The term “inside baseball” is often bandied about as a metaphor for the appreciation of the esoteric nature of an activity, where one requires specific and expert knowledge to really “get” what’s behind the superficial nature of a given game. Stats are talked about in other sports, but it’s baseball that dove into the statistical minutiae before almost any other type of activity, collecting a somewhat ridiculous constellation of facts to evaluate a given player or team. Perhaps is the pace of the game that allows one to focus on these type of figures, or the popularity of cards where for a century the back would contain stats of a given player, immediately pitting one against another.
MONEYBALL, at its heart, is the most inside of inside baseball. Its central narrative is about eschewing one type of evaluative statistical methodology in exchange for another, namely using “on base percentage” to find undervalued players. There are no car chases, there’s little in the way of formal drama save for the results of a given game (spoiled ahead of time, I assume, for most current fans of the game). And yet, it’s clear that the film strives to tell a story more grand than the game, about taking risks, stepping outside of tradition while at the same time paying tribute and respect, making up for past failures, etc. In other words, MONEYBALL works on both a mythic and highly specific level, providing for even the most casual of fans a compelling drama to engage with.
Pitt plays Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland A’s at the turn of the 21st century. After having his squad beaten yet again in the playoffs by the likes of the Yankees, a team with a salary several times that of his roster, he’s forced to confront the added challenge of losing three of his key players to free agency. His scouting staff use tried and true applications of statistical and experiential practice to make suggestions about the team, but Beane wishes to go in another direction. After securing the help of a young assistant Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), a 20-something, Yale-educated economist, they decide to employ computer analysis to their prospects to find players that slip through the traditional evaluation system, thus making good players real bargains.
The key charm of the film, then, is the us-versus-them nature of Beane/Brand confronting their old guard. Beane in particular is sticking his neck out, going against not only the sacred tradition of the game, but gambling with professional suicide. The ridiculing is amplified when he must fight his own manager (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to implement player allocation in the way that the models suggest is optimal.
None of this, it must be admitted, should be of any interest to a casual fan. Yet one of the more remarkable things about the film is that it really does somehow widen its scope to craft a kind of heroic journey. By throwing in elements like the dynamic with his family, the confrontations in the meeting room, and other foils that he must confront, the travails of Beane are seen in a more classical, protagonistic fashion.
For me, it was ideal that I know enough about the sport to be engaged with the film, yet haven’t followed it for several decades. Because of this, the outcomes of the various games were genuine surprises, the success or failure of this strategy a mystery to me before the film. Thus, the combination of fine acting (particularly from Hill, who more than holds his own with the often stellar Pitt), a strong story, and an undercurrent of esoterica makes for a fine film.
Apparently, the film was originally slated to be directed by Soderbergh, with the original script far closer to the narrative of the book. It seems that in recreating the project for more universal acceptance, and adding some Aaron Sorkin spice to the dialogue, they’ve managed to maintain what I think to be a fine balance between the particulars of the game and the more universal concepts at play. It’s a story of risk and hubris, general enough to appeal to a wide audience, specific enough to I think appease the baseball stalwart.
MONEYBALL makes us feel a part of the thinking behind baseball without condescension, and exposes a general audience to the complexity and talents behind something that is, after all, just a game.