Baseball, America’s past time. That is not what the movie Moneyball (based on the best selling book of the same name by one of my favorite authors, Michael Lewis) is about. Nor is it about sabermetrics, the analysis of baseball metrics that overcomes the subjective with the objective. True, baseball and sabermetrics are key to the story of Moneyball but at the heart is Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). The struggle of a once can’t miss pro baseball prospect to make sense of the game he was supposed to have dominated in his playing days.
The Oakland A’s lose to the New York Yankees in the 2001 postseason. Worse, they are set to lose at least three big name players to free agency. Beane pleads with the team’s owner owner to up the budget. The A’s are a small market team. They do not have the luxury of $100M+ per year to spend on players. They have less, far less. Try under $40M. In what is a great scene, Beane meets with his staff. They’re analyzing their options, desperately seeking replacements for their star players. The talk is so subjective it’s funny. Comments on potential candidates range from speculation about what makes so-and-so a good player on the field to the status of that player’s love life and what it says about his ability to win. The look on the general manager’s face turns from subtle frustration to total disbelief. He points out that there is no point in trying to beat the Yankees, Red Sox, and other big market teams at their game. The A’s can’t compete. They don’t have the budget. Plain and simple. This leaves Beane’s staff flummoxed. Beane is no better off.
Beane meets with the Cleveland Indians. After a peculiar meeting discussing trades, he sets his sights on Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent Yale graduate and lowly worker bee for Cleveland. Brand doesn’t so much care about baseball as he does about the metrics he believes everyone else is missing that could change the way major league baseball teams are assembled. The Oakland A’s general manager takes Brand away from the Indians after he calls the economist major and asks if Brand would have drafted Beane as a high school prospect. Brand stumbles around until Beane drags it out of him – Brand wouldn’t have drafted Beane in the first round and definitely wouldn’t have given him a signing bonus. Brand would’ve taken the well hyped prospect in the ninth round. This seems to convince Beane that the young economist graduate is onto something, which is telling. Throughout Moneyball we’re shown flashbacks to a young up-and-coming Billy Beane who all the pro scouts love. He can’t seem to reconcile how badly those scouts missed on him (and so many other prospects over the years) and how he isn’t going to fall into the exact same trap. He places his hope in Brand’s controversial allegiance to the Bill James invented sabermetrics. Turns out James’ ideas were not highly respected within mainstream baseball and Moneyball goes on to show how unconventional those ideas could be when implemented in real life by the Oakland A’s.
While Billy Beane is a calm figure in all situations we sense that he’s only moments away from self-imploding. He can’t watch an A’s game, not even on TV. He struggles to tune the game in on the radio. He’s aloof with his players, never getting close as to avoid the awkwardness that arises when moves need to be made. Never mind the fact that Beane was once a player and could probably relate better than most in the front office with the players. Even in his personal life we see Beane as appearing calm but never comfortable. In one scene he sits and waits for his daughter in his ex-wife’s home. The ex-wife and her new husband try to strike up some small talk. It’s awkward and clear that Beane is doing his best to hold back his true feelings in that moment. He plays a passive aggressive game with his ex and her husband when he learns that his 12-year old daughter now has a cell phone.
There is a point in the film where the GM goes “all in” with his plan. The drama is not so much on the field as the A’s struggle early in the season and many call into question management’s wisdom in replacing star players with has-beens and no names. The real drama is that of Billy Beane and his struggle to reconcile the contrasts of his days as a golden prospect who turned out to be a bust, his new role as baseball’s contrarian general manager, and his superstition (never attending games for fear he brings bad luck). Brad Pitt’s performance is so finely nuanced that it’s easy to forget we’re watching one of the biggest names in Hollywood perform.
If there is anything bringing Moneyball down it is the second act where the Oakland A’s turn things around. That act drags on a bit too long, bringing too much focus to the on the field play which is not a strength of the movie. There are some special moments and scenes as we watch the team start to put it all together and go on a historic win streak but the overall length detracts.
Watching Billy Beane struggle, even after he experiences a wild amount of success, makes Moneyball a special film. Most would have had the Oakland A’s GM triumphantly proclaiming his loyalty for his team and ended it in a great David vs. Goliath story. Instead we get Billy Beane the always appearing calm figure who is never quite sure what to make of this game of baseball. Even in success he is unsure. His final decision to stick with the underdog feels like it’s filled with doubt. As if Beane’s decision to stick with the A’s or go with the incredible offer from the Red Sox is lose-lose. To Billy Beane, there is no sure thing. The obvious first appeal of anything cannot be trusted.