The West Swing

09.28.11

Good Movie, Bad Baseball

‘Moneyball’ is a real baseball movie, and Brad Pitt deserves an Oscar nomination, writes Allen Barra. But its baseball logic is even more of a fantasy than the book’s.

In 1989, the Charlie Sheen/Tom Berenger baseball comedy Major League was released. The plot was enjoyably preposterous: A former showgirl (Margaret Whitton), the widow of the Cleveland Indians owner, tries to put together a team so bad that attendance will nosedive, nullifying their contract with the city of Cleveland. She will then be free to move the team to Florida and a fancy new stadium with luxury boxes.

The original premise of the film was even more preposterous: that the ex-showgirl was a baseball savant capable of identifying the talents of rejects and misfits who had been dumped or overlooked by other teams. A popular story has it that sportswriters viewed a rough cut of the film with this plot and rejected it as implausible, so the movie was retooled to make her the villain.

Baseball has changed a lot since then. Maybe sportswriters aren’t ready to accept a showgirl in the front office of a major league baseball team, but they are certainly ready to accept Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s. Or at least everyone is embracing the idealized version of Beane derived from Michael Lewis’s enormous bestseller, Moneyball—just as the Beane of Lewis’s book was a glossy version of the general manager who supposedly revolutionized the game of baseball.

The movie doesn’t rock, but it gives off a pleasurable vibe for an amazing two hours and 10 minutes. (I can’t remember the last time I sat through a movie this long without looking at my watch; I love baseball, but I can’t even sit through a baseball game for that long without looking at my watch.) The prerelease publicity, of course, said what they always say about baseball movies: It’s not really a baseball movie. But Moneyball is a baseball movie, one of the few movies outside of Bull Durham (the best, of course) that doesn’t shy away from being about the game.

Moreover, Moneyball does things that no other baseball movie has tried to do and which must have seemed ludicrous when the suits first sat down to hear the concept: Well, it’s about this guy who was a failure as an athlete and his ball club doesn’t have much money and he hired this nerdy little guy from another team who knows all about baseball statistics. And there are lots of scenes with charts and computers and even a few scenes with batters taking pitches to draw walks.

Let’s see—we’ve also got a couple of scenes of players being told they’ve been traded or outright released. We’re going to make these as realistic as possible with no sentimental overtones. Do they get to come back and be heroes later on? Well, no, they’re just gone—that’s it for them.

And there’s no sex—Robin Wright is going to play Brad’s ex-wife and is only in the movie for about three minutes. Billy doesn’t have a girlfriend or any outside interests—just running a baseball team. Did we leave anything out? Oh, yes, almost forgot:  The team not only doesn’t make it to the World Series, they lose in the first round of the playoffs. Anything else? Oh, right, almost forgot. There are lots of scenes with Brad and Jonah Hill, who plays the star nerd, talking on the phone making deals. And if you’ve ever had a yearning to go deep into the crevices of a cavernous major league baseball stadium—to dingy offices, equipment rooms, places like thatthen this will be your movie.

How in the world did they make this ridiculous aberration into such an enjoyable film?

Well, for one thing, the dialogue crackles. The screenplay is credited to Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, but Sorkin’s fingerprints are all over the film. Some of the dialogue is as identifiably Sorkin as anything in The Social Network. “This guy’s got so much attitude,” says a grizzled baseball scout, “that by the time he enters a room his dick has already been there for two minutes.” Lamenting his team’s lack of financial resources, Billy tells his staff, “We’re the last dog at the bowl.”

And I really like this exchange between Pitt’s Beane and Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand:

Pitt: How many player evaluations did I ask you for?
Hill: Three
Pitt: How many did you do?
Hill: Forty-seven. Actually, fifty-one.  (Pause)  I don’t why I lied about that.

It’s Pitt that keeps all of this bouncing along. His performance is remarkable, an in-depth portrait of a shallow man. I can’t recall the last time an American actor sustained a movie with such easy charm and witty reactions; I’ll take a stab and say it was John Travolta in Get Shorty.

While it would be nice to see Pitt’s work in Moneyball honored with an Oscar nomination, it must be said that his rightness for the role is all that the role is. Beane is the closest thing to a fully realized character in the film, but even there, there are some big holes. In one scene, after an embarrassing loss, Beane, angered by a boombox blaring in the locker room, smashes it with a bat. But the offending player is Jeremy Giambi, who just a half-hour before Billy’s scouts were telling him was an unredeemable fuck-up. Billy signed Giambi anyway because of his ability to “get on base.” What is the movie trying to tell us at this point? After relentlessly pounding us with the message that players should be judged by their statistics—sabermetrics, as they are called, named for the members of the society for American Baseball Research–is it now saying that there’s something more important? That there’s some intangible that Giambi lacks? (Beane later trades Giambi, but the movie doesn’t tell us whether it had anything to do with rumors of his drug use. In fact, though several A’s players are now known to have been on anabolic steroids during the Billy Beane years, Moneyball—both the book and the movie—avoid the subject all together.)

The Yankees won before sabermetrics, and they're winning now, and they're always going to have an advantage over teams like the A's no matter how many stat nerds Oakland hires.

There have been a slew of articles on the Internet arguing about Moneyball’s adherence to fact. Most of them, I think, are irrelevant. A movie is a movie. But when a movie uses the names of real people, it has at least some obligation to adhere to the known record.  Beane and his manager, Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, are constantly at odds with how Beane made Howe look foolish and truculent for not understanding Billy’s new statistical approach to baseball. (You can Google both men’s names and hear arguments pro and con to how accurately the movie portrays their relationship.)

I don’t really care who is right, but I do care that Hoffman’s character is never given a chance to represent his side of the story. Moneyball the movie seems only to care about Art Howe as a foil for the handsome, hip Billy—who in the audience doesn’t know who’s going to win that battle? (And Hoffman has as much reason to be upset as Howe; it’s the first flat movie performance of his career.)

It’s a shame that the only terribly false note struck by Moneyball comes at the very end of the film, and it’s a whopper. Billy tells Hill’s Peter that he’s turning down a $12.5 million offer from the Red Sox because he wants to stay in Oakland and “change the game”—this means more to him than going to Boston, winning a World Series ring, and becoming rich. I don’t know what Beane’s motivation for staying in Oakland was, but in the movie it couldn’t sound more Hollywoodized if Billy said he was only in it for love of the game.

Earlier he tells us, “I hate losing more than I love winning.” But all of a sudden, at the end we’re told the reason he’s done everything is so all other teams in baseball will adopt his methods. Moneyball takes a guy whose real achievement was being a couple of years ahead of the curve in recognizing the applicability of the value of some baseball stats and tries to turn him into a philosopher. No, make that a martyr, which apparently is what staying in Oakland means.

Billy never did win a championship with the A’s, but apparently both Beane and the audience is supposed to be placated by a coda that the Boston Red Sox later went on to win two World Series using “Billy’s methods.” They neglect to tell us that the Red Sox also had a $160-million payroll at their disposal, four times what Beane had to work with. This, I suppose, gives new definition to the old saying, “It isn’t whether you win or lose but how you play the game.”

And why does Billy want to change the game? That he actually did is one of the more absurd fictions of Lewis’s book; the Yankees won before sabermetrics, and they’re winning now, and they’re always going to have an advantage over teams like the A’s no matter how many stat nerds Oakland hires. Moneyball, finally, is a geek’s wet dream: Study your numbers hard enough, and the Brad Pitts will beat a path to your door.