Faith & Film: Moneyball

Moneyball is a baseball movie with very few scenes of baseball. This may sound odd, even a turnoff. But it actually works very well.

Moneyball tells the true story of Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, who make it to the playoffs in 2002. At the end of the season, Beane loses his three best players to richer teams who can afford to pay them much higher salaries. It happens that the A’s are a poor team, by major league standards. Billy and his staff have several meetings to try to find players to replace those who have departed. The situation is grim, as they know they can’t compete for the best players with the rich teams.

Billy travels to Cleveland to make a deal for one of their players. He doesn’t make the deal, but he gets something better. In the office of the Indians he meets Peter Brand, a young man who is the proponent of a new method for winning baseball games. Simply put, the idea is to get the most players on base. It doesn’t matter whether they get on by a walk or a hit. Once they are on base, they can score. Brand is not the kind of man you would expect to see in the office of a major league team. He’s never played or coached baseball. Instead, he’s a recent Yale graduate with a degree in economics. Billy is so impressed that he hires Peter on the spot and brings him to Oakland.

Billy and Peter build a team around Brand’s strategy to the disbelief of the staff. No one but Billy and Peter believe in the strategy, and the A’s perform miserably in the first half of the season, and become the laughingstock of the league. Gradually, though, the team starts to turn around mid-season and, late in the season, wins a record 20 games.

Most of Moneyball takes place, not on the baseball diamond, but in the offices and conference rooms. This may not sound exciting, but, believe me, it is. The film is well directed by Bennett Miller (Capote) with a fine screenplay by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network.) The movie is about Billy’s belief and determination to take a risk, despite the odds, and the derision of everyone else in his life. Billy himself is a former major league player, a talented high school student who forgoes college to sign up for the Mets. Sadly, he never lives up to his potential. Now is his chance to make his mark.

This movie is all about Billy, a divorced dad with a daughter. Brad Pitt gives a terrific performance as Billy, and he carries the movie. We care about Billy, a decent man who has had his share of hard knocks in life. Pitt has matured greatly as an actor. No longer just a pretty boy, playing a 44 year old, he’s showing some gray as well as a good deal of maturity. He’s strict with his players and maintains a professional distance from them. Yet Billy is ready to believe in them and give them a second chance. Billy believes in teamwork much more than stroking the egos of high priced superstars.

Many other baseball movies have scenes of locker room humor and a lot of carousing and beer. With the exception of one scene, Moneyball doesn’t go in for this kind of broad humor. It’s more about the older players who never thought they’d get a chance to play pro ball, who know they’ve got one more chance before they’re sent home packing. They want to make the best of it.

Many sports movies get all fuzzy and overly emotional at the end, with slow motion and swelling music as the team wins the big one. Like Billy Beane, Moneyball’s ending is more subdued, although I was very touched by the ending. Like Billy and Peter’s baseball strategy, Moneyball is not splashy, but solid and intelligent from start to finish, resulting in a very satisfying movie.

Tom Condon, OP