MONEYBALL scores high

September 26, 2011

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

Baseball isn’t exactly our generation’s game — the awkward button-up uniforms, the long breaks in action and a 162-game Major League Baseball schedule are all rather unfit for 21st century consumption. Whereas professional football is in-your-face consistent action and basketball is a fluid, patterned sport with moment-to-moment excitement, baseball is a sport that exists somewhat under its own tradition-laced surface. It’s hard to watch baseball without a solid understanding of the sport itself — namely, the acronyms, stats and lingo that serve sports announcers in their nightly broadcasts and give the sport an off-the-field element of excitement.

“Moneyball” exposes another side of the sport, looking at America’s pastime from behind the scenes of a franchise trying to rebuild itself: the 2002 Oakland Athletics (the A’s). Based on the Michael Lewis book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” the film follows Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, “Tree of Life”) and his efforts to create a team on par with big-money teams like the Yankees and Red Sox with less than a third of their budget.

The film starts not a second too early, profiling the A’s American League Division Series loss to the Yankees in 2001, followed by the loss of three of their biggest players — Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Jason Ingringhausen — to free agency and eventually to bigger market teams. Faced with the insurmountable challenge of rebuilding the team with meager funds, Beane encounters Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, “Cyrus”), a young baseball analyst who encourages the GM to find undervalued players and hire them based purely on sabermetric stats and numbers, with no consideration for players’ prestige or predictions of the old-boy in-house analysts — a team of 50-plus veterans the A’s organization employs to assist the GM.

The journey of the A’s 2002 season is an engrossing look at how a few people revolutionize the game — the drama of “Moneyball” is the tough road to change a sport both celebrated and maligned as America’s oldest.

The film becomes Beane’s fight against the system. Bestowed with $40 million of unilateral power, he quickly starts picking up players he and Brand identify as undervalued — cheap players who will produce on the field, and diamonds in the rough who aren’t even on other teams’ radars. The theoretical basis for the process seems so fitting for a game already analyzed so heavily in numbers, but when the 2002 season starts, it quickly unravels.

The film has a talky, documentary feel that rarely diverts into actual gameplay. The script was adapted by Steven Zaillian (“American Gangster”) and re-drafted by Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”). The latter writer’s style is evident in the natural, fluid dialogue throughout the based-on-a-true-story film. It appropriately lacks the stylism of “The Social Network” but contains many of the same charms as that 2010 film — “Moneyball” lingers on some moments longer than others, allowing the viewer to feel his or her own distance from the onscreen characters, but also offering a realistic glimpse into the human drama surrounding something that may appear decidedly non-human at first.

At the same time, the film may be too slow for some. Don’t expect “Moneyball” to be a “sports movie” in the vein of “The Natural” — in practice, the film is much more about running a business than playing a game, contextualizing the romanticism of baseball within the non-romantic aspects of salaries and player cuts.

Billy Beane is shown as a businessman firmly entrenched in the back end of the sport, distancing himself from the sport and his players. He keeps himself emotionally disconnected from a sport that, when he was a player in the 1980s, left him out in the cold. Pitt plays him pretty close to his own wheelhouse — Beane is the most confident man in the room.

Pitt takes him deeper, though, exposing another side of the character, who in private moments exhibits the same insecurities of some of the players he brings into the team.

“Moneyball,” like Sorkin’s other writing efforts, connects back on itself in textbook fashion. It’s not bombastic or loud, but it leaves a lasting impact on the sport it profiles while exposing the human drama behind the numbers of baseball. “Moneyball” is the 21st century baseball story, one in which talent and determination can triumph over the tradition, convention and money that have become the game’s foundation.

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