My dad (lovingly plagiarizing other notable scholars) always taught me that baseball is a slow game of failure. A war of attrition. It’s not about hero warship or team allegiance; it’s about the day-in day-out grind of the game. Going 3-for-5. Winning two out of three. Not exactly high-minded idealism, I suppose. But despite the grim and dour reality of a 162-game season, movies about baseball are some of our best romances. They’re stories about heart and hustle, about faith and love. Some – like The Natural or A League of Their Own – focus on the way a player’s on-field life parallels their personal successes and existential failures. They end with the big hit in the big game and the big moment where all the big stuff happens very bigly. Others – like Field of Dreams or even The Sandlot – are more about the emotional impact that the game has on the rest of us, how our love of baseball colors our worldview and creates a foundation from which we build our spiritual lives. But there are a few, like 2011’s Moneyball, that do both. Bennett Miller’s film presents a character whose shortcomings as a player and frustrations as a manager fundamentally reshaped the way he saw the game and drove him to share that vision with the rest of the world.
Adam Riske would want me to tell you that much of Moneyball deviates from the reality of the 2002 Athletics’ season. For one, it completely ignores the A’s monster pitching staff (which included Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and AL Cy Young winner Barry Zito) and the offensive contributions of shortstop (and AL MVP) Miguel Tejada. Also, the real Billy Beane — while undeniably an innovator — actually learned the value of sabermetrics from his predecessor, Sandy Alderson. Hell, Peter Brand isn’t even a real person; he’s a composite character based mostly on Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, who asked not to be included in the film. All this is to say that sometimes movies deviate from reality, as they should. Real life is not as dramatic -- not as driven by the machinations of villains or the one-against-the-world courage of the plucky hero -- as movies are. Movies need skeptical authority figures like A’s owner Stephen Schott (Bobby Kotick) and mustache-twirling villains like team manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Movies needs scrappy underdogs like Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) and wizened mentors like David Justice (Stephen Bishop) and Ron Washington (Brent Jennings). That Moneyball shapes these real people into archetypes is not a strike against it, but rather a testament to its devotion to the myth of baseball and the myth of movies.
The core of that deconstructionism really lives with Billy Beane, who personified star power over durability, baseball’s singular, most cynical failure: its tendency to build celebrities instead of players. The film is laced with flashbacks to a young Beane as he’s scouted, signed, and subjected to one embarrassing plate appearance after another. He spirals downward from team to team before shuffling quietly into the minor leagues, never to return. While he’d eventually make a career as a scout and then as a GM, there is pain in Billy Beane, a sense of personal responsibility that we rarely see from those who benefit from corrupt or imperfect systems. His restless ambition comes not from a desire to return to his former glory (because it doesn’t exist), but to improve a system that misjudged him so spectacularly in the first place. There’s a responsibility to his team and to his fans, to his daughter (Kerris Dorsey, playing a precocious child straight out of a Shane Black film) and to himself. Many — including ousted head scout Grady Fuson (Ken Medlock) — see Billy’s crusade as a path to revenge against baseball: “This is about you and your shit,” Fuson says. “Some scout got it wrong, and now you declare war on the system.” In reality, it’s about holding that system accountable for tendencies that serve only to perpetuate itself at the cost of meaningful progress.
*It’s worth noting, however, that the film completely wastes Phillip Seymour Hoffman, one our most human and vulnerable actors. It’s clear that Moneyball’s long development and rewriting process had some casualties.
**I also want baseball nerds to know that I’m not endorsing Moneyball tactics over traditional scouting. I know there are different schools of thought on it, but I just didn’t see any reason to have that particular argument in this essay.