On Moneyball

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.

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About jmartin437

I've worked in and around the world of high end cheese for 27 years. I've been everything from a department manager who hired and fired and trained staffs to a weekend warrior who shows up ties on an apron the middle of a rush and talks to customers and cleans up the place. I enjoy it all, and I especially like my current situation conducting informal seminars about cheese at area bars and in class at the 92nd St. Y. The current schedule is always up at thejoyofcheese.blogspot.com. In addition I conduct private events that are perfect to lead off birthday parties for foodies and sommeliers and also they make great entertainment for corporate team building events and associates meetings at law firms. In addition, I've been a freelance journalist for 27 years. Currently my profiles of leading musicians and filmmakers appear in the Wall Street Journal and www.theroot.com. I also wrote about sports for the Root, and for five loooong years, which included the entirety of the Isiah Thomas Knicks era, I wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun. I enjoyed writing about basketball so much that I now do it here at rotations for free.
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4 Responses to On Moneyball

  1. Dan Burkarth says:

    Great, look forward plunking down the bills to see ‘Moneyball’ Nice mixture of sports journalism and film criticism in your review,..touche’ MJ” !!

  2. jmartin437 says:

    Thanks Dan, I need to keep my chops up on both sports and film!

  3. frightwig says:

    When the A’s were riding high, the club was run by smart guys working with a middling payroll. The last four years, their payroll has remained within the same range, but other clubs have increased spending and left the A’s at or near the bottom of AL budgets. It’s tough to sustain success when you’re consistently outspent by just about every other GM in the league. (Kudos to the Rays on what they’ve done lately with a similar financial disadvantage; let’s check on them again in a few years.)

    I also think Billy Beane can be too trade-happy for his own good. Check out the lineage of trades stemming from the Danny Haren deal with Arizona (particularly the line through Carlos Gonzalez), probably for the best example of what I mean. I think the A’s would be in better shape today if Beane had just known when to get off the phone.

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