base percentage as a hitter. The same is true for David Justice (Stephen Bishop) and Chad Bradford (Casey Bond), a pitcher with a windup so odd you have to see it to believe it. These people are misfits in the game.

The payoff is not immediate, and Beane has nerves of steel. He encounters condescension and hostility when he starts to implement the changes from the front office. He spends the games in the weight rooms pumping iron. He can’t watch. As a former player himself, his feelings about the game are conflicted. He wasn’t undervalued as a player. He was overvalued, and he did not do well. He disappointed a lot of people. With an echo of Miracle, the story of the hockey team that won the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics under the innovative coaching style of Herb Brooks (cut from the 1960 Olympic team at the last minute), Beane is haunted by what might-have-beens. He recognizes that baseball is a very unfair game. He accepts it. He has lived it. Sorkin and Zaillain’s script (thankfully) does not turn Moneyball into a redemptive psychodrama, with Beane putting to rest the ghosts of his past through vindication with the Oakland A’s. But the hints are there. Beane is not a happy guy, he is troubled, thoughtful, obsessive, and impatient. He hates losing. Everyone hates losing, but Beane hates it so much he was bold enough to look at how the game was analyzed, and throw a wrench into the “way things are done”.

He was so successful that he was courted by the Red Sox as general manager (he turned them down), but the Red Sox went on to incorporate Beane’s management style and in 2004 won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.

Brad Pitt is 47 years old now, a long way away from the smooth-bodied smooth-talking hustler in Thelma and Louise which rocketed him to fame. Talk about an undervalued player. While he obviously is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, his talent as an actor has been consistently underestimated, and more often than not he has been written off as a pretty-boy. Over the years, people have expressed surprised when he turns in a good performance, as though they didn’t think he had it in him. Brad Pitt has always had it in him. Robert Redford cast him as his own younger self, basically, in A River Runs Through It, and Pitt’s joy and unselfconsciousness wearing the gorgeous Redford mantel is a revelation. Pitt’s career has been diverse, he is successful enough to pick and choose his projects, and age is making him even more interesting . As Beane, what I am most struck by is Pitt’s manner of listening. It is mysterious, what is going on on Pitt’s face most times. The film does not let us in on his thinking process, so we are left to guess. Pitt does not go the cliched route, playing Beane as an impassioned visionary, something we have all seen before. He plays Beane as still waters running very very deep. A lot of turbulence down there beneath the surface. He is awkward with the players, and sometimes perfunctory (there is a very funny moment where he stands in the clubhouse and starts to make an inspirational speech, but can’t continue. He just walks away). Sometimes he tips furniture over to let off some steam. Miller turns this into a funny recurring bit, as opposed to a chance for a movie star to chew up the scenery. Even Beane’s temper tantrums are watchful, rote, thoughtful. Brad Pitt’s eyes, as Beane, are sharp, full of fluctuating assessments. Compare this performance to the one he gave as the repressed controlling father in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, and you can see Pitt’s range.

Jonah Hill, as the computer nerd who helps revolutionize the game, is terrific, shy, awkward, but confident in his brain power. The scenes of conversation between Hill and Pitt are a lesson in screenwriting. There’s a lot of repetition (“Who are you?” Beane asks him in their first meeting, and asks it three more times because each answer he receives is insufficient). The two size each other up, and also size up the enormity of what they want to do. Their language is highly technical at times, but the end result makes it seem character-based. This is no easy feat.

Aaron Sorkin is known for creating complex rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, as well as delving into microscopic views into self-sustaining worlds closed off to most people: the West Wing, backstage at a late-night sketch comedy show (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), the ins and outs of the world of Facebook (The Social Network, for which he won an Academy Award). Here, in Moneyball, we get access to a world we may have dreamt of but could never enter: the operations of a baseball club, the private meetings, the frenzy of a quick trade, the conversations going into creating a lineup. Baseball fans speculate on these things, analyzing every move during every game, trying to understand what the thinking might be behind it. (Say to a Red Sox fan, “Why did Grady Little leave Pedro in?” and every Red Sox fan will not only know exactly what you are talking about, but will pontificate for hours on the thinking behind that disastrous choice.)

Bennett Miller allows the spaces to open in the story, allows the pauses and contemplation to expand. There is very little music in Moneyball, and what there is is used effectively and sparsely. The original score is by Mycheal Danna, and when it kicks in has weight, it really means something.

The heart of Moneyball is baseball, but in watching it I thought of the classic Slap Shot (1973), directed by George Roy Hill, and starring Paul Newman as a has-been hockey player and coach, desperately trying to keep his mill-town hockey team afloat. Gritty, uncompromising, and exuberant, Slap Shot‘s focus on one man trying to revitalize a team that has become a joke is paralleled in Moneyball, with Beane at the center. Here is a man who keeps his cards close to his chest, and doesn’t reveal to us in the audience what drives him. He just hates losing. He can’t stand it. He will tip over a table to show us how he feels, gulp down a Ding Dong and then get on the horn to try to make it right. Brad Pitt was born to play a role like this.

I agree with Billy Beane. It is hard not to be romantic about baseball. However, Moneyball, in doing its best to keep romance out of the picture, ends up being a celebration of the game with such piercing power that a dry stat like “on-base percentage” becomes as thrilling as a grand slam.

Now that is romantic.

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6 Responses to Review: Moneyball (2011): On-Base Percentage Made Beautiful

  1. Doc Horton says:

    I am going to see this tomorrow. I predict I will love it, says the elderly dude who coached youth baseball for 25 years.

  2. sheila says:

    Nice!! Please come back here to chat about it once you’ve seen it! Would love that!

  3. nightfly says:

    The chapter in the book about Scott Hatteburg was my favorite. Pickin’ Machine!

  4. sheila says:

    The image of him having batting practice with his wife in the rain ….

  5. Doc Horton says:

    Saw it. Loved it. I mean, they made a movie about my game, didn’t they? For me, it couldn’t possibly drag at any point. Kudos to all, or even kudus if they preferred. Biggest thrill for me was hearing the familiar and beloved voice of the late great Bay Area (Raiders football, Warriors basketball, Giants and Athletics baseball) sports broadcaster, Bill King, calling the Hatteberg shot. What an interesting guy he was, what with his season tickets to the opera and his Mephistophelian beard and mustache.

  6. sheila says:

    Doc – Terrific, right? I can’t wait to see it again. Yup: no dragging. A really intellectual movie, though – a real ideas movie. But still: thrilling. LOVED IT. And thanks for your thoughts on Bill King.

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