We all know what they (and by “they” I mean Mark Twain) say about lies, damn lies and statistics, but as any baseball geek will tell you, statistics don't always lie. Still, what's become clear in recent years is that those columns of numbers can mean something entirely different in the front office versus on the field, depending on how you slice and dice them.
In 2003, Michael Lewis published Moneyball, an examination of the efforts of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's, to reexamine traditional baseball statistics as a means of fielding a competitive team in a small-market city. Beane, a former top-shelf prospect whose Major League career was short and disappointing, teamed up with Paul DePodesta—a young Harvard grad who would later go on to become the GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers—to bring in players who were considered undervalued by traditional baseball people. In theory, these particular players would produce more wins than their higher-paid counterparts, thanks to certain overlooked skills.
Does that sound dry? It isn't, really. Lewis has a knack for making books about the business of sports fascinating, as he did with The Blind Side. That book, about the business of football, was turned into an overrated movie that earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar, precisely because it focused on the people in Lewis' book. Moneyball—which has been described as Brad Pitt's Blind Side—does the same thing, humanizing fairly clinical subject matter by putting faces to names. In many ways, Moneyball is barely a film about base ball—there's very little sports action in the movie. But in others, it's a baseball fan's wet dream, because it dissects the game the way baseball geeks do.
Pitt plays Beane, and his laconic intensity makes the character immensely appealing. Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, the film's take on DePodesta, who elected not to allow his name to be used, while Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Art Howe, the team's field manager who bristles and suffers as Beane and Brand restructures his team with castaways and misfits.
It's a solid field of recognizable talent, while most of the smaller parts are filled by, not unlike San Diego's Padres, guys you've never heard of.
Including actors like Hill and Chris Pratt (as catcher-turned-reluctant-first-baseman Scott Hatteberg) means that you've got guys who are able to take serious scenes and make them very funny. And then you have Brad Pitt, the center of the show, an actor whose work has gotten better as he's matured. He's just so loose, so at ease as Beane, dealing with his young daughter (Kerris Dorsey) just as comfortably as he does past-his-prime slugger David Justice (Stephen Bishop), putting him in his place and turning him into a team leader at the same time.
As a narrative, Moneyball isn't really original. It's about a guy who tries to shake things up only to run into the establishment, which initially mocks him because his theories don't immediately succeed. Once they do, of course, he's vindicated and deified, considered a brilliant visionary.
However, the somewhat standard formula is written by Steve Zaillan, who's great at writing stories people want to see, and Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, one of the best at writing dialogue people want to hear.
It's still a sports flick, too, so there are montages— some of which swing and miss while others hit it out of the park—and moments that might make you a bit misty. In the old days, that would be a problem, because if there's one thing the movies have taught us, it's that there's no crying in baseball. But Moneyball is all about sensitive, new-age baseball, so shedding a tear just might be OK.