How can small market sports teams, with only a fraction of the spending capabilities of large market teams, compete at the same level year after year? This is the problem at the heart of the efficient and savvy Moneyball, based on the true story of Billy Beane. As Beane, Brad Pitt’s affability nearly matches his celebrity. As the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Beane took his small market team to the playoffs in 2002, in a run that set the American League record for consecutive wins and changed how baseball was played forever.
The film opens with the 2001 Playoffs, as the Athletics are about to lose to the New York Yankees in the first round. Numbers flashing dramatically across the movie screen let us know that the Yankees have arrived at this point by spending $114,457,768 to the A’s $39, 722, 689. We soon find out that the few stars that the A’s do have (Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi), are going to be quickly snatched up by the big market teams who offer salaries Beane can’t match. As the team’s scouts inanely bicker over who they will acquire with their limited resources to replace the lost stars, Beane realizes that this system, entrenched in baseball’s 150 year history, is not going to make the Athletics as competitive as the Yankees. “We have to start thinking differently,” he tells the board, and receives only blank, glassy-eyed stares from the aged crew of old-timers in return.
The man who gives Beane the tools he needs to do this is Peter Brand, the rotund Yale graduate played endearingly by Jonah Hill. Peter offers Billy a new way of thinking about baseball in the digital age, based on nothing else but a player’s statistics and performance. “Your goal shouldn't be to buy players,” Brand tells Beanne, “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy wins. In order buy wins, you need to buy runs.” The most exciting scenes in the film are when Beane and Brand strategize trades like a couple of fantasy baseball nerds.These scenes say a lot not only about the quality of the filmmaking, but also about the direction in which baseball is headed.
The old guard of baseball is represented by Art Howe, the disgruntled manager of the Athletics, played by the essentially wasted but always delightful Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Howe opposes Beane at every turn. In this way, Howe serves as the rival in an unconventional sports story where the stars are the dealmakers
Moneyball is interspersed with flashbacks of Beane’s own past as a high school baseball star, who forgoes attending Stanford and signs a lucrative deal with the New York Mets in the first round of the draft. Despite being told by scouts that he had what it took to make it in the majors, he was never able to fully adjust to demands of the MLB, and called it quits after a few years. Beane still wonders if he would have succeeded in MLB if he had been drafted in a different round. He sees Brand’s system of statistics analysis as a way to make scouting an exact science.
Clocking in at a surprisingly brisk 133 minutes, Moneyball has many of the hallmarks of sports movies (montages of the misfit athletes, players overcoming their egos, suspenseful big games), but is not the standard underdog sports film You’d be hard pressed to call it a sports movie at all. Director Bennett Miller adeptly shifts the focus from the ballpark to the boardroom, where drama occurs and decisions are made. To Beane — who refuses to make personal connections with the players or even watch the games live — and to Miller, the players are just numbers waiting to become statistics. If baseball managers have shifted the emphasis from the stars to their stats, then Moneyball mirrors that seismic shift by focusing on the decision-making and the behind–the-scenes turmoil. Beane is the torchbearer in the post-modern era of baseball. Pitt slides perfectly into the role of Beane, and inhabits it like only he could. It’s his movie, and Beane is the classic handsome, charming and marginally conflicted Brad Pitt character. His mere presence in a film is enough to get it green-lit; we’re all suckers for him anyhow.