With the start of baseball delayed until who-knows-when, I thought it might be appropriate to watch Moneyball (2011). The title is, perhaps, a little incongruous with the current state of America’s so-called “Favorite Pastime.” The title refers to how the Oakland Athletics did more with a smaller payroll by focusing on likely statistical outcomes rather than high-dollar players, which was, at that time, going against conventional wisdom. Currently, billionaires are arguing with millionaires, while the rest of us fans who have loved the game our entire lives (that describes me, by the way) are left without some of our time-honored traditions, as if we have not been missing enough of those in recent years. Only in American professional sports can an entire industry collectively stop working in order to bicker about how to continue to get rich. This is the real “Moneyball,” and there can be an argument that much of this was precipitated by the true events that you see in this film.
Moneyball opens with the 2001 American League Division series between the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees. The Athletics’ general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), had put together an incredible team that was poised to go on to bigger things. Unfortunately, that year the Yankees were better. After the series ends, he sits alone in a stadium turning a radio on and off, the broadcast of the Yankee celebration crackling the air with each flick of the switch. Beane is faced with a problem: star players like Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen are set to be free agents and his team lacks the finances to replace them. His scouts offer a number of possibilities from their farm system (which is how they assembled the 2001 team), but they are solutions that he sees as continuing the cycle of losing. Searching for answers, Beane finds a bright young mind in Yale economics graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who, after some coaxing, reminds Beane that it is wins and not individual statistics that he needs to replace. His old school scouts can only think in terms of Giambi’s thirty-plus homeruns and hundred-plus runs-batted-in (RBIs). Because a young Billy Beane (Reed Thompson) had been misled by the same business-as-usual system as an up-and-coming player, it adds to his desire to change how business is done. Another important insight Brand offers is that getting on base is what is vital, and it does not matter whether it comes via a hit or a walk. So refreshing are Brand’s theories to Beane that he hires the young man to be his assistant general manager. This is the beginning of a great deal of feather ruffling that goes on within his organization. It comes first with the scouting department, who see the players that Beane and Brand pursue as worthless. The biggest source of opposition comes from the team’s manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Howe desires a contract extension, and contemplates sitting out until he has that kind of security. Since the Athletics do not have the budget to do so, he instead fields players that, with his more traditional approach to baseball, he believes will win more games. The two main people in question are former catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), who Beane wants to play first base, and relief pitcher Chad Bradford (Casey Bond). With this last, his awkward, “submarine” delivery leads Howe not to trust him in key moments in close baseball games. As a result, the team limps out of the gate in the 2002 season. In order to inject some new life into the team, and to force Howe’s hand, Beane trades Howe’s choice for first baseman, Carlos Peña (Adrian Bellani). Beane also gets Howe to use Bradford in more games. As a result, the team begins to turn around its season, and in fact goes on an epic twenty game winning streak, the longest in Major League Baseball (MLB) history. Things are going so well, in fact, that the normally superstitious Beane heads to the stadium to watch the record-breeaking game, something he normally does not do. The team nearly chokes away an eleven run lead, but ends up winning on a Scott Hatteberg walk-off homerun, validation for Beane’s effort. Still, ultimate validation remains elusive. Despite another great season, the 2002 Athletics lose to the Minnesota Twins in the American League Divisional Series. Not long thereafter, Beane is approached by the Boston Red Sox, who want to make him the highest paid sports executive. All Beane can see is the failure of his current team, until Brand points out that the sizable contract offer is the recognition for which he hoped. Though he turns down the Red Sox’s offer, the team from Boston went on to win the 2004 Worlds’ Series by applying his same principles.
In talking further about Moneyball, I could get far into the weeds discussing baseball minutiae. One thing that is not talked about in the movie is the fact that the 2002 Athletics, even though they lost some really talented players the year before, still had perennial All-Stars position players like Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, not to mention a starting pitching staff with three aces at the top in Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. If you do not recognize these names, it is okay. Baseball is an increasingly obscure sport, to my disappointment. But they were each great in their day. In other words, the 2002 team did not win all the games that it did because they had a collection of misfits as is portrayed in the movie. Indeed, because of this, I would not call it purely a baseball film. Instead, the sport provides a great backdrop for a number of lessons behind which this Catholic reviewer can get. For starters, baseball is all about failure. The best hitters are successful (in other words, they get a hit) less than forty percent of the time. That is not a high rate for anything outside of a baseball diamond. Life is all about dealing with failure, and from a Catholic perspective, sin is failure. You may strike out in one at-bat, but there is always the possibility of hitting a homerun in the next. The movie spends a lot of time attempting to figure out a way of gaming the system to mitigate the frequency of that failure, but it still does not get Beane to his ultimate goal. Instead, he finds meaning in his daughter, Casey Beane (Kerris Dorsey). There is a song that she plays for him called “The Show” by Lenka, that speaks to many of these issues. It goes, “I’m just a little bit caught in the middle/Life is a maze, and love is a riddle/I don’t know where to go/Can’t do it alone/I’ve tried, I don’t know why/Slow it down, make it stop/Or else my heart is going to pop/’Cause its too much, yeah it’s a lot/To be something I’m not.” Those are the first two stanzas, anyway. The song is great, if you are interested. Beane realizes that, even though he did not win a Worlds’ Series, he stayed true to himself. For us Catholics, staying true to ourselves means keeping our faith in God. No matter what happens or how long it takes, we cannot swerve from that goal.
Movies like Moneyball will have to suffice us aficionados until we can have the genuine article. Hopefully, that comes sooner than later. This is not meant to be a criticism of the film. I quite enjoy it. Still, like the sport itself, I wonder how appealing it is to those who, outside of the cities in which a team is located, do not care about baseball. I live in the market of a team that has been quite successful the past few years in the Tampa Bay Rays, and they still struggle to get fans in their seats. Those who do go, though, will probably watch this as well.