It's been a while since we saw a movie on opening night, but Moneyball wasn't just any movie. It's a baseball movie, based on a baseball book, and people other than me actually wanted to see it. So, opening night it was.
While at the Jays final home game last week, two very talkative fans behind us got to talking about Moneyball - both the movie and the concept as a whole. One fan asked the other to explain "Moneyball". Without a doubt, this is the finest description possible:1
"It's about the Oakland A's, and how they were shit and then were okay."
First, a quick background. The book was written by Michael Lewis, who also wrote the book that would eventually (part of it, at least) become The Blind Side, and focused on the efforts made by Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane to put a winning team on the field despite a tremendously restrictive payroll.
Beane accomplished this - although the team has yet to win a World Series under him - through a heightened awareness of some overlooked statistics.
No, he did not eschew scouting for statistics.
Yes, he wanted to spend money, he just didn't have any to spend.
Essentially, he and his team were able to replace departed stars with players that, although they may not have replicated the more classical stats of the departed players, were able to generate runs - and wins - at a rate comparable or better than their predecessors. And, because they weren't overpaying for shiny stats, they got those runs and wins at a discount.
Now, of course, critics point to Oakland's lack of a title and current losing records to "prove" that the Moneyball philosophy doesn't work. In reality, though, it was simply that other teams realized how the A's were rating and recognizing the players that were leading them, apparently improbably, to victory and proceeded to dump tons of money onto those players, driving the price up for them, and pricing the A's out of the market.
The critics say that the success of teams like the Yankees and Red Sox shows that "Moneyball" doesn't work. Well, the Yankees and Red Sox are still using the "Moneyball" formula - the film even explicitly states that the Red Sox won in 2004 thanks to the philosophy - they've just got a hell of a lot more money with which to do it.
But, back to the moving version of the book!
The film focuses, primarily, on the 2002 season, after the A's dropped three straight games to get eliminate from the 2001 playoffs, and then lost three of their top performers to free agency in the off-season. After poaching Assistant GM Peter Brand (a composite of Beane's various advisors, played by Jonah Hill) from the Cleveland Indians, Brad Pitt's Beane goes about trying to cobble together a winner from spare and overlooked parts.
As the season progresses without much success, Beane clashes with manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and starts to show some of the swagger for which the book both praises and chastises him. He doesn't suffer players that don't want to win as much as he does, and - in a scene that makes you want to be him - he trades a player he had coveted just to prove a point, and relishes being the one to tell him.3
Finally, after a couple more deals ("Fucking A!" trades are what they are called in the book), the team starts to win, and rattles off a 20-game winning streak, eventually moving from last place in the division into a healthy divisional lead.
Somehow, the direction and acting actually makes baseball trades seem exciting, and even those of us in the audience that know the results were on the edges of our seats. Brad Pitt was an excellent choice as Beane, giving the role the necessary level of gravitas, while Hill played the young, inexperienced role of Brand brilliantly, perhaps subconsciously portraying the fear and insecurities no doubt felt by the many young GMs now dotting the major leagues.
Baseball and movie fans alike will find something to enjoy in this film, even if you don't know what it's about.
1 - Not really
2 - Not really
3 - In reality, trading Jeremy Giambi for John Mabry was actually viewed as a rash decision and not a very smart baseball trade