Don’t expect “Moneyball” to be an old, hackneyed, romanticized Hollywood film such as “Pride of the Yankees” in which Gary Cooper couldn’t even pretend to be Lou Gehrig (they had to reverse the batting scenes because Cooper couldn’t even pretend to bat left-handed), or the monumental flop in which William Bendix does a horrible impersonation of Babe Ruth. “Moneyball” based on a 2003 non-fiction story, is all about the backrooms of sports enterprise and the characters who set values on human performances. It’s much more like “The Social Network” than my own favorite “Bull Durham”.
Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, who had been a “can’t miss” young high school phenom, but failed as a major leaguer. Instead of being a star player, he found himself General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, a team that originated in Philadelphia under Connie Mack, the legendary tightfisted owner of the then Philadelphia A’s. Beane took over a team that had won three straight world championships from 1972-1974, and another in 1989. In 2001, the A’s finished second in the American League West, but lost to the Yankees in a playoff.
The A’s, despite having a few stars, were not able to compete with the Yankees and others with huge payrolls. Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a computer nerd recently graduated from Yale (the real life character, Paul DePodesta, actually went to Harvard!) who is doing a backroom computer job.Beane is attracted to Brand’s approach to valuing players. After pushing and bullying the geeky Brand, Beane convinces him to join the A’s management. The two set out to reconstruct the existing system so that their small budget club could compete with the big boys. They relied on the work of Bill James, who created a completely new computerized analysis of skills, rather than the judgments of baseball scouts and “experts”. This is encapsulated in a glorious around-a-table scene in which the grizzled old-timers are introduced to Billy’s new approach, based on objective data rather than their expert opinions.
This movie goes behind the field to the grubby backrooms, corporate suites and inner-workings of managements. Pitt is wonderful as the cold eyed, hyper, crusty, superstitious, conflicted, ex-jock who is now intent on changing the culture from old-time baseball lore to the new computer -based knowledge. He works the phones, setting up deals to pick up undervalued players while disposing of his starts. The interchanges between Beane, the scouts and Manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are crisp and well written. Suspend disbelief about the appearance of the real Art Howe and Hoffman, who bears no resemblance at all.
Flashbacks are woven into the film’s fabric to provide insight into the Beane character. They are effective, as are the shots of the A’s field. There’s little focus on Beane’s marriage, but enough to see why his character is so single minded.