by HELEN GEIB
It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.
The term “moneyball” refers to sabermetrics, major league baseball’s use of statistical analysis to select players. It comes from the 2003 non-fiction book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, on which the film Moneyball is loosely based. Both book and film track the 2002 season of the Oakland A’s, when the team relied on sabermetrics to compensate for its lack of money; to put the situation into perspective, the A’s had about $90 million less to spend than American League payroll leader the New York Yankees. Where the book was primarily interested in numbers, the film is a character study of A’s General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt).
Beane is shown being introduced to sabermetrics by a young believer (Jonah Hill), a recent Yale grad with a degree in economics who he hires away from another club to be his assistant. The A’s prospects are dire. Among other things, the team’s three star players are lost to free agency and the owner is a hard-headed businessman (with cheapskate tendencies) who would much rather lose than spend beyond what the Oakland market will bear. Beane grabs at moneyball like a lifeline. Some of the players it leads him to are a hitting star at the end of his career, a relief pitcher with a bizarre form, and a catcher whose elbow and knees have given out.
Pitt is credited as a producer and reportedly fought to get the film made. His instincts were good. It’s not a one man show. Hill is very appealing as Beane’s foil and the manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a few of the players are given enough screen time that we can pick them out of a crowded locker room, but it is Pitt’s show and he commands the screen. The charm is still there in full force but the age lines are showing. It’s a portrait of a life lived in baseball.
Like every good sports drama Moneyball has drama, on and off the field, and plays that are metaphors for life. Aaron Sorkin co-wrote the script and his touch shows in sparkling wordplay. The dialogue between men is sharp and realistic, while scenes between Beane and his young daughter have a well-judged tenderness. The film is a little overlong; the pacing slackens a bit at times and the backstory of Beane’s career as a player could have been revealed more economically than through flashbacks.
The film departs from the book in reserving judgment on the question of whether moneyball is everything its proponents claim. Beane trusts in sabermetrics and assembles a dark horse winning team out of it. On the other hand, he also trusts in old-fashioned things like good coaching, good strategy, and strong team spirit. Sometimes a team just collapses and sometimes one player becomes a hero. It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.
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