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Moneyball


by Yoda
posted on 11/05/11
Nothing changes until it does. And up until that point, it often seems like the universe itself has conspired to stop it from changing. But "there is nothing as powerful"—an old Victor Hugo quote goes—"as an idea whose time has come." Moneyball is about one of those ideas.

This is one of those films that is "based on a true story." But don't worry: it actually is. Technically, it's based on a book of the same name which is about the true story of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (played here by Brad Pitt, whose physical metamorphosis into Robert Redford is nearly complete). In his youth Beane was a can't miss prospect who missed anyway, a fact which dovetails so well with his general managerial ethos that you'd swear it was one of the story's creative liberties, but it isn't.

Beane decided that the way baseball players were evaluated was fundamentally flawed. He believed that too much emphasis was placed on trivial things like how a player looked, or the amount of confidence they exhibited. That traditional baseball scouts were always looking at potential rather than reality, and thus gravitated towards archetypal players: handsome and statuesque, with a broad cross-section of skills that could each develop, rather than players who simply produced. And he was right.

Beane also decided that, even if you could get your personnel past such superficial things, the statistics used to evaluate a player's worth to the team were also flawed. He was right about this, too. The case study for this in both the book and the film is On Base Percentage, which is now widely understood to be a much better measure of a player's offensive contribution than the far more historically emphasized Batting Average. And if any of this sounds confusing, worry not: Assistant GM Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) will be your sabermetric sherpa throughout the film.

Oakland's necessity is the mother of Beane's inventions, because as the film opens a season-ending disappointment has been compounded by the departure of three high-profile free agents. Oakland is a small fish adrift in the ocean of baseball finances, so Beane is forced to find ways to do more with less. Beane exploits underutilized statistics like On Base Percentage and other strategic principles to attempt to replace these players for pennies on the dollar. He does this with discarded players plucked from baseball's scrap heap that he concludes are valuable, but not properly valued, leading to the superficially familiar tale of a rag-tag roster that shocks the experts and finds a way to win.

And win they do. This is a movie about sports, so I will not have spoiled your ability to enjoy it by informing you that the team ultimately exhibits some level of success, though to what extent I won't here divulge. The important thing is not their ultimate failure or success, but the struggle necessary to even attempt such a thing. New ideas do not merely have the burden of being better than the old ones: they must also be stronger than the accumulated psychic inertia of the old idea. New ideas may possess the truth, but the old ideas possess a formidable rolodex, and a perennial presence in the minds of an industry that buys them a lot of goodwill. Old ideas have entrenchments and bunkers and garrisons that must be sieged before the new idea can even come face to face with the old. The new idea must be arduously pushed to the top of the hill, but once there it rolls rapidly down the other side.

The film exhibits a deep authenticity; Pitt carries himself in precisely the way baseball people do. And being the grandson of a baseball scout, I can confirm that all the scouts herein are pretty much exactly like him: they have short hair, tanned skin, strawberry noses, and deep existential misgivings about computers.

Moneyball was adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin, who between this effort and The Social Network seems to be writing screenplays based on dares. Here again he's taken an ostensibly boring topic and made it entertaining. Largely stripped from the film is his famed reliance on characters walking and talking ("pedeconferencing," as it's come to be known), but we get a fun variation of it in a scene set during Major League Baseball's trading deadline, where Pitt's character makes a series of interconnected phone calls that resembles nothing so much as a waltz.

Regardless of what happened on the field, the ideas depicted in this film have won out so overwhelmingly that Beane and his ilk have had to move on to new methods of evaluating talent because the ones depicted here have already become the new conventional wisdom. Moneyball is not about baseball, or even about money. It's about the difficulty of change and the often damaged people that are the only ones willing to lead the charge through the brick wall. It's about the perceived impossibility of reform right up until the moment that it suddenly becomes inevitable. People struggle and fight and kick and scream and gnash and nothing happens. Nothing changes.

Until it does.