Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Moneyball Bats a Great Average

     Nowadays, I find watching baseball to be a particularly boring experience. It has a slow pace, it's expensive and uncomfortable to see live at the ballpark, and the excessive number of games in each season start to bore after the first month or two. Conversely, it was a damn fun game to play: whether you're jogging out to the field, filled with butterflies when the first ball is smashed in your direction or up at the plate ready to crush any ball that is thrown into your wheelhouse, baseball's a sport that incorporates a wide variety of physical prowess and intuition. Moneyball, with its great cast and direction, is much more like playing baseball than watching it, making the behind the scenes deals and discussions as exciting as demolishing a line drive to the gap.
     Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics' General Manager and the interesting way he built a ragtag bunch of misfits into a Major League Baseball contender. The year is 2002, and the Oakland A's have the lowest salary in the entire sport. They are losing their three best players, and they don't have enough money to sign any big names (along with not having enough money to give away free refreshments in the clubhouse). Beane, portrayed with wit, charm and a great deal of anger and sadness by Brad Pitt (a performance that should be recognized at the end of the year), is faced with the huge challenge of rebuilding the team (basically) from scratch. Beane meets an interesting individual in his travels of trying to sign good and cheap players; that man is Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill in a performance that should net him plenty of screenplays outside of the comedy realm. Brand's got an economics degree from Yale and uses his unorthodox intelligence to create a cost/benefit analysis for hundreds of different free agents.
     Brand's statistical equations are extremely opposite from normal baseball scouting, and they seem very complex. But the results are quite simple: find the best players that no other team wants (even if they have off-the-field troubles or nagging injuries in their past), specifically the ones that get on base the most. For most baseball commentators and other General Managers, the team that Beane and Brand throw out onto the field is laughable at best and atrocious at worst. The humor from Moneyball comes from Pitt's and Hill's great relationship and the way that they defy the horrendous odds in the face of ESPN analysts and tobacco-spitting scouts. The opposition also comes from within the team in the beginning, specifically Beane's team manager Art Howe (played with the typical fuck-you-I'll-do-what-I-want mood by the always watchable Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Howe lives with a pride that is detrimental to the new system being implemented, starting players that Beane and Brand do not want in the game. It makes for some great tension between the well-acted cast.
     In case I haven't made it clear, you don't have to enjoy the game of baseball to love Moneyball, just as you don't have to enjoy signing into Facebook to love one of last year's great films, The Social Network. It deals with the backstage happenings of how something important came to be. One might argue that Beane's strategy didn't come to be anything; the A's didn't win the World Series that year, which was Beane's ultimate goal (though they did break the record of consecutive games won). Ultimately, the story of Moneyball wins something else entirely, something more important in my book: our hearts and minds. It's a story of going against tradition, of doing something that makes others scoff, laugh, and call you a failure. Can a statistical equation on a computer come up with a better baseball team than the experience and intuition of a Major League Baseball scout? Maybe not, but I don't care. It's the story and emotions of Moneyball that get the W. in my win column.      (A-)

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