Moneyball was released on September 23rd of last year. Last night for the first time I sat on a squeaky gum-encrusted chair in a darkened theater with Brad Pitt's purposely pock-marked visor-shadowed shockingly Beane-like visage on the screen. There were tears, there were chairs thrown, there were computers with complicated baseball-looking yet sciencey images on their screens, and in between, here and there, there was some baseball. In short, everything you might hope Hollywood would add to a book ostensibly about on-base percentage.
The series of tubes spent a lot of virtual ink on Moneyball when it came out. There were articles and reviews in the mainstream media of course, but in our little corner of baseball dorkdom, people kinda freaked out. Maybe it was because someone from the outside actually paid some attention to us. Not only was this a movie about baseball, it was a movie about baseball STATS. And not only was it a movie about baseball stats, but it was a movie about baseball stats starring Brad Pitt. Seriously. You can't make that crap up.
Chances are good you know the story, but just in case... Pitt plays Billy Beane, GM of the small market A's who are in such trouble that they just won 102 games the previous season. Their payroll is ludicrously low and they're about to lose all their best players. They'll have to find replacements within their allotted budget. Aaaand... scene! Yes, that's really the entire plot. Can't you hear the chi-ching of the cash registers now? I can see the "Undervalued Asset" t-shirts, coasters, truckers hats, and edible underwear flying off the shelves. Yes, there is the part at the end where Beane gets the job offer from the Red Sox, which leads to possibly one of the most deflating Final Scenes in movie history wherein Beane and John Henry sip coffee and talk about how dumb everyone else is. Not that they were wrong. In the end Beane turns down $12.5 million from Henry and, as the movie says, the Red Sox won the World Series two years later. At that point a small portion of a movie theater in Portland, Oregon broke out in applause.
After some scolding from his scouts who look like they just got done playing canasta* at the local old folks home, Pitt finally settles on some players. Scott Hatteberg was a catcher who couldn't catch anymore due to injury, but his patient approach to hitting earns him the first base job in Oakland. Chad Bradford is a pitcher who throws weird, so everyone just assumes he has some crazy venereal disease. The A's grab him and drop him into their bullpen. David Justice is the older guy with the heart of gold, Rincardo Rincon is the Spanish guy who didn't speak English -- Hilarious! -- and Art Howe is a giant stupid dick of a manager who tries to thwart Beane's genius at every turn. Ultimately without success, of course. It is Art Howe, after all.
*Note: I don't know what this is. All I know is it entertains old people by the thousands.
Which brings us to... Peter Brand. Brand was created by lawyers so the movie could have Paul DePodesta in it without having Paul DePodesta in it. Peter Brand also allowed the movie to play to stereotypes by casting the corpulent and pocket protected Jonah Hill in the role of a former collegiate baseball and football player. Hill's Brand goes from the center of a cubicle farm in Cleveland, hell by anyone's definition of the word, to Assistant GM of the A's in about thirty seconds of witty banter. Then Brand teaches Beane about the wonders of on-base percentage with an askance glance at player value. In between there is lots of crying in jeeps, some gratuitous pulls on unestablished heartstrings, and even more furniture destruction. And in the end they all win. Sort of. Except no.
And who cares. The book, which the movie was based upon, was never really about baseball anyway. It was, as we all know, an autobiography of Billy Beane detailing how great and wonderful he is. Also, awesome. No, despite what Joe Morgan says, that isn't true. Moneyball the book was written by Michael Lewis and it's part treatise on the importance of information, part incredulous spit-take at the baseball industry's willful ignorance to said information and, maybe most importantly, part thesis on undervalued assets. The book was a seminal work, and a bellwether that marked a turning point in the way that baseball teams were run. That's not to say the two were related. By the time the book was published, most of the methods it 'divulged' were either known within the industry and used or known and purposefully ignored.
What Moneyball (the book) did was educate fans on how smart teams are run, and how they find and value assets. It wasn't the first to do that, it wasn't the best, but it was the biggest (and possibly the best written). For shining the light of day on the pursuit of truth and, in some small way, this lonely, nerdy corner of the world, it deserves platitudes. The movie could have been a similar siren, a call to even more people about the wonders of value and it's effect on baseball front offices. It could have again focused the sports world on rooting out dumbness from all venues of our sports landscape. It could have been, but after a while this gets to be like the old game telephone. Kids sit in a circle and whisper a message to each other around the circle until it gets back to the beginning, at which point the story is revealed and is totally different than the one the kids started with. First, there was what happened, then there was what Michael Lewis saw, heard, wrote down and remembered, then there was the book, then there was about ten years, then the first draft of the movie (supposedly much closer to the book's origins) and then about a billion meetings, and only then did the movie come about. By then the point of the story was almost unrecognizable.
As a movie, Moneyball is fine. It's Hollywood. If you're getting your facts from movies you've likely got bigger problems, like those aliens coming to ruin President Bill Pullman's finely coiffed hair. Sure, there's no way Art Howe is that big an a-hole, Peter Brand doesn't exist, and a whole host of other no-ways, but the two hours are at least entertaining which isn't so bad for $8. In the end that's the point of the movie anyway.
The genius of the book was lending narrative to a topic that does not typically make one think of a great story. To expect that out of this movie was just setting one's self up for failure.