Reporting Eric Henderson
The first thing Minnesota baseball fans, Minnesota movie fans and Minnesota baseball movie fans need to know before deciding whether or not to see the movie version of Moneyball is that the Minnesota Twins are not the good guys.
OK, they’re not exactly the bad guys, either, but the entire film revolves around the Oakland A’s and their storybook 2002 season. A season that was, of course, brought to an end in the ’02 ALDS by the Twins, which is depicted at the film’s crushingly blunt climax.
Moneyball, a loose adaptation of the non-fiction book subtitled The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, former Major Leaguer trying to make good on his flameout career behind the plate by pulling the strings as GM for the A’s.
Frustrated by a postseason loss to the New York Yankees (and the subsequent off-season gutting of his team by fat-pocketed teams who swoop in and snatch Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi), Beane approaches his table of scouts and castigates them for not recognizing the inequities of the MLB class structure.
Beane’s beef: There’s no way for poor teams to go up against the likes of the Yanks if their payroll is roughly one-third as sizeable.
On a quixotic trip to pick up scraps from the Cleveland Indians, Beane spots a maladroit young gent in Playskool “My First Business Suit” attire who whispers instructions to the managers, seeming to carry surprisingly large sway. Beane learns that the newbie, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), is really a whiz kid economist whose number-crunching has earned him some (but not much) respect in the Indians’ ranks.
Beane scoops him up and the two begin assembling a discount 2002 team made up of baseballers who, for myriad old school reasons, have been unfairly discounted by the scouting world but have great potential to get on base, which Brand insists should be the primary goal in constructing a team.
In other words, don’t replace your Giambis and Damons with the next most expensive options. Amass an “Island of Misfit Toys,” wind them up and watch them get men on base.
If the book version was stats porn for SABR denizens, producer Pitt’s movie version switches the focus back to baseball flicks’ most notable shared quality — unabashed romanticism of the game.
Pitt’s Beane makes it a point never to watch games. To allow himself to be pulled into the narrative won’t just make it impossible for him to operate as a general manager, it will be a form of capitulation to the sport’s addiction to “stories” that earlier tricked him into believing he would be a superstar slugger. To return to that mindset will make it hurt too deeply when expectations aren’t met.
I’m not suggesting that the movie Moneyball is totally soft in the head; screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian are both coasting here, but turning columns of stats into compelling jargon is a pretty tall order. But buffering all those scenes of Pitt and Hill juggling calls with agents and plugging numbers into computers are plenty of other scenes that probably seemed creaky in the Mickey Mantle era — shoring up the shaky-legged rookie, assuaging the egomaniacal veteran, et al.
Oh yeah, and then the Twins show up and ruin everything, which doesn’t exactly make a whole lot of sense from a narrative standpoint. The (likely clueless) sportscasters make a big deal of saying, after the A’s lose, that they were never a contending team because no matter how you slice it, you have to be willing to pay the salaries necessary to win. But, um, the Twins’ baseline skews far closer to the Athletics’ than the Yankees’.
But you don’t go to baseball movies for the veracity of baseball. You go, as Hill points out in the penultimate scene, to revel in the metaphor.