Baseball movies traditionally cast the national pastime in a romantic light, from Roy Hobbs’ courageous walk-off homerun in The Natural to the concluding game of catch between father and son in Field of Dreams.
But Moneyball takes a decidedly different tone, catering to baseball’s pragmatists rather than its dreamers. It’s a story of a seismic cultural shift in how we watch the game. It’s a story of how front office executives now go about constructing rosters. But above all, alongside Bull Durham, it’s one of two stories that are absolutely essential to understanding the national pastime.
The movie – based on Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestselling nonfiction - begins with the Oakland Athletics bowing out of a 2001 playoff series against the New York Yankees. The ensuing offseason sees the frugal A’s lose their three best players to big market teams in free agency, and the task of rebuilding a contender falls on the team’s general manager, Billy Beane.
Beane, played by Brad Pitt, is given a shoestring budget to do so. And although the easy-smiling executive was once a highly touted, five-tool baseball prospect in the 1980s, he realizes he must forget everything he has ever learned about the game in order to put together a winner.
Pitt’s portrayal of the savvy, charming and sometimes quick-tempered Beane fits perfectly with that of a surprisingly good Jonah Hill, who plays A’s Assistant GM Peter Brand. Brand – an economics nerd from Yale - is the brains behind the operation. And he gives Beane the analytical know-how to jumpstart baseball’s largest cultural shift in a generation.
The decisive moment comes when Beane pitches the new theory to his scouting team, essentially erasing their entire drawing board. Here, as with the rest of the movie, Pitt provides a patented Pitt performance, nonchalantly navigating his proposal through a gauntlet of opposition. Hill, meanwhile, quiet and calculating, chirps in from time to time to give statistical context to Pitt’s argument.
Beane eventually fights off baseball’s old guard, which feels out the game rather than statistically evaluating it. Whereas the Athletics’ veteran scouts look at players based on physical tools, how they wear their uniforms and girlfriends’ looks (a supposed mark of confidence), Beane and Brand equate each individual action on the field into fractions of a win.
Using this statistical analysis, the two executives engineer a team made up of what the old guard would call cast-offs and journeymen. But to Beane and Brand, each player’s ability to get on base – or keep opponents off it – aggregates to create a team as attractive in the win column as it is ugly to the naked eye.
There are only a handful of baseball scenes throughout the film, which is cleverly narrated at times with sports radio excerpts from 2002. The real action, however, takes place in the A's front office, as Beane and Brand struggle to stick with their revolutionary - and frowned upon - philosophy.
The movie is more about the economics of building a baseball team than it is performance between the lines. It takes on a Social Network-like tone for its duration, describing the emergence of baseball’s information and statistical elite in the dawn of the digital age.
In this sense, Moneyball isn’t a sports movie at all. It instead focuses on the evolution of a philosophy, and a well-written script by Aaron Sorkin makes the growth of that philosophy an especially entertaining two hours. Director Bennett Miller, meanwhile, stays true to author Lewis’ notion that the story is actually a biography of an idea.
Pitt’s performance of Beane puts a face on this cultural shift. The movie is a chronicle of his time as a front office executive as much as it is about his revolution. And in an era in which Sandra Bullock’s Blindside performance is Oscar-worthy, Pitt may just have a chance at grabbing that elusive Academy Award.
But the reason why Moneyball is great isn’t Pitt’s typical charisma or Hill’s triumph as a timid baseball geek. Nor is it the constant anticipation to see how a team with a miniscule payroll and even less traditional talent competes with big market clubs in the 2002 pennant race.
We all know how Beane’s story ends – whether we understand it or not. And it’s not with the closing credits.
The executive’s pioneering statistical analysis has become the prevailing theory on how to construct baseball teams in the 21st century. And since 2002, it has led to a fair share of recent World Series winners: the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox and the 2009 Yankees.
This isn’t to say that the national pastime has lost all of its romance. In fact, the Roy Hobbs’ of the world are as prominent as ever. Tampa Bay slugger Evan Longoria’s walk-off homerun Wednesday night to put his club into the postseason proved that.
But as Moneyball so educationally and entertainingly points out, 21st century baseball is no longer just a game of feeling. The 162-game regular season grind requires more than that now. It requires dollars and sense.