Friday evening I finally plunked down $13.50 (yes, $13.50) and went to see the movie Moneyball. I had put off seeing it for a while as I have a complicated relationship to the book and an even more complicated one to the story itself. Michael Lewis’s book about the rise and resiliency of the statistics-savvy underdog Oakland A’s to become and remain an elite team in the American League is somewhat responsible for my sports writing career. The impending success of the book emboldened the New York Sun to assemble a team of writers who loved stats for their sports section. Their zeal was such that a handful of essays circulated among friends about the baseball offseason in winter 2003 won me a spot as one of their NBA columnists.
But I digress. As cinema, other than it’s usefulness as a fine Brad Pitt vehicle in the role of Oakland General Manager Billy Beane, Moneyball, the movie, was a disappointment. It resolutely fails to milk any of the drama in baseball and the cinematography is surprisingly flat and uninspired. Instead, offers a rushed, pat underdog story. There’s nothing wrong with that; the 2002 A’s and their other squads during that era were one of the great underdog stories in American sports. That they didn’t win a title kind of misses the point; it was an accomplishment of the highest order to be in the conversation.
The movie is probably more fun for baseball geeks than it is for movie fans even though it is doing stellar box office (the Friday late afternoon screening I attended was nearly full, no small feat for a movie in its fourth week). The film provides an opportunity to reassess the legacy of those A’s. A good bit of that team’s success owes to their trio of first tier starting pitchers, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, but there’s been a tendency to overvalue their role. As the 2011 Phillies just reminded us, all the pitching in the world isn’t much help if the team doesn’t score any runs. The A’s have struggled recently, not posting a winning season since 2006; meanwhile the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays have used statistical savvy en route to besting the powerful and better funded New York Yankees repeatedly. So the method works, but why has the team that pioneered it failed?
In it’s streamlining of the story, the movie actually proposes an interesting answer. Beane isn’t a statistics geek, he’s just a hyper competitive guy looking for an edge. The stat geeks are shoehorned into the character Peter Brand, who is played with wonderful nuance by Jonah Hill. He provides all of statistics driven insights that the A’s used to build their impressive 2002 team. In the years that followed, other teams began to hire away Beane’s right hand men. JP Ricciardi became the GM in Toronto, Paul DePodesta became the GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Interestingly A’s third base coach Ron Washington who plays a role in the movie, is now the manager of the Texas Rangers. It’s entirely possible that the A’s have faltered due to brain drain. Their drafts went through a fallow period in the middle of the decade. However, there is a significant cadre of young talent on the A’s now in Gio Gonzales, Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey, Chris Carter, Brandon Allen, and Jemile Weeks.
The sequel to Moneyball will almost certainly be about the Tampa Bay Rays (perhaps with Ryan Gosling as GM Andrew Friedman), but it would be nice to see the A’s rebound and validate Beane’s baseball acumen.