Jim Bouton, the former Yankees pitcher who is best known for writing the 1970 bestseller, “Ball Four” which debunked numerous sacred baseball myths, once said about his avocation, “You spend your whole life gripping a baseball when in fact it is the other way around.”
Bouton’s viewpoint would certainly be shared by Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. Until 2003, Billy Beane was best known for being the overly hyped 1980 first-round draft choice of the Mets who failed to live up to the expectations. As Mets fans are painfully aware, Billy Beane has plenty of company when it comes to prospects who quickly became suspects when they arrived in Flushing.
What made Beane a celebrity however is that he was the subject of “Moneyball,” a 2003 hardcover written by business journalist Michael Lewis that chronicled how the small market and financially challenged Oakland A’s were able to compete successfully on the field with such Goliaths as the Yankees and the Red Sox through the use of sabermetrics That is a fancy term for analyzing statistical data to discover players who were being undervalued by other teams for one reason or another.
Tired of bouncing around the minors and sitting on the bench in the majors, Beane decided to become a scout for the A’s. He then quickly rose through the ranks to become the team’s general manager.
From the time “Moneyball” hit the shelves of bookstores, Brad Pitt expressed a strong desire to portray Billy Beane. Despite the interest of arguably the world’s most famous movie star, getting “Moneyball” to the silver screen seemed as remote as the odds of the Mets winning the World Series next year.
Numerous studios passed on it, while the one that did greenlight it, Columbia Pictures, pulled the plug a few times because its executives were concerned about the budget as well as the artistic direction of the film. Baseball movies have historically been poor performers at the box office. Even now, Brad Pitt has gone out of his way to say that he was drawn to “Moneyball” because it’s about underdogs overcoming obstacles. He alleges that he came into the film knowing little about baseball. I have my doubts about that.
Sorry, Columbia executives, the truth is that to truly enjoy “Moneyball,” you really have to be a baseball fan. From eavesdropping on a scouts’ meeting where Beane (Brad Pitt) denigrates them for their refusal to grasp new evaluation methods (the scouts believe that if a player is dating someone who is not a hottie then he lacks confidence) to his discussions with his bookish assistant, Peter Brand, (Jonah Hill) to his battles with his manager Art Howe (an underutilized Philip Seymour Hoffman) and which players should be in the A’s starting lineup to appreciating the likes of forgotten former major leaguers as Scott Hatteburg, Ricardo Rincon and Chad Bradford, it makes it a lot harder to be entertained by this film if you are not a baseball buff.
Pitt does his part to make “Moneyball” enjoyable as he gives an intriguing performance as the complicated Beane. Outwardly, Beane is the laid-back Californian who outwardly has a breezy attitude towards life. Once you peel away that exterior, there is a seething quality to him. “I hate to lose far more than I enjoy winning,” he screams at A’s players who are a bit too jovial after yet another loss. He punctuates his anger by throwing chairs and desks through windows.
The decision that seems to haunt Billy the most was his decision to bypass a full scholarship to Stanford University in order to take a $125,000 from the Mets. “That was the last time that I made a decision based on money,” he exclaims. According to the film, the divorced Beane turned down a $12.5 million offer from the Red Sox to become their general manager because he did not want to move far away from his 12 year-old daughter.
The performances all around are quite good. In addition to Brad Pitt’s fine work, Jonah Hill shows that he can shed his boisterous comedic image and play a pensive character while former minor leaguer Stephen Bishop looks and acts like former big league star Dave Justice who was in the twilight of his career when he played with the A’s.
If you are a baseball fan, “Moneyball” is solid entertainment. If not, skip it.