WARNING: I don’t THINK there are any spoilers or plot giveaways here — I suspect most of you know that Moneyball The Movie is about the 2002 Oakland A’s and their attempt to win with new baseball knowledge — but if you are the sort of person who likes to go into a movie with no idea what’s coming, then you should know up front that I do talk about some specific scenes.
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OAKLAND — There’s a fascinating scene in the movie “Moneyball” that I am quite sure is unlike anything that has ever appeared on screen, and in many ways encapsulates everything I think about the movie. In the scene, Billy Beane — as played by Brad Pitt — is desperate to make a deal. He calls in his assistant, and then he starts working the phones. He calls the Cleveland GM. He calls the New York GM. He calls the San Francisco GM. He’s working the phones, working them, you can see the passion on his face, you can feel the tension in the room. Will the deal go through? Won’t the deal go through. We don’t know. The A’s owner calls, and he isn’t willing to give any extra money to help out Beane, so that creates even more suspense, more excitement, and in the giant theater where I watch the premiere you can actually hear the full house riding the wave. When Brad Pitt as Billy Beane pulls off the deal, he raises his arms in triumph, and the Oakland crowd cheers madly — it sounds in the theater like the moment when Rocky knocked down Apollo for the very first time.
And thus five minutes of riveting movie time — edited to make the action pop, written by two Academy Award winners and starring perhaps the world’s most bankable movie star — is spent reliving the historic moment when Oakland traded for Ricardo Rincon.
I have to begin this Moneyball essay or post or whatever this turns out to be by saying that, in many ways, I am the least qualified person in the world to review the movie. I have probably read Moneyball a dozen times. I am close friends with the guiding light of the book, Bill James, and a passing acquaintance of the author Michael Lewis. I have on several occasions talked about Moneyball as an official consultant to the United States Army.* I think the book is fascinating and enlightening and often wildly misunderstood.
*That sentence, as bizarre as it sounds, is absolutely true.
Because of all this, I had an expectation for this movie that would have been — in the words of Rob Lowe — QUITE LITERALLY impossible to fulfill. I have written often about my expectation formula for movies, how it is the hope (or lack of hope) that you have going into the movie that helps define how you felt about the movie coming out. Going into Moneyball, my hope was that the movie would be pitch perfect for intense baseball fans AND that it would make for great entertainment for people who care little to nothing about baseball.
But no movie can be all that. Great courtroom movies generally don’t impress lawyers with their accuracy. Great medical dramas don’t often leave doctors thinking “Oh yeah, that’s just how it is.” I have spent more than one night at dinner going over the absurd and obvious flaws of the sportswriting life in “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “The Odd Couple.” Authenticity and entertainment don’t often go well together.
And this, I think, was the great challenge of Moneyball — perhaps even the unwinnable challenge. They were making a movie largely about baseball statistics, for crying out loud, but they were making it with a star-studded Hollywood cast (Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt and Robin Wright, who is in the movie for about 48 seconds and got considerably less screen time than the Rincon deal), a terrific director (Bennett Miller, who did Capote), and an incredible writing team (Aaron Sorkin wrote “The Social Network” and Steven Zaillian wrote “Schindler’s List” among others). They were making a Brad Pitt movie without a love interest, a baseball movie without a climactic home run, a buddy movie about on-base percentage and a big Hollywood movie about a general manager who has never led his team to the World Series.
It’s no wonder that Michael Lewis himself never thought that Moneyball the movie could be made*. “With “The Blind Side,” he says about his last book-to-movie, “it was a no-brainer. I would say to the Hollywood people: ‘What took you so long?’ … But I really never thought they could find a way to turn Moneyball into a movie.”
They did. And, I have to admit, seeing it was one of the strangest movie experiences of my life.
*A funny line from Michael Lewis: “My biggest fear was that an old scout would buy the rights to Moneyball and make a movie that turned Moneyball into the triumph of the old school.”
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There’s another scene in “Moneyball” that I am quite sure is unlike anything that has ever appeared on screen, and in many ways encapsulates everything I think about the movie. In the scene, Dave Justice is at the plate. Justice, for some reason, is played by an actor named Steven Bishop, who once played ball with Justice and is about the same age. He looks a bit like Justice, and swings the bat persuasively, but I really don’t know why Justice did not just play himself.
In any case, Justice plays a fairly substantial role in the movie — he is the old guy brought in to help the 2002 A’s replace Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon. And the scene is an artistic at-bat, with music playing in the background, with a voiceover, it is quite an impressive bit of moviemaking. There is some slow motion, the camera angle is striking, everything about the scene is as drawn out and carefully crafted as the light-crashing scene in “The Natural” or the final shot of “Hoosiers.”
Except this: In the scene, David Justice walks.
Yes: An ultra-dramatic movie scene where our hero takes four balls, one a close pitch, and walks.
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OK, so first, let’s look at Moneyball as an intense baseball fan. This movie takes us into the 2002 baseball season. The A’s, you will recall, lost to the Yankees in the 2001 playoffs, and then they lost Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen to free agency. The crux of the movie is that Beane has to find a way to replace those players without spending any money.
There is no doubt in my mind that no baseball movie ever, save perhaps Eight Men Out, worked so hard to get little details right. There is no nonsense in here like Shoeless Joe Jackson hitting right-handed or Roy Hobbs hitting a walk-off homer on the road. Quite the opposite. Heck, the loss of pretty good closer Jason Isringhausen is a pivotal plot point. The climactic scene of the movie — if there is a climactic scene in the movie — comes when the A’s play the Kansas City Royals in an attempt to win their 20th game in a row. I was in Oakland for that game as columnist of the The Kansas City Star, and I remember that Royals team very well. That was, in fact, the first Royals team ever to lose 100 games.
So, it made me very happy to see from the back of the jerseys that the filmmakers went back to the obscure names of that team, that they noticed that one of the runs in the Royals comeback that game was scored by PELLOW (as in Kit) and another by ORDAZ (as in Luis) and that the big home run was hit by SWEENEY (as in Mike).*
*Several real people got jobbed by the movie, I suppose — Paul DePodesta was turned loosely into a nerdy character named Peter Brand played to nerdy extreme by Jonah Hill, former A’s scouting director Grady Fuson comes off as an angry and bitter man unwilling to change — but to me nobody got jobbed more than Sweeney. He does hit a dramatic home run in the the movie, but the uncredited actor who played him looks nothing at all like Mike, is not nearly as big or strong, looks about 10 years older than Mike does NOW, much less then. Billy Beane gets Brad Pitt. Mike Sweeney gets this guy.
The movie is very careful with those sorts of details. That’s why it is so confusing that it is so sloppy with other baseball details. For instance, the movie makes a big deal about Billy Beane going to get to get Jeremy Giambi before the 2002 season begins because of his on-base percentage. “I wouldn’t do that Billy,” the scouts say, pointing out that Jeremy has a bad reputation. Billy doesn’t care. He goes out and gets Giambi, who goes on to play a fairly major role in the movie.*
*There is a great five second scene of Jeremy Giambi going after a fly ball during spring training that is PRECISELY how I remember Jeremy Giambi looking in the outfield.
Trouble is, even moderate baseball fans know that Jeremy Giambi was already on the A’s in 2002 and had been with the team for two years. This wouldn’t be quite as egregious except that Giambi was the key player in probably the most infamous play of recent Oakland A’s history — he was the guy who did not slide on the Derek Jeter flip play in the 2001 playoffs.
Remember: I’m only talking now about the movie as a baseball fan. And as a baseball fan, I honestly don’t know how the filmmakers — who were so careful in other ways — could have missed something that blatant. But that’s the odd baseball experience of this movie. There are baseball details so real that no other filmmaker would have ever dared even try it. They broke down Chad Bradford’s pitching style. They use the key sabermetric phrase “small sample size.” They spent a good chunk of the movie talking about Beane’s fascination with left-handed specialist Ricardo Rincon, for crying out loud. And then, on the other hand, they have a whole movie about the 2002 Oakland A’s without even subtly mentioning Miguel Tejada, who happened to win the league MVP, or Barry ZIto, who happened to win the Cy Young. Brad Pitt fans will leave the theater feeling pretty sure that the 2002 Oakland A’s won 103 games because of Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford.
My friend Scott Raab says that to enjoy baseball movies, you have to turn your baseball mind off because “of all our sports, it’s the most complex and indecipherable. I love it so.” I think he’s right. There’s just something about Moneyball, because of its subject matter, that promised a kind of realism that would appeal to baseball geeks like me. In some fun ways, the movie delivers those details. In others, it disappoints. But I suppose it’s really unfair to ask that sort of statistical precision and depth from a Hollywood movie when, to be honest, you don’t get it from most Major League Baseball teams.
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There’s another scene in “Moneyball” that I am quite sure is unlike anything that has ever appeared on screen, and in many ways encapsulates everything I think about the movie. Billy Beane keeps asking his manager Art Howe — played delightfully by Phillip Seymour Hoffman — to play Scott Hatteberg at first base. Howe, having seen Hatteberg play first base, defiantly refuses.
In the scene, Beane comes into the dugout to once again make his case for Hatteberg, and once again Howe stands his ground, insisting that he has only one true first baseman on the team, and that is Pena. They go round and round — it’s astounding that there is a movie scene where an Oscar winner and a superstar are arguing about whether Pena or Hatteberg should play first base for the Oakland A’s — and it leads to an entertaining twist that I won’t give away here.
But I will say this: We are so caught up in the moment, so happy to cheer for Hatteberg (played with wonderful joy by Chris Pratt) that we forget something. Pena is CARLOS Pena. And Carlos Pena was a 24-year-old first baseman who would, in time, develop into an MVP candidate. Hatteberg may have been the better choice in 2002. But long term, yeah, Art Howe was right.
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Now, the effort to look at Moneyball as a movie. First: Moneyball is a funny movie. There are three or four scenes that made me laugh out loud — including one great little “Oakland is so cheap” gag that few people around me seemed to catch — and the whole movie has snappy dialogue. There are at least three lines that I have quoted to friends since the movie ended, and let’s face it: If you leave a movie and can remember ANY lines, it’s pretty funny.
Second: Moneyball has good performances. I obviously don’t know how much fun it was to make, but it sure looked like the actors were having a blast. Hoffman is so good that part of me wished the whole movie was actually about Art Howe (Call it Art-pote or something). Jonah Hill seems to have a great time playing the geeky assistant general manager.
And Brad Pitt really is a lot of fun as Billy Beane. In the end, I don’t actually think he’s playing Billy Beane, the A’s GM. For one thing, people talk back to him the whole movie, and the Billy Beane I’ve observed doesn’t seem the type to put up with that stuff for very long (as one person who works with Beane says, “Conversations with Billy tend to be pretty one-sided.”). For another, Pitt just can’t help but bring himself into his roles — he’s too famous to disappear into another character — and so his Billy Beane could pretty smoothly wander into “Oceans 11” and not be out-of-place. But his characterization of Beane is so likable, while being defiant, that it works. And he does manage to bring out all sorts of subtleties into his character that don’t need words or dialogue.*
*One weird thing is that a different actor plays the young Billy Beane the player. That actor was good — he obviously was a baseball player — but to my eye he looked NOTHING AT ALL like Brad Pitt. That was distracting.
Third: I’m not sure a non- or moderate-baseball fan will be able to hang in there. I’m guessing here. But I’m trying imagine my Mom seeing this movie, and I’m just thinking she would get bored. This is a pretty long movie — more than two hours. And there are a lot of scenes where nothing happens. We spend a good chunk of time alone with Billy Beane in the car. There are plot swings that don’t go anywhere. There’s a lot of actual baseball footage — probably more than has ever before been in a major motion picture. And, let’s face it, some of the crucial questions of the movie are: (1) Will Beane be able to acquire Ricardo Rincon? (2) Will the A’s beat a terrible Kansas City Royals team? (3) Will A’s manager Art Howe realize he should have Chad Bradford, and not Mike Magnante, as the first man out of the pen?
These aren’t exactly, “Will Luke be able to destroy the Death Star,” or “Does Ilsa choose Rick or Victor” sorts of questions.
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Yes, Moneyball was quite unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. I saw it on back-to-back nights in Oakland — once at a quiet press screening, the second time at a rowdy Premiere with all the stars of the movie in the audience — and the truth is that I generally liked it both times — a three-out-of-five star kind of enjoyment. As a movie fan, I didn’t really mind the trumped up drama. It’s a movie, and often a funny one.
As a baseball fan, I liked the movie too despite some of its questionable baseball turns. OK, so Billy Beane wasn’t REALLY ever in danger of losing his job in 2002. OK, so the A’s weren’t REALLY getting hammered nonstop on talk radio just because they started the year 20-26. OK so, the 2002 Oakland A’s didn’t even have all that great an on-base percentage. OK so Beane’s teams have not been any good in five years … you know what? I got the first sentence of this paragraph wrong. As a baseball fan, I didn’t like the movie DESPITE its questionable baseball turns. As a baseball fan, I liked it BECAUSE of its questionable baseball turns. Maybe the directors and producers applied their own Moneyball techniques on the movie. Maybe they understood that to win over us geeky baseball fans, you don’t have to be perfectly accurate. You just have to give us stuff to talk about.