Baseball-by-Numbers

On the last day of the baseball season, I saw a matinee of Brad Pitt’s new movie, Moneyball.  Since he both starred in and produced the movie, the possessive is earned.  It’s based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning in an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, a journalist and author who also wrote the source book for The Blind Side.

The movie begins at the end of the 2001 season for the Oakland A’s, when they lost to the Yankees in the American League playoffs.  The A’s were a small market team with a quarter of the payroll of the big market Yankees.  After the series, the A’s also lost their three best players – Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen – to free-agency.  The A’s General Manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), tries to rebuild the team, but he knows he’s limited by money, while a deep pocket team like the Yankees can afford any player they want.  While in Cleveland for a meeting with the Indians GM, Beane notices Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale-educated numbers cruncher who seems completely out of place in a sports organization.  “Whose nephew are you?” Beane asks.  Brand, though, sees in statistics that the baseball teams have been ignoring for years (especially the On Base Percentage and walks) a way to make a winning team without paying huge salaries to star players.

Beane has an unusual perspective on the game for a GM, since he was once a first-round draft choice of the New York Mets.  A highly touted rookie with excellent skills, he’d passed on a full scholarship to Stanford to play in the Majors.  However, in flashbacks, we see the young Beane (Reed Thompson) suffer through a short playing career where he’s unable to live up to his potential.

Since he can’t compete in the game with large payroll teams, Beane decides to change the game.  It is not an easy transition.  He has to fight his manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as his scouting staff.  Early in the season, the A’s are in the cellar of the American League West.  After a particularly hard loss, Beane effectively forces Howe to manage the team by the new design.  And something strange happens – they start winning.

It’s a tribute to the artistry of the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian that it makes the arcane stats and baseball lore accessible even to those who have never played or watched the game.  In addition, the dialogue is scalpel-sharp and intelligent.  It is breakfast cereal dialogue – it snaps, crackles, and pops on the screen.

That’s why an anachronism in the movie is so hard to understand.  Early on there’s a scene where Beane’s tween daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) sings him a song while playing guitar.  Later the piece is repeated for effect.  The song, The Show, by Lenka, fits perfectly with the movie.  However, it wasn’t released until September of 2008, over 6 years after the story took place.  Picky, I know, but it did interfere with my enjoyment of an otherwise excellent film.

The director, Bennett Miller, has made only one other feature, but it was the excellent Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman earned the Best Actor Oscar.  His camera eavesdrops on the characters, letting you see what’s going on behind their eyes.  The cinematography by Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight, Insomnia, Inception) is gorgeous, especially with capturing the feel for a ballpark both on the field and below the bleachers in the clubhouse.

Pitt gives a subtle and simmering performance that communicates both Beane’s intelligence and his passion for the game.  He’s ably assisted by Jonah Hill, playing it straight after being noted mostly for comedies like Superbad and Get Him to the Greek.  A scene where Beane mentors Brand on the art of the deal is a pure delight.

A couple of the actors playing the players on the team stand out.  Stephen Bishop nails the role of veteran David Justice, so much so I was wondering during the movie if it was Justice playing himself.  Chris Pratt is the epitome of the moneyball player as the undervalued (and less than confident) Scott Hatteberg.

That night I watched the final games of the regular season.  Amazingly, two teams in each league were tied for the wild card playoff spot at the beginning of play.  In the National League, it was the team I follow, the St  Louis Cardinals, along with the Atlanta Braves.  In the American League, the small market Tampa Bay Rays were tied with the storied Boston Red Sox.  To get there, the Cards and the Rays had overcome historic deficits, after being behind the other team by 8 ½ and 9 games respectively at the beginning of September.  Four games would determine who advanced to the playoffs, or if there would be a one game tie breaker played the next day.  The Rays were facing the dreaded Yankees, while Boston only had to beat the hapless Baltimore Orioles.  The Cardinals had to beat the Houston Astros, a team that gave them trouble during the season, while the Braves were up against the Phillies, who had the best record in baseball.  Happily for me, the Cards won, thanks to a 5 run first inning and a stellar 2 hit complete game pitched by Chris Carpenter.  Atlanta was leading going into the 9th, but their usually effective closer gave up a run so they were tied, and they ended up losing in 13 innings.  Boston also was ahead, but again their closer couldn’t finish the Orioles who won the game on an RBI single in the bottom of the 9th.

The Rays were down 7-0 going into the 8th inning, and many of their fans had given up, leaving the ballpark.  They did manage to score 6 runs in the 8th, but they were still down by one.  In the bottom of the 9th, with two outs, pinch hitter Dan Johnson came to the plate.  Johnson’s batting average for the season was .119 with one home run.  With 2 strikes on him, he laced the ball over the right field wall for a game-tying home run, sending this game as well to extra innings.  In the bottom of the 11th, the Rays advanced to the playoffs thanks to a walk-off homer by Evan Longoria.

If this ending of the regular season had been written as a screenplay and filmed, no one would have believed it could really happen.  Every once in a while, though, a Hollywood ending does come true.

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