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Getting Beaned

How much does ‘Moneyball’ resemble the game?

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By LEE SMITH
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If there’s no crying in baseball, as Tom Hanks explained in A League of Their Own, there is plenty of weeping in baseball movies—from Bang the Drum Slowly and The Natural to the newest offering, Moneyball. I’d extend a spoiler alert at this point, but the tears that Brad Pitt, playing Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, sheds at the conclusion of the movie are unrelated to anything in the plot that precedes them. Is it the very sweet song of his daughter that moves him? Or that his A’s lost their first-round playoff series? Or the fact that he has just turned down a $12.5 million contract from the Red Sox?

Photo of Brad Pitt with Billy Beane

Billy Beane, Brad Pitt

Moneyball is a strange sort of baseball movie, based on a book by Michael Lewis that intended to eviscerate the game’s pieties and wrangle the business of the game into some sort of rational model. The movie is ambivalent about the romance and mythology of baseball—which is, of course, the premise of any baseball movie that has ever been made without Charlie Sheen in the cast. Moneyball’s climactic scene features a player, Scott Hatteberg, signed not for his power but for the mundane ability (albeit one highly prized by Beane) to get on base. When Hatteberg hits a game-winning homer to prolong the team’s 20-game winning streak, the film cannot help but celebrate the romance, and even Beane himself struggles with it. But the home run is not enough for Beane, and neither is the streak: If the A’s don’t win the World Series, his idea will not have changed the game itself.

Beane’s big idea is that baseball had overpriced less efficient aspects of player performance, leaving opportunities to those who know where to find value. According to Lewis, Beane and his former boss, current Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, found a new approach by building their small-market/low-budget A’s teams using the kind of mathematical analysis pioneered by Bill James that prizes statistics such as on-base percentage.

Lewis’s critics have pointed out that other clubs were using the same methods before the A’s, including the New York Yankees, whose 1990s dynasty was determined not by the payroll but by a management style that required hitters to take lots of pitches, draw walks, and force pitchers deep into the count. That team was assembled not by a renegade but by Gene Michael, a genuine baseball insider—and old-time baseball men are the de facto villains of Moneyball, book and film, obscurantists fighting a rearguard action against the age of enlightenment, led by men like Beane. 

If Lewis overstated his case, the essential insight was correct: Baseball is a badly run business, where even most of the shrewdest owners are satisfied with a profit no matter how poorly their teams fare on the field. A more clear-eyed approach to management and player selection, a baseball demystified, could field winning teams on a tight budget; but to tell a story about ideas, you need to hang abstractions on the shoulders of real people, and Billy Beane, whether he really changed the nature of the game or not, is a good character from whom to draw a larger lesson.

One way to understand Beane’s career is as an alternative ending to The Natural, the 1984 adaptation of  Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel, starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. Like Hobbs, Beane was a can’t-miss prospect destined for an All-Star career, except that his nemesis wasn’t a mysterious woman with a gun, but despair. Beane’s ego was unprepared for the demands of a sport in which failure is the norm: Even a .300 hitter fails 7 out of every 10 official at-bats. It is not that Beane was an arrogant player who overvalued his talents but, rather, that he overanalyzed the game of baseball. So miserable was Beane after one or two bad at-bats that (according to Lewis) he was hopeless for the rest of the game. And so, instead of Hobbs’s glorious comeback season capped off by a pennant-winning homer, Beane retired at 27 and took a job in the A’s front office.

In the book and the movie, baseball for Beane is the embodiment of his own demons, which he must wrestle in order to yank the game into the sunlight. Standing in his way are baseball’s jailers, the scouts, all the more dangerous because they believe themselves to be its guardians. Of course, this is the same middle-aged chorus that misconstrued young Billy’s talents, projecting him to be a future genius of the diamond and setting him up for failure. Now that Beane has seen the truth about himself, he also sees the truth about the scouts, and must rout them to save baseball and earn salvation.

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