Friday, September 23, 2011

The Ups and Downs of Baseball - and Life

Major league baseball players will tell you that over the course of a six-month, 162-game schedule, it is critical for them to maintain an even keel. To get too down over a tough loss or too exultant after a last-inning win is counter productive to a season's success. I think it's important to remember that as you watch Moneyball, a film about the unique journey of a baseball official who tries to achieve success in a very unorthodox manner.

I mention this as Moneyball is not one of those old-fashioned baseball movies where we worry about the last pitch in the bottom of the ninth and whether the home team will be the victors. Now the movie does open with a scene like that, as we see the 2001 Oakland A's try to beat the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. In that best-of-five matchup, the A's had won the first two games in New York, but them proceeded to lose the next two at home. The climactic game saw the A's take an early lead, but were unable to hold off the Yankees.

An on-screen title tells us one of the main subplots - this was an A's team with a total payroll of 39 million versus 114 million for the Yankees. We then meet Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) the A's general manager in an off-season meeting with his owner, as he pleads for more money to keep the A's competitive with the Yankees and other clubs. He is turned down and is told to find the best players possible with the money they have.

Thus Beane has to reinvent the A's - and himself. He does this by hiring a fresh-faced kid named Peter Brand (nicely played by Jonah Hill) with an economics degree from Yale who has a thing for finding players with the highest OBP (on-base percentage). His reasoning is that the more a player gets on base - even if it is achieved via a base on balls - the better a chance of scoring and of course, the more runs the better the chance of winning.

It's this OPB that is tantamount to a player's value in this new way of rating baseball players and in many cases, it means forgetting their limitations due to age, arm problems or fielding woes. There's a smartly written scene with Beane telling his army of scouts in a meeting in the stadium that their way of thinking is old-fashioned and not what he wants to hear.

Beane and Brand assemble their team according to a complicated formula of statistics and while it would help a bit to be a baseball fan, it's not necessary. At first, the formula doesn't work, as the A's fall six games under .500 after just 46 games. But wait, this is a long season and things can turn around. Of course, as the B&B boys have assembled a team according to their way of thinking, they can only see the true results if these players are in the lineup. And several of them are not, as manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) starts players he believes are better all-around performers. Beane's response to this? Trade those players that Howe starts so he will have to insert Beane's choices in the lineup.

It's this story of how Beane is obsessed with winning with this new approach that is at the heart of the film. There are some great real-game clips from the 2002 season inserted from time to time, but this is not a story of winning and losing, at least as far as the regular season. "If we don't win our last game, it doesn't matter," Beane tells Brand. The championship is something that is out there for only one team in the major leagues and Beane in this film has to live with the fact that although his A's won more than 100 games two seasons in a row (2001 and 2002), they didn't win their opening playoff round, much less the ultimate goal, the World Series.

This is a smart screenplay, written by Aaron Sorkin (Oscar winner for The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Oscar winner for Schindler's List), based on the book by Michael Lewis and a story by Stan Chervin. There are some very funny lines, but above all, the screenplay focuses on Beane and his personal drive. There are some nice flashback sequences, as we learn that Beane was a potential superstar who signed a big-league contract with the New York Mets, choosing that over a four year scholarship to Stanford. Beane was supposed to be a no-brainer, a truly great player, but it just didn't work out. Now he's a general manager and surely his mission in his current job is to erase the stigma of a failed career as a player.

Brad Pitt is first-rate as Beane, delivering a passionate, but understated performance. He was nominated for an Academy Award a few years ago for Benjamin Button, but I believe this is a superior performance. He's in almost every scene and it's his facial expressions and subtle delivery that keeps this movie engaging even in the rare off-key moments, where things become a bit too laid back.

Bennett Miller (Capote) directed and has the good sense to not trick things up or get overly sentimental, as the story is a strong one. I did love the way he filmed one game in particular - the one where the 2002 A's were going for the all-time American leagues record of 20 wins in a row. Miller films this partly in reality, with the Oakland crowd cheering wildly for their team and partly in hyper reality, as he shuts off the crowd noises and lets us watch key moments in almost complete silence, with only the soft tones of music by Mychael Danna on the soundtrack (this is a subtle and very effective score). It's an eerie effect and it adds to the bigger meaning of this story.

It's so nice to see a character study in today's era where special effects mean so much, at least in terms of box office. If Moneyball is a success at the turnstiles, it's because the public identifies with someone who realizes that maintaining a vision - even when it's easier to change courses - is what identifies an individual. Don't get too up or too down - just stay the course. Baseball - and life - are long journeys.