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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Moneyball

MONEYBALL

** SPOILERS **

Billy Beane doesn't have a lot of money, but he has a lot of chuzpah. Moneyball, based on true events and the book "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game", dramatically details the Oakland Athletics 2002 season lead by their general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). After the A's lost the 2001 American League Division Series to the New York Yankees, Beane concludes the game of baseball is fundamentally unfair. The Yankees and the Boston Red Sox have the highest spending budgets in baseball and pilfered their best players, Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon respectively, at the end of the season. The A's can't compete with their much smaller budget.

As Beane puts it to his staff: "There are rich teams, there are poor teams, there's fifty feet of crap, and then there's us." With the aid of Peter Brant (Jonah Hill), an economics major from Yale and devotee of baseball sabermetrics, Beane sets out to assemble a winning baseball team based on the theory coined "Moneyball" - finding inexpensive players undervalued by other baseball organizations and emphasizing on-base percentages and slugging percentages over the "19th century view" of baseball utilized by scouts for finding talent. (Actors such as Chris Pratt as first baseman Scott Hatteberg and Stephen Bishop as outfielder David Justice portray the A's in the film, though the real players are always shown in historical game video footage. The Jonah Hill character, however, is a composite character based on Beane's real life Assistant GM Paul DePodesta.) 

Beane's own history as a high school recruit who eschewed a full ride to college to fail at playing major league ball is given dramatic heft, as is his family life with his ex-wife Robin Wright-Penn and his beloved daughter. At first, Beane's Moneyball strategy creates fiction, sometimes amusing, with his tried and true staff, including his team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who seems to manage the A's by crossing his arms, wincing and doing the opposite of Beane's wishes. The A's lose a lot. And then, lo and behold, they start to win and win big, as the A's go on to break the record for most consecutive wins ever, going 20-0. (The Undertaker is still chasing that record for consecutive WrestleMania victories.) 

And yet, the Moneyball strategy isn't enough to win the A's the 2002 World Series, though Beane's successes draw the attention of the Boston Red Sox, who attempt to hire Beane; Beane turns down a $12.5-million offer to become the highest paid GM in sports to remain with the A's. (For Bostonians, there is a shot of Yawkey Way straight down to Boylston Street that shows Boylston the way it looked in 2002, complete with the old Baseball Tavern.)  

Moneyball is a sharp, entertaining baseball movie carried by Pitt's money lead performance. There are moments throughout Moneyball, especially in the propulsive manner the film presents discussions of baseball statistics, that echo the feel of The Social Network. No wonder - the screenplay by Steven Zallian was re-written by The Social Network's Aaron Sorkin. The final moments where Beane listens to his daughter singing Lenka's "The Show" are oddly devastating.

Billy Beane set out to change the game of baseball, but Moneyball doesn't touch on what long term effects his system had on the game, noting only that the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series using Moneyball strategies. Moneyball does argue persuasively to both fans and non-fans that "it's tough to not be romantic about baseball." And I have to say, I understand the "MoneyBART" episode of The Simpsons a lot better now.

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