by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our summer baseball series returns with 2011’s Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. Co-starring Jonah Hill, Chris Pratt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robin Wright, the film chronicles Beane’s efforts to build a World Series-worthy roster on a limited budget. How does a small market team like the A’s compete with the big-spending Red Sox and Yankees? Beane and economics wiz Peter Brand (Hill) throw out traditional scouting methods and recruit players based on sabermetrics — data analysis that evaluates ballplayers by their numbers rather than their star power. Now a hardscrabble band of misfit toys, the Oakland A’s set out to win a championship, but in the process, they end up changing the game forever.
Based on the 2003 nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball was in development as early as 2004, at one point as a Steven Soderbergh documentary featuring interviews with the real Beane, his players, and other MLB luminaries of the time. Sony scrapped that idea as “too nerdy” (I’ve read the book — it’s super nerdy), and the project was handed to Bennett Miller (Capote, Foxcatcher). Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List) penned the screenplay, with Aaron Sorkin contributing a late-stage polish. The film was a modest financial success, with many Major League Baseball front offices crediting an increased use of sabermetric analysis to the methods outlined in the book and film. It’s literally impossible to follow modern baseball without navigating a list of data points that seems to grow every year. Most of them are useless! But, I digress.
Adam: You don’t care about BABIP (Batting Average Balls In Play), Rob?
Rob: Nah, I’m strictly a VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) guy.
Adam: The last scene in the movie where Beane listens to his daughter sing a personalized version of the song “The Show” cracks me up every time I watch Moneyball. She throws in all these asides like “You’re such a loser, dad. Just enjoy the show.” A) Why is she so mean to him? B) I keep expecting it to escalate even further where she’s all “You’re such a loser, dad. A fucking loser, dad. Fuck you dad, just enjoy the show!” I digress. It works thematically for the purposes of the movie.
“You’re getting fired, Dad;
Baseball hates you, Dad;
That’s why Mom left you, Dad;
Just enjoy the show!”
“You’re such a loser, Dad;
Miguel Tejada’s rad;
What’s with the sodas, dad?
That makes Dave Justice mad;
Just enjoy the show!”
I’ve gone on a real journey with the movie Moneyball. Now I “just enjoy the show” and love the film, but it wasn’t that way in the beginning. I used to get frustrated by Moneyball because the A’s haven’t won anything (i.e. a World Series) under Billy Beane outside of a playoff series or two, but that’s directly addressed in the movie so it can’t be a criticism. Even though the A’s haven’t won a World Series, they did alter how small market teams can compete against large market teams in the sport. The problem is that baseball is a copycat league so once the A’s started doing this, there was nothing preventing a larger market team like the Boston Red Sox from using the “Moneyball” approach to help them win a World Series. The end title cards make it sound like the Red Sox won in 2004 only by using Moneyball, which wasn’t the case. They had loads of talent and looking for analytical diamonds in the rough helped (Kevin Millar!!), but wasn’t the only factor. That’s one thing I enjoy about the movie, Moneyball is it’s an even-handed debate of the analytical approach vs. the superstitious, weirdo subjective logic and intuition that ruled baseball for decades.
Rob: Exactly. It’s not saying Beane’s approach is perfect. It’s saying the two methods are equally complex and make the sport such a weird, intangible tapestry.
Adam: The disharmony of the two only makes the sport more beautiful to me. I love that line in the movie where Brad Pitt says “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” It really is the greatest sport. I like it better than movies. Boom! There’s a hot take for ya.
Rob: Shhh! That’s something we’re only supposed to say to each other in hushed tones!
Rob: Hill is great in this, and I love that his character isn’t just a number cruncher who got into baseball because it was the best career option. He genuinely loves the game. Maybe he didn’t get to The Show like Billy did, but he expresses his love in his own way.
Adam: It’s also really elegant and fascinating filmmaking by Bennett Miller. You and I were texting each other about the Trade Deadline sequence, which I could watch for an entire year. Any baseball fan will tell you they’ve dreamed at one point about being a General Manager and making a bunch of trades or signings themselves so to see a dramatized version of that inner working within a baseball organization is so much fun!
Rob: That scene rules, and it’s one of only a few (along with the scene at the end between Beane and John Henry) that feels Sorkiny. Even then, though, the pace is in the performances as much as it is in the dialogue. When Hill clenches his fist at the end because he knows they got the trades done? Damn. How can you not be romantic about baseball?
I wanted to come back to what you said about historical accuracy. It’s always important to note that Moneyball is — to put it charitably — a loose interpretation of both Michael Lewis’ book and the actual 2001-2002 Oakland Athletics teams. Carlos Peña, for example, was not traded so that Scott Hatteberg could play first base. Chad Bradford and Jeremy Giambi were already on the A’s roster the season before the film took place. “Peter Brand” doesn’t even exist; He’s a composite character based mostly on Paul DePodesta. Most importantly, the dominant starting pitching of Tim Hudson, Mark Moulder, and Cy Young winner Barry Zito is completely ignored, as is 2002 AL MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada. There’s nothing wrong with a film taking artistic license with its source material (in this case, you know, reality), but I do think it’s worth bringing up in this particular instance because so much of the film is about trying to make intangible factors into hard data. It doesn’t always work that way. Statistics are useful, but sometimes you need a guy with a big bat or a killer slider.
That’s my favorite part about this, though. As you said, Moneyball is not some self-righteous screed that definitively proves the power of mathematics over instinct. In the end, it doesn’t actually believe that players can be diluted down to stat sheets or that all on-field events can be predicted with a complex equation. Quite the opposite: Moneyball is massively, painfully, irreparably romantic about baseball. It’s romantic about the home run. The stolen base. The twenty-game winning streak. It’s romantic about the grind. The day-to-day. The delicate balance of strength and grace required to leg out a 162-game season. The final scene between Beane and Brand — featuring footage of a heavy-set player who was so embarrassed after tripping over first base that he didn’t realize he’d hit a home run — never fails to bring tears to my eyes. I’m serious. A League of Their Own doesn’t make me cry. Field of Dreams doesn’t make me cry. But Beane finally realizing that he’d made his mark on baseball? That gets me.
Rob: “He hit a home run and didn’t even realize it.” Ah! I want to watch it again right now!
Anyway. Some have called Moneyball a spiritual sequel to The Social Network, another Sorkin-scripted, niche drama with a counterintuitive choice in director David Fincher. While I can understand the comparison, Moneyball is much more of a mood piece. Sorkin’s scenes are typically rhythmic, rigidly-manicured musicals with peaks, valleys, and refrains. Moneyball is much looser, with stretches of quiet contemplation and extended takes that allow Pitt and Hill space to really soak into the moment. It’s well-structured, for sure, but in a completely different way.
Adam: You know what’s a spiritual sequel to Moneyball? Draft Day. If Moneyball didn’t exist and have a share of the zeitgeist, Draft Day would have never existed. If for no other reason, Moneyball is one of the best sports movies ever made.
Rob: 100%. A perfect double feature. Last question: Would you have drafted me in the first round?
Adam: Rob DiCristino no matter what!
Rob: I want my picks back, and I want Adam-god-damn-Riske, just because I feel like it!
Adam: We’ll be back next week with our next entry in the Rest of the Furious series, highlighting Michelle Rodriguez and the film Bloodrayne. I remember it being so-bad-it’s-good, so let’s hope that’s still the case. Until next time…
Rob: These seats are reserved.