Friday, September 23, 2011

Small Market Blues: Moneyball

In the dead of December, New York sports fans turn their attention to Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings. Of course, Yankee fans are always hoping their well-heeled team pulls off a blockbuster deal. Yet, the business side of baseball holds a fascination, even for fans of so-called small market teams. Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane tried to radically alter the business operations of shallow-pocketed teams. His somewhat successful efforts spawned a host of imitators, a nonfiction bestseller from Michael “Liar’s Poker” Lewis, and a subsequent, long-in-development Hollywood adaptation, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

As a teenager, Beane was recruited hard by MLB scouts. Foregoing a full-ride Stanford scholarship, Beane pursued glory on the baseball diamond and failed badly, scratching out a front office management career instead. As Moneyball opens, his team has just been knocked out of the post-season by the dreaded Yankees and is about to be gutted by free agency. With an owner unwilling to pony up the big bucks, Beane spurns the star system of free agency, using unconventional methods to select players.

With the help of his Ivy-League educated numbers cruncher, Beane signs statistically under-valued players, placing greater emphasis on on-base-percentage than sexier stats, like homeruns and stolen bases. This produces a roster full of players considered rejects by the sports media, because they mostly were. They were cheap though and could fulfill their specific roles.

Not surprisingly for a film co-written by Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball takes a few liberties with the historical record, ignoring the fact Beane’s predecessor (and current Mets GM) Sandy Alderson initiated the team’s “sabermetric” approach. Unfortunately, Alderson looks nothing like Brad Pitt, so that’s Hollywood for you. Using the Yankees as a symbol of large market imperialism is also getting to be a tired cliché, especially considering many of the plays of their late 1990’s championship team were farm system products.

However, for some baseball commentators, Moneyball’s depiction of A’s skipper Art Howe might prove to be the most controversial aspect of the film. As portrayed with icy reserve by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Howe appears to deliberately sabotage Beane’s attempts to reconfigure the team, but is only too happy to take the credit in the media when his efforts bear fruit. In fact, it seems as if Beane even does more nut-and-bolts coaching than Howe at the player level. Yet, Mets fans still trying to forget Howe’s disastrous two year stint at old Shea will probably have no trouble buying into it.

Regardless, for those who do not know or care who made the last out of the 2001 ALCS and baseball fans willing to allow for a bit of license, Moneyball is an engaging trip to the ballpark. The dialogue is sharp and snappy, which is impressive considering how much of it revolves around statistics. Whether truly accurate or not, its depiction of front office wheeling and dealing is also pretty entertaining.

Pitt certainly cranks up his star-power likability, but he also conveys a fair amount of grit as the sometimes mercurial GM. He develops a nice bantering rhythm with Jonah Hill, who is surprisingly grounded and convincing as his sabermetric lieutenant, Peter Brand, a fictionalized version of assistant GM Paul DePodesta. He also has some reasonably endearing chemistry with young Kerris Dorsey playing Beane’s daughter Casey. Indeed, it is a relationship just real enough to be humanizing, while sparing us any extraneous melodrama. Rest assured, there will be no homeruns dedicated to her while she recuperates in the hospital. Beane’s players are supposed to walk anyway.

Even though there is very little in-game action, Moneyball is a very good baseball movie. In a way though, it is paced much like the game itself. The faithful can get caught up scoring every pitch, while casual viewers can step out for a hotdog and easily pick up the narrative thread when they return. One of the smarter sports films of recent vintage that still wears its heart for the game on its sleeve, Moneyball opens nationwide today (9/23), including small markets.