I’m in the middle of reading The Art of Fielding, an ambitious, excellent (so far) first novel by Chad Harbach. Like any good baseball novel, it’s about heartbreak and obsession. One of the characters is a Melville scholar; the Westish College team is the Harpooners. There’s always a white whale in baseball fiction.
Billy Beane has his white whale, too. He’s the general manager of the Oakland A’s, and he pioneered the art of using sabermetrics–the science of baseball statistics–to build small-money baseball teams designed to compete against the likes of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
And, essentially, I’ve just told you the story of Moneyball, the new film starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane. It’s really just about that simple: Billy’s team nurtures great ballplayers, only to lose them to free agency. So Billy has to come up with a way to compete. He sits around a windowless room with a bunch of leather-skinned scouts talking about guys’ body types and breeding and understands that player decisions are being made on gut instinct.
That seems wrong to Billy, and Billy is one to know. The scouts were wrong about him. After being a top prospect, his career as a player went nowhere.
So Billy hires Paul DePodesta (Jonah Hill), a Harvard-educated economist with a head for numbers, and they analyze such things as on-base percentage and total runs. They calculate how many runs they’re going to need to score over the course of the season to win the division. They disdain stolen bases and bunting and other baseball tactics as relics of a bygone era.
And, lo and behold, they field a small-market, small-payroll team that competes with the big guys.
Only–here’s the reality. The 2002 Oakland A’s didn’t ultimately fare any better than the 2001 Oakland A’s. (First lesson about baseball: Baseball will always break your heart.) In fact, Billy Beane’s still trying to get to the World Series. (Second lesson about baseball: There’s always next year.)
No matter. Beane’s front-office tactics really did influence the way modern baseball teams are built. The movie implies that the Boston Red Sox used Beane’s approach to break the Curse of the Bambino and win their first World Series since 1918. Which is the problem, isn’t it? If the big-money teams can play Moneyball, too, how can a small-market team compete? Beane has perhaps been a victim of his own success.
Oh, right–the movie. It sure is a movie. There sure is a lot of Brad Pitt in this movie. If you like your Brad Pitt brooding, talking on the phone, sitting in meetings, driving, watching video, etc., then Moneyball is the Brad Pitt movie for you. He doesn’t exactly disappear into the role, which means that Moneyball suffers from the same problem as all Brad Pitt movies, only more so, since he’s in just about every scene. My Beautiful Wife didn’t mind. Brad Pitt onscreen for two hours? If you film it, they will come.
Moneyball is never boring. But it’s never very exciting, either. We see very little on-the-field action. We see lots of guys talking about baseball. And if you’re gonna have a movie featuring lots of guys sitting around talking, you may as well enlist Aaron Sorkin to write it.
It probably comes as no surprise that Philip Seymour Hoffman, as A’s manager Art Howe–the reluctant beneficiary of Beane’s front-office genius–is the best thing in Moneyball. But he’s a minor character in a minor drama. He’s a roadblock to Billy’s best-laid plans–right up until he isn’t.
In the end, there are no big surprises. (Baseball always breaks your heart.) Billy Beane’s still looking for his white whale. (There’s always next year.) The Yankees are in first place. (Same as it ever was.)
And I’m still reading a big, slow baseball novel. (Is there any other kind?) Which is more fun than Moneyball. Which was a better book than it is a movie. That lesson still applies, too.