The beauty of Moneyball

Unlike almost any other sports film ever produced in Hollywood (Friday Night Lights being another exception), the picture doesn't end with the team we've been watching over the past two hours win the big game. There isn't a climactic moment. Beane's character doesn't take the big paying job in the more baseball friendly city and later win a championship (as the team that offered him that big contract, the Boston Red Sox did two years later).

That is different than Lewis' book, which climaxes on the night the A's went for a record 20th straight regular season win, and in something that Hollywood wouldn't dare dream up, did so, after blowing an 11-0 lead. The hero in that game is one of the featured players in the story, journeyman Scott Hatteberg (played by Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt).

So if there's no big catharsis, how is the audience moved? Brad Pitt says the film's screenplay reminds him of the American cinema's modern Golden Age, the 1970's, and the morally ambiguous stories that were told then, as he tells Sports Illustrated:

"In scripts today," he explains, "someone has a big epiphany, learns a lesson, then comes out the other side different. In these older films I'm talking about, the beast at the end of the movie was the same beast in the beginning of the movie. What changed was the world around them, by just a couple of degrees. Nothing monumental. I think that's true about us. We fine-tune ourselves, but big change is not real."

The trick about Moneyball as Michael Lewis has said, is that it's not so much about a man or a team, as an idea, the idea of using sabermetrics as a way to put together a winning ballclub.

Of course, as baseball writers and others have written, for being a film based on real events, it certainly takes its poetic liberties, such as the fact that the A's didn't need to pick up Jeremy Giambi in the off-season, because he was already on the team (and he already had a lousy reputation with A's fans for failing to slide in that infamous play by Derek Jeter flipping the ball to Jorge Posada against the Yankees in the 2001 playoffs), and that one huge factor in the A's success during the early part of the aughts was their sterling starting pitching staff of Barry Zito (who won the Cy Young Award that year), Tim Hudson and Matt Mulder (those two were traded in consecutive days after the 2004 season as they approached free agency).

And there there's A's manager Art Howe, deliciously played by the always great Phillip Seymour Hoffman. To say Howe comes across poorly in the film would be a colossal understatement, and Howe is pissed off about it, as he told Sririus Radio last week after seeing a preview.

Fun fact: The disparity between small market teams like the A's and the Yankees was stark at the time Moneyball was written - the A's payroll was $41 million, compared to New York's $125 million.

Flash forward nine years later, and the team in Tampa Bay is 2002 version of the A's: The Tampa Bay Rays payroll this season has been $41 million, the Yankees $202 million, and the team they're trying to catch in the waning days of the season, the Boston Red Sox, have a $166 million payroll.

As not only a baseball fan but an A's fan (growing up in San Francisco I was always a fan of both teams, which to me was acceptable because they play in different leagues. I did root for the Giants against the A's in the 1989 Bay Bridge World Series, a four game sweep for Oakland), it was going to be hard for me not to like the Bennett Miller directed film. But I did see it with someone who is decidedly not a baseball fan, and she found it to be entertaining, for whatever that's worth.

The film is produced by Scott Rudin and co-written by The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin, part of the creative team behind last fall's The Social Network, which some marketing executives are pushing (beyond the Brad Pitt factor) in order to attract the non baseball crowd.

In the current CL, our film critic Joe Bardi writes a very informative review of not only the plot of the new Hollywood release Moneyball, but also of the gestation period that it took to reach the silver screen. The story of the underdog Oakland A's 2002 regular season ups and downs was originally encapsulated in Michael Lewis's New York Times 2003 best-seller, and now comes to big screen eight years later.

Joe's ultimate verdict is that the film is "effective but uninspiring."

The Hollywood formula for sports films frequently (The Fighter being the last great example) is that the team or protagonist goes through great struggle, but comes out victorious at the end. But the protagonist of this film, A's General Manager Billy Beane, says unless you win the last game of the season, nobody cares. And every season there is only one champion.

The A's weren't that team in 2002 (the California Angels were), but the ideas introduced in the sport that season is the underlying narrative (one that simultaneously was occurring as steroids were changing the game as well).

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