“Moneyball” is a baseball movie, so right away that limits its audience. However, there are many other appealing dynamics in the film that transcend baseball and are just about life.
Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the former baseball prospect-turned scout—turned General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. After an almost-breakout season (those “Damn Yankees”), the team is completely gutted during the off-season with its star players going to free agency. The ownership makes it clear to Beane that there will be no more money to sign equivalent free agents. He’s going to have to figure out how to fill his roster with inexpensive players that nobody yet knows are any good.
Fortunately for Beane, in visiting with one of the other GM’s about a trade, he notices a young stranger in the room who seems to have a huge influence in the decision-making process. When he inquires further, he learns that he’s dealing with a techno-nerd, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who never played the game himself, and knows nothing about the good-old-boy network that currently runs Major League Baseball. All he knows about is his computer analysis. He has an economics degree from Yale. He designed a software program that looks only at statistics. It’s strictly by the numbers. He knows nothing about who looks athletic, or who appears to possess the “intangibles” like leadership and good citizenship that have so often governed player decisions in the past.
Billy Beane is intrigued. Having been a “five-tool” prospect himself in his younger years, who didn’t live up to all his supposed potential, he knows something about how scouts can allow their eyes to deceive them. They’re too enamored with the “good-looking” player, the one who moves smoothly on the field, and is well-versed in “the fundamentals” like bunting and base stealing and hitting the opposite way. Beane sees in Peter Brand a chance to look at the evaluation process differently, thereby being able to “steal” some potential producers from other teams who have not yet recognized their value. On-base percentage suddenly becomes a primary factor, that is, players who will patiently take pitches outside the strike zone, which not only means they will have more walks, they will also, collectively, wear down the opponent’s starters and get into their bullpen of relief pitchers faster, gaining an advantage in attrition, particularly over a several-game series. This was fundamentally different than the “old days,” where the Caribbean-born players would always claim, “Walking doesn’t get you off the island.”
Beane’s collection of good-old-boy baseball guys didn’t take kindly to the radical change. It basically meant their “instincts,” honed over years of observation, were no longer valued. Beane even had his clashes with the old-school manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who looks like he’s never done anything athletic in his life).
Those of us who are baseball fans, and have read the book, already know “the rest of the story”: Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” philosophy paid immediate dividends. He was able to acquire “bargain” players who fit into his philosophy before others teams caught on to his strictly-by-the-numbers player evaluations. Now, of course, everyone else has the same information, and there are less likely to be “steals” on the market. And, of course, the “Elephant in the Room” during this period (the steroids, the steroids) never even gets mentioned. But “Moneyball” is about more than the romance of baseball: it is about being innovative in the face of stultified and ossified tradition, and about believing in your own convictions even if they don’t correspond to everyone else’s. In a way, it’s about “being your own man” in a way that feels satisfying not just to baseball guys, but to every man who’s ever wanted to walk to the beat of another drum.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephens Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas