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By Amy Nicholson
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At the time of this writing, the Oakland Athletics sit at a distant third in the American League West, 18 games behind the Texas Rangers, managed by Ron Washington, once the first-base coach under A's wonderboy Billy Beane. The A's have not had a winning season since making the playoffs in '06, which is to say they are long removed from the summer of 2002, when they were revolutionaries who reinvented baseball by embracing the radical teachings of a pork-and-beans-plant security guard who shed the sport of its myths, romanticism, and pageantry and turned it into a math equation.
Michael Lewis' book Moneyball was published in 2003, in the immediate wake of "the season that shook baseball." The story didn't look like much on the surface: Beane, a former ballplayer turned scout turned GM, and Paul DePodesta, an Ivy League wonk, took a measly $39 million salary budget, crunched the numbers, and turned overlooked, undervalued statistics into overachieving, undervalued ballplayers, and ended up... losing the American League Division Series to the Minnesota Twins, the second of four straight one-and-dones for the A's. Yet the book would serve as a bible for every baseball executive and stat-obsessed fan. The A's stink now only because all the other teams beat them at their own game.
Lewis' account serves solely as inspiration for its engaging big-screen counterpart; director Bennett Miller (Capote) and writers Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian barely touch upon sabermetrics and the influential work of statistician Bill James. The filmmakers wisely boil down Beane and DePodesta's complex formulas to a single, simple thesis: Sign ballplayers who get on base more than anyone else. Then they hand over the movie to Brad Pitt as Beane, a former first-round draft pick by the New York Mets who exorcises his dashed-dream demons one trade, thrown chair, and turned-over watercooler at a time. Play ball!
Turns out that translating the numbers-heavy Moneyball for the multiplex was fairly straightforward after all: Like every other sports movie ever, it's the story of the little team that could. The film begins at an ending: October 15, 2001, when the Yankees, with a payroll of $114 million, knock the low-budget A's out of the ALDS. Beane loses more than that game: Three of his best players are leaving, their price tags too high for Oakland. He can't afford to replace the brand names, only their on-base and slugging percentages, so he and Peter Brand (the DePodesta character played by Jonah Hill, terrific in his transition out of stoner comedy) stock their dugout with rejects and has-beens whose potential only they can see. Everyone else, including manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking hangdog and emasculated) and scout Grady Fuson (Ken Medlock, a fastball of fury), believes they will destroy their team, their sport.
Fuson especially thinks Beane's a fool who has taken baseball's betrayal personally. In flashbacks, we see a young Billy (played by Reed Thompson) wooed by scouts impressed with his five-tool ability. He could have been great, but for whatever reason — too much head, not enough heart, who really knows — flamed out. Fuson tells Beane he has declared war on baseball just to get even. And he might have a point: Pitt stalks the clubhouse, spits out his orders, and gnaws on whatever tobacco plug or junk food is set before him, like he's trying to devour the world. Only when he's with his 12-year-old daughter does he seem at all at peace and at all sympathetic, which might be why the filmmakers wedged her into the plot. And that's another difference between Moneyball the movie and Moneyball the book — there's extra warmth radiating onscreen from beneath the cold, hard statistics.
I keep Lewis' book on a shelf next to North Dallas Forty, Peter Gent's tome about his playing days under Cowboys Coach Tom Landry. The insider Gent and outsider Lewis tell essentially the same story: Computers do not lie, they do not romanticize, they do not judge. "None of you is as good as that computer" — that's what the coach tells his team in the film adaptation of North Dallas Forty, a line that just as easily could have come from Sorkin or Zaillian.
But North Dallas Forty on the big screen was mean, cold, brutal — a tale of betrayal and violence told from the perspective of the abused player left for dead meat. Moneyball's not like that at all. Perhaps that's because it's a baseball movie, and "it's hard not to be romantic about baseball," as Beane says during a rare moment of happiness as the A's become, for a few weeks, the greatest team in the history of the American League. That's thanks to the home-run heroics of a forgotten player given one last chance by Billy Beane. It really happened, it's really corny, and it's really great. Who needs Roy Hobbs? Hey, Dad? You wanna play catch?
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