Sunday, September 25, 2011

Moneyball Worth More Than the Price of Admission

Last month when I read Joe Torre's book The Yankee Years, the great Yankee manager shared how the game of baseball had shifted approximately ten years ago. Old school managers and owners were still placing value on things like potential, whereas a maverick approach was being developed by the Oakland A's using statistical analysis to build a team. These ideas, tested in Oakland in 2002, were quickly adopted by teams that lacked the deep pockets of the Steinbrenners and other money-laden teams. Ultimately it enabled the Boston Red Sox to sling off the Curse of the Bambino, whom they regrettably traded in 1919.

The book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball, detailed the inside story of Billy Beane and these amazing A's. Baseball produced yet another bestseller. And like so many such books, the story begs to be told on the silver screen.

This weekend the movie adaptation of Lewis' book hit theaters across the country. I'd read the book (twice) so when I saw the marquis, with heavyweights Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman in leading roles, it seemed a necessary way to decompress on a Friday evening.

Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, general manager of a team that must win with the odds stacked against it. The book's subtitle summarizes the dilemma. "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game." Despite a stellar season in 2001, Beane's Oakland Athletics fell short of the ultimate prize and then stood helplessly by as their emerging stars were snatched up by teams with larger bankrolls. In the era of free agency this had been a perpetual problem. Beane determined that the A's, being amongst the poorest franchises in terms of money to work with, had to think outside-the-ballpark if the team ever hoped to achieve an alternate result.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the team's old school manager Art Howe. When Beane brings in a Yale economics grad to make decisions based on numbers instead of gut instinct or a player's likableness, the teams scouts and Howe are up in arms. Beane's approach, they say, will be disruptive to the entire game of baseball. The old ways of scouting will be undermined. But Beane is determined.

Howe is equally determined to be the manager and not let Beane interfere with his old school ways. Instead of playing the players Beane thinks Howe should have on the field, Howe plays the guys he believes would be more suitable. Beane trumps Howe by trading the guys who have been in the lineup instead of the players he has assembled. Ultimately, there are payoffs for this relentless commitment to the plan.

When I left the theater I had a strong impression that I had just watched one of the great baseball films of all time. I can't recall a film that so clearly presents the dynamics of what goes on behind the scenes in the formation of a championship team. The story itself provides an inside perspective on a significant moment in time, because the decisions made by that one team have had ramifications throughout the major leagues.

Pitt again shows his range as an actor. Billy Beane had been a superstar prospect in his youth, foregoing a Standford scholarship to jump to a career in baseball. The scouts believed him to be the next superstar, but in the end he was a failure in the big leagues and later in his marriage. Pitt's portrayal of an inwardly anguished man striving with issues of meaning in life are spot on and noteworthy.

It's a fine film about a very fine story, rich with nuanced performances throughout. For anyone who has had a remote interest in baseball at some point in their lives, it comes with my highest recommendation.


M. Denise C. said...

I just got back from seeing this great baseball movie. I love baseball movies!! So good.

ENNYMAN said...

It's especially interesting when you read the book first and hear about the flick, and wonder how well it would be translated to the silver screen. This was an excellent adaptation, and the characters and acting were flawless. There wasn't a weak moment in the story.
Thanks for the comment.