‘Moneyball’: Pitt spitting into a cup
Generally, I am quite protective of this narrow patch I have carefully cultivated in the academy.
I am something of a baseball scholar, Dr. Baseball, teaching baseball courses in the American Studies Program at the local college.
When something of a serious nature about baseball enters the public discourse I feel I should take notice and have something to say.
So I finally got around to seeing the film “Moneyball.” I don’t know what took me so long — practical interference, I guess: There was always a game of some kind to watch.
“Moneyball” was nominated for a host of Oscars and everyone I know who saw it, baseball fan or no, considered it a good story well-told on the screen, entertaining, stimulating.
My judgment: I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I give it * * 1/2 (two and half stars).
I have trouble with the casting. I couldn’t believe Brad Pitt was Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s. He remained resolutely Brad Pitt, public figure. I keep expecting Angelina to show up.
It seems Pitt’s penchant for spitting tobacco juice into a paper cup was the tic that established his baseball bona fides. It was insufficient for me.
Pitt plays Beane, the young baseball executive who had held great promise as a player, a first-round draft pick in 1983, but whose playing career fizzled. Still a young man, he turned to scouting, beating the bushes for baseball talent.
He rose in the Oakland organization to the position of GM and then, from economic necessity, embraced a purportedly revolutionary approach to player evaluation for his cash-strapped Oakland franchise.
As the story goes, he thought outside the (batter’s) box and employed advanced metrics, analytics, which amounted to what your Little League coach told you: “A walk’s as good as a hit.”
The best line in the film comes straight from the best-selling book of the same name by Michael Lewis. Beane responds to the assembled scouts in the conference room, wizened vets of the baseball wars, who extol the potential of these great looking ballplayers, big strapping potentially “five-tool” players.
He says, “We’re not selling jeans here.”
These scouts and Oakland Manager Art Howe, are presented too broadly. They appear as a kind of chorus of old fools, hopelessly anachronistic.
Howe is played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, last seen (by me) playing Truman Capote, another bizarre bit of casting. I keep expecting Seymour to drop into Capote’s manner of speech, in the dugout perhaps. Now that would have been interesting.
The scouts and Howe deserved better. To glorify Beane it is necessary, I guess, to render those around him foolish.
After all, Oakland’s success in 2002 was not entirely because Scott Hatteberg had a good eye at the plate, a penchant for base-on-balls, and because Beane uncovered some retreads (Dave Justice) who still had a few miles on them.
Oakland also had three terrific young pitchers (Zito, Muldur, and Hudson) and a dynamic young third baseman, Eric Chavez, who could really hit and catch the ball, and also looked good in a pair of jeans. They all came through the Oakland system.
(A digression: I’d love to see a movie about a scout, perhaps set a couple of decades ago before centralized scouting and immediate on-line communication and dissemination of information. Scouts were, and still are to a lesser degree, baseball’s Willy Lomans, beating the bushes, picking up rocks here hoping to discover a gem.
Get Duvall or DeNiro to play the lead, or maybe Jeff Bridges or a wizened Costner. Put him on the road, an old guy on the road, running out the string, watching ballgames in parks and fields across the country, time passing him by. That would be a picaresque to warm my heart — box office poison probably.)
My problem with the film “Moneyball” is basically the same objection I had to the book. The subtlety, complexity of a process of change are sacrificed for melodrama. Lewis’s work, it strikes me, is often reductive, the film even more so.
Revolutions generally have many progenitors, though our inclination is to identify a singular hero, and that is true in this case too. Perhaps this problem is inherent in the bio-pic genre, inevitable really.
Jonah Hill stole the movie as Beane’s nerdy assistant, Peter Brand, the only fictional character among the major players. He is, however, based on a real person, John DePodesta, who declined to lend his name to the movie.
DePodesta is tall, fit, and good-looking, unlike Hill’s slouchy character. He is now the Vice-President for Player Development of the Mets after a stint as General Manager (at age 31) of the Dodgers.
None of what the movie dramatizes is wrong, it’s just over-done. Billy Beane deserves to be respected as an agent of change. But he was hardly alone.
Another movie I’d like to see would be about Bill James, the SABRmetrics guru, now a consultant with the Red Sox, with Gary Oldham in the lead. It would also be box-office poison, like my scouts’ film, but I for one would like it.
I might give it * * * *.
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