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‘Moneyball’ delivers on its promise

Submitted by Matt Johnson on October 3, 2011 – 12:25 amNo Comment

Photo courtesy of bayarea.sbnation.com

Let’s dispense with one notion straightaway; “Moneyball” is not a baseball movie.

Baseball is shrewdly used as a backdrop to tell the story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who goes against the time-honored methods used to predict a player’s future success.

Baseball is a romantic, pastoral game but Beane makes it his mission to strip away the mystery. The movie, based on Michael Lewis’ bestselling 2003 book, looks at what matters most when sizing up a player; how often do they get on base?

This flies in the face of the way baseball traditionally measures a player, namely by their build, personality, etc.

To begin to tell you the story of “Moneyball” you have to start with a man named Bill James. James is a statistician and author who has compiled exhaustive stats on baseball for over two decades. Instead of judging a player on a vast array of intangibles, James thought it best to break it down; how well does a player get on base? How they get on base is irrelevant because once there they have the ability to score a run, another tenet of James’ system. The system is referred to as Sabermetrics.

Paul DePodesta, a James disciple, was a low-level scout and assistant in the Cleveland Indians organization in the late ‘90s. DePodesta chose not be involved with the movie and so he and the other A’s assistants at the time are represented in the composite character of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill).

Beane observes an interesting exchange in a meeting and decides that Brand has something to offer.

Afraid of what the organization may think, Brand won’t even discuss Sabermetrics with Beane until they’re outside, in a parking deck.

This is your first indication of how subversive the system is to all that baseball holds holy.

Beane hires Brand and makes him his assistant general manager.

Beane buys into Sabermetrics because it cuts through the lies and the assumptions and gets down to the facts; can this person get on base? It also allows him to assemble a competitive team despite the A’s lack of financial clout. He uses the system to discover the players that other teams overlook, creating his own “island of misfit toys.”

Beane was a promising baseball prospect coming out of high school. He was offered a full-ride scholarship to Stanford but chose instead to sign with the New York Mets. He hasn’t forgotten how scouts judged him based on intangibles and told him he was destined for greatness.

Somewhere inside, perhaps he believes he could have been spared the mediocrity and the bouncing from team to team that his career eventually became, if there had been a more concrete way to measure talent. He sees the system as a way to rescue players who have been tossed aside because they didn’t “look” like a baseball player or maybe they had an ugly girlfriend, which one of the old-school scouts believes is a sign of a lack of confidence on the player’s part.

Pitt is brilliant as Beane, playing him with a charisma that is simultaneously understated and magnetic.

Hill is a revelation as Brand. For those who have only seen him in comedies such as “Superbad” and “Get Him to the Greek,” you will be pleasantly surprised. The performance is much more nuanced and subtle than most roles he has previously taken on.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is pitch perfect as A’s manager Art Howe, adding to his long list of wonderful performances.

The movie is beautifully directed by Bennett Miller (Capote) who deftly combines vintage footage of the A’s 2002 season into a mix that is at once still and yet powerful.

While the movie stresses having conviction in what you believe in, it also showcases the promise that talent holds.

There’s a scene in a music store with Beane’s daughter where she sings a song for him. You can see the wistfulness in Pitt’s face as he listens to her, no doubt remembering sitting around his kitchen table as a teenager, while a baseball scout told him he must make a choice and leave the “children’s game” behind. It’s in that brief moment you come to understand the sheer beauty the promise of talent can hold.

“Moneyball” delivers on its promise, baseball fan or not.

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