In the United States, baseball is so popular it is known as ‘America’s pastime’. In the UK however, it is very much a minority sport. So while baseball movies like Bull Durham, Field Of Dreams and The Natural are considered enduring classics, many people in Britain won’t know what they are about. So if movies about baseball are relatively unknown in the UK, how will a movie about baseball statistics do?
Moneyball was released as a non-fiction book in 2003. Author Michael Lewis had spent 2002 with the Oakland Athletics (usually shortened to A’s), and their General Manager, Billy Beane. In baseball, GMs are the men who work on trades and acquiring players. The A’s are regarded as a ‘small-market’ team, meaning that their budget for players is smaller than teams such as the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox (in 2002, the A’s spent around $41million on their team, the Yankees over $120million). Lewis’ book detailed how Billy Beane and the A’s were trying to do things differently, and approach the signing of players in new ways. The big money in baseball tends to be spent on pitchers and power hitters; after all, the sport is about hitting more home runs than the other team.
Moneyball the movie begins at the end of the 2001 season, with the A’s losing to the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series (if the World Series were considered a final, the ALDS would be the quarter-final). In addition to that defeat, they are set to lose three key players; Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen. All three would command salaries that the A’s could not afford. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) meets with the team’s owner in an attempt to get more money to spend, but is left frustrated by his inability to convince the owner it’s the right move. While discussing trades with his GM counterpart in Cleveland, he encounters Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who quietly persuades the Cleveland GM to reject Beane’s trade offers. Beane talks to Brand, who reveals that he looks at the statistics in a different way in an attempt to better value players. Realising that this is what he is looking for, Beane ‘buys’ Brand from Cleveland to become his assistant GM. From there, the pair make a series of personnel decisions that confuse and anger the team’s experienced scouting team, and their manager Art Howe (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
Pitt and Hill both excel in their roles, but Hoffman seems slightly miscast. Art Howe is a tall, athletic man, whereas Hoffman is err, neither of those. Hoffman is of course a great actor, but I got the feeling that an actor like Richard Jenkins would have been a better fit. Moneyball is a movie that doesn’t shy away from baseball terminology. The whole concept of ‘moneyball’ baseball revolves around signing players with high on-base percentages (an average of .400 is considered good in baseball, the equivalent of reaching base 4 times out of every 10 plate appearances), and the characters discuss this at length, and it is assumed that viewers will understand how GMs work to acquire players.
What helps is a great script, written by Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin with Steven Zaillian. Sorkin of course won an Oscar for The Social Network, where he had to create dramatic scenes adapting a non-fiction text. He’s done the same with Moneyball, creating drama and dialogue to make it easier for people who don’t know much about baseball to understand the position Beane and the A’s were in. The relationship between Beane and his young daughter gives weight to the risks Beane is taking, with the possibility of him losing his job having the potential to hurt their time together.
If you’re a baseball fan, you’ll definitely enjoy Moneyball. The A’s 2002 season was remarkable in many ways, and strong performances and a great script in the movie help to build the tension behind the scenes as Beane’s new vision for the team takes shape. There’s enough heart in the movie to draw non-baseball fans in, and although the events of that season may be hard to believe for people who don’t follow the game, they are all accurate, and Moneyball is strong enough as a dramatic movie, rather than a sports movie, to make it a success in this country.