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A 2011 movie directed by Bennett Miller.

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Money Talks

  • Sep 25, 2011
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Billy Beane won, you know. He would hate to hear anyone say that since he never picked up a Pennant, but he won. He changed the way baseball is played. Well, maybe not so much played as constructed, but his method proved to win a ton of games in the end. Most teams are emulating his model now, and as the Boston Red Sox say at the end of the movie Moneyball, those not using it are old dinosaurs. Beane's biggest foe, Joe Morgan, is an old trudging dino these days whom I could probably beat up, and I'm 5'10", 180 lbs, and have three bad limbs. Okay, maybe that's going too far, but baseball teams using the building methods older than Socrates are getting left in the dust, and if Joe Morgan beat me up it wouldn't make him any less an idiot.

Moneyball is an underdog story, but a very different kind of animal in the underdog trope. The Oakland Athletics are a team now known for their lack of convention and disregard for what's considered standard and normal, and in this way it makes perfect sense that Moneyball is about them. If Moneyball were a fictional story, it would still revolve around the Athletics because no one would buy into the Yankees, Cubs, or Braves being underfunded small-market underdogs. As Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane says, "Here's the real problem: There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there's 50 feet of crap. And then there's us." Moneyball is the story of how the Athletics bucked the traditional system and won as many games as the New York Yankees on a budget which might pay for half an arm of Alex Rodriguez.

In his review of this movie, Roger Ebert wrote that the real main character in Moneyball is the idea. This is true, but where I disagree with Ebert is in his insistence that the idea is the main character in the movie. The idea was definitely the main character in the book, which is considered one of the sport's classic pieces of literature. But the problem with using an idea as a main character is that it can go out in so many different ways, none of which will necessarily be taken to their natural conclusions. I read the book and found it to be inconsistent about its subject matter and too prone to jumping around to the point where author Michael Lewis seemed confused himself. He tries to do a million different things in Moneyball and so he ended up doing nothing.

This is the challenge of adapting a book such as Moneyball. Fortunately, Aaron Sorkin was one of the screenwriters, and so the movie does something traditional thinking would deem impossible: It takes an idea - a mathematics-based idea, no less - and creates a small group of fully human vessels to convey it through. Billy Beane was a once-promising draft prospect with the New York Mets who got up to The Show and blew it. We are given a series of brief flashbacks in Moneyball to give the tale. Unlike most other ballplayers who try to weather out their careers, Beane eventually accepts the fact that his baseball career will never amount to a Cooperstown resume, and so one day during his stint with the Oakland Athletics, he goes to the front office and asks for a job as a scout. The team owner is suprised by the request but complies. Honestly, I didn't like the flashbacks. They do explain why Billy seems so morose at times, but his divorce could have done that job just as well.

Anyway, after a long time as a scout, Beane lands in the General Manager's seat. It's the 2001 ALDS the first time we see Beane, in the deciding fifth game against the Yankees. Oakland loses, and their three big guns, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen, are of course off to free agency and big bucks. Beane needs a monetary break to replace that kind of talent which the front office just doesn't have. One day while he's in Cleveland trying to work out a trade, he meets Peter Brand and is impressed when the Tribe's GM takes his advice. He flags Peter down and picks his brain, trying to learn what make's Brand's baseball side tick. Peter, who is ostracized in Cleveland for his unconventional team-building views, finds his niche in Oakland, where he is exactly the kind of radical thinker Beane needs.

The relationship between Beane and Brand is the real crux of the movie. In humanizing an idea based on a subject few people understand, we come to learn a lot of essential character details about them both. Beane and Brand are played by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill respectively, turning Moneyball into an odd variation of the buddy movie. They bounce off each other and are one of the better duos to pop up onscreen in recent years. Beane playfully teases Brand a lot, but even at his worst he's still respectful of Brand's ideas because he knows Oakland's turnaround sits inside the supercomputer brain of his math-loving, Yale grad new Assistant GM.

The Athletics go from worst to first, as do so all underfunded, talentless teams from sports movies. In this respect, Moneyball is both definition and subversion of that particular storytelling trope: The Athletics have no funding or talent, and are just this odd bunch of folks who learn to come together as a team and surprise the entire league. But the only focus on the players is strictly on their presence as components of a bigger whole and not on their cute little quirks. It's the GM duo who have to convince everyone on the planet that their team can play well, most of all manager Art Howe, who refuses to play the players Billy suggests. When Oakland is sent home from the ALDS again, Billy feels it hard because he knows idiots like Joe Morgan are going to denounces him as a fluke, while a World Series win would get everyone to acknowledge the change he brought to baseball.

There's a certain somberness to Moneyball, probably because it's so grounded in Billy's failures as a ballplayer and his divorce. We do have to put up with a handful of slow, boring scenes which don't really include a whole lot of the main story. But even so, Moneyball is easily the best baseball movie of the last 20 years. If it weren't for a couple of technical issues, it would have dethroned Eight Men Out as my favorite baseball movie. Moneyball is an outstanding drama which shows us statistics in a humanized form. You can only hope Billy Beane will win the World Series after seeing it. Hey, other teams are doing well on his ideas.

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October 09, 2011
Enjoyed reading your review....especially the part with Ebert. Thanks!!
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston ()
Ranked #17
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (ISBN 0-393-05765-8) is a book by Michael Lewis, published in 2003, about the Oakland Athletics baseball team and its general manager Billy Beane. Its focus is the team's analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite Oakland's disadvantaged revenue situation. A film based on the book starring Brad Pitt was released in 2011.
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