Last week I saw Moneyball with my wife, Louise, a South African girl who might not know which end of a baseball bat to hold if you put one in her hands. She’s familiar with the sport, or at least knows such a sport exists. She knows Yankee Stadium – it’s the place I took her where she spoke with a business colleague for three hours while thinking the people in pinstriped uniforms on the field were trespassers.
Not a big baseball fan.
But she really wanted to see Moneyball, the movie based on the best-selling, ground-breaking, game-changing book by Michael Lewis, which told the story of the Oakland A’s and how they won against a stacked deck. The movie came out eight years after the book and the A’s no longer win, though they still face the same long odds. Today most general managers use many of the advanced stats highlighted in the book. But only one GM – Billy Beane – can say Brad Pitt played them in a movie. And Pitt’s presence – along with vague proclamations that it “sounds like a good story” – sparked Louise’s interest in the film.
It’s an entertaining movie. Pitt excels. An Academy Award nomination is likely in his future. Jonah Hill does a superb job as a composite character, a numbers-crunching genius who leaves the Indians for the A’s and takes his knowledge and ample girth with him. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays A’s manager Art Howe, who resists Beane/Pitt’s changes while wearing a look that indicates he either swallowed a large amount of tobacco or sat on a small tack. I picture Art Howe relaxing at home when he heard the long-delayed movie was finally going into production.
“All right, that’s good. I guess I’m a little leery it will make Beane look like a genius and expand his cult following but at least I’ll be played in the movies! Who’s playing Beane? Oh, Pitt? Good-lucking guy. So Clooney’s going to be me, right? No? Damon? Hoffman? Dustin? Philip Seymour? No, no, great actor. Genius even. But isn’t he a bit…pasty-skinned? And frumpy?”
Much of the movie, of course, focuses on Oakland’s obsession with on-base percentage. Getting on base is the key, doesn’t matter how you get there. Get a hit. Take a walk. Stick your head out on a 98-mile-an-hour fastball and take it in the helmet. Walk. Walk’s as good as a hit. Take a walk, don’t swing at bad pitches.
The characters hammer that theme home time and again, driving it in to the heads of coaches, players, wives, daughters and security guards. Finally, about halfway through the movie, Louise leaned over and whispered into my left ear, “What’s a walk?”
Okay, so maybe before the movie I should have put Louise through a brief baseball tutorial, concentrating on the basic rules and some history. We could have talked about the Black Sox, Ruth, 56, Jackie Robinson, the terrible Mets, the Miracle Mets, the Bronx Zoo, the Homer Hankies, Cal Ripken, the Rally Monkey and the end of the Curse. Along the way I would have explained ground-rule doubles, double-switches and, yes, balls and strikes, walks and K’s. But we didn’t have time.
So now I had to do my best to explain a walk in a whisper while keeping the people behind us from growing annoyed with me.
“It’s when the pitcher throws four pitches to a hitter in one at-bat that are outside of the strike zone, and the hitter is awarded first base. It’s a way of getting on base without getting a hit.”
“And what’s a strike zone?”
Louise looked up at me with eager, expectant eyes, like a child who fully expected their dad to explain why the sky was blue. But I couldn’t. Even if I had the time, and even if we were sitting in a vacant theater, I probably couldn’t come up with an answer. Ask 25 umps the same question and you might get 25 different answers.
“I’ll tell you later. Watch the movie.”
It’s an entertaining movie, with a few flaws, the main one being it makes baseball scouts look like they know less about the game than my wife. A theme of Moneyball the book was how the old guard resisted change and the movie obviously played up that aspect, since it gives the film some dramatic conflict. The old scouts crowd around the conference table with bald heads, sour looks, cheap shirts and expensive hearing aids. Beane rolls his eyes while the scouts talk about the crack of the bat and how an ugly girlfriend means a player doesn’t have any confidence. They resist the new ways of Beane and his pudgy prodigy. To really drive the point home about the scouts’ out-of-touchness, all the screenwriters needed to add were lines about 4 p.m. dinners and 7 p.m. bedtimes.
The movie – like the book – has been criticized for failing to fully acknowledge the role of Oakland’s superb pitching staff, which drove the team during those years, specifically starters Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson. They’re nowhere to be found, while the movie plays up the performances of a little-known reliever like Chad Bradford. Also, the part about how Oakland’s players had to buy their own sodas from the locker room machine? Didn’t happen. But it’s a feature movie, not a documentary.
The movie’s about an underdog, but ultimately about an underdog who never won it all. As anyone who’s seen the original Rocky knows, that doesn’t have to negatively affect the movie. Beane and the A’s did change the game. How much is up to debate. And most people today believe the best way to find great players is through a combination of scouts and stats, of new methods and old tricks. The guys with the hearing aids and the pension plans still have their place, as do the guys with the spreadsheets.
Toward the end of the movie, the A’s 2002 season ends in the playoffs against the Twins, though the film did not include the part where a Minnesota player stomped on the foot of utility man Denny Hocking in the celebration, forcing him out of the ALCS. That playoff victory by the Twins was, as frustrated Twins fans know all too well, the last time the team won a postseason series. Since then it’s been a series of fiascoes, most against the Yankees, with an embarrassing defeat against those same A’s in 2006 thrown in.
So baseball fans should see Moneyball because it’s an occasionally fascinating, always interesting look at a unique character. Twins fans should see Moneyball because it shows the only time since Gene Larkin’s hit in 1991 that the franchise has celebrated at the end of a playoff series. Brad Pitt fans should see it because it has Brad Pitt smirking, smiling, eating and doing other Brad Pitt things.
But anyone who sees it should be familiar with Baseball’s Official Rules. Or at least with the section about walks.