Thursday, October 13, 2011


I didnt' have much interest in seeing Moneyball in the theater until a friend told me about his experience seeing it in a major metropolitan area (not Oakland). At the end of the movie, the audience stood up and gave it a standing ovation.

Standing ovations are odd things in themselves. They have become expected, ubiquitous rituals at a theater, and I square it by telling myself that I'll happily stand up and clap for anyone willing to entertain me in person for two hours. In a movie, it doesn't make sense, except as the audience affirming an experience shared with the others in the theater. Moneyball, then, was about something that could make people rise to their feet and applaud rolling credits. Perhaps, I thought, it has something interesting to say about America and about this moment in our history.

It turns out, it does. The movie is wonderfully entertaining, with excellent acting performances and a cast of characters that clearly includes many real athletic scouts (their acting is not excellent, but it's always fun to see real people in a movie). But what is the story? What kind of American hero is Billy Beane?

He's a failed professional baseball player who chose the major leagues when he wasn't ready, when he should have gone to Stanford on a scholarship. He looked like a great player to the scouts, who analyze players in a certain, romantic way, and who are looking for stars. In that system, he failed miserably.

As a general manager for a team that has one of the worst budgets in the Major Leagues, the Oakland Athletics, the game as it is played also isn't working. He can't win with the best players he can buy. It doesn't work to identify young stars and develop them, because as soon as the stars help the A's get close to a championship, they're bought off by teams with bigger budgets. As he says, he doesn't want to be a farm team for the Yankees.

So he changes the questions he's asking and changes the way he plays the game. He enlists a Yale economics graduate and they assess players differently. According to the system they're using, they choose players according to their ability to get on base (as determined by their stats). Rather than saying, "We need a star first-baseman to replace Johnny Damon," they say, "We need three players, and they all need to be guys who can get on base a large percentage of the time." They find undervalued players and recruit them.

However, they also (according to the movie) train and change these players to provide strengths that others didn't see in them. They get the players not to look at their shortcomings but to see themselves realistically and play from the strengths that they have. They teach a catcher to play first base, because they need his hits. Beane wants them to stop doing the thing they were originally assessed for and supposed to be great at and concentrate on what the statistics show they actually can do.

More than putting together a budget team, Billy Beane puts together a team whose parts work together to produce wins. Lots and lots of wins. According to the film, it's this change in thinking that leads the Red Sox to finally win a World Series in 2004.

It's an odd thing, really. In one way, it's a cold, heartless system, based on mathematics and statistics. On the other hand, the current system of player analysis seems just as cold and heartless. It is more romantic, building young men up with lavish praise of their talent and skills, and it provides the stories we hear in baseball commentary and tell each other over baseball cards and fantasy baseball leagues. But when they don't live up to the hype or promise, they're discarded and, the movie suggests, real damage is also done to their psyches.

The movie is not romantic, especially for a baseball movie. It embraces its inner geek, and although Brad Pitt is beautiful, charismatic and chews tobacco, there is surprisingly little baseball action in the movie. The games are mostly played out in documentary-like fashion. They are collections of hits, runs and scores, not feats of superhuman ability or "heart."

So what would make an audience get to their feet? Maybe it is Billy Beane's desire to do things totally differently when facing a situation he can't win, the big money market of professional baseball. Maybe there is a recognition that we, America, are not the high-budget team of all-stars we once were.

Our budget is low and we're not living up to our potential as stars. We need to change the game. We need to be realistic about what we can do as individuals. We also need to nurture new skills, the things we can do, and play our parts so we can get the most runs. Not every time, but enough times to be in the winning column. The truth is, this movie is not about the big winner. It is a movie trying to convince Billy Beane that falling short of the big win doesn't make his whole season and its successes meaningless. What he does counts. What he does turns baseball on its head and yet serves up a game that is wonderful for the fans to watch and satisfying for the team to play.

In the end it's surprising that the movie is offering people hope on a grand scale. It might be a good sign.

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