Sunday, September 25, 2011
A VORP of 16.3: Moneyball
“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball,” Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane says more than once in Moneyball. Truer words have never been spoken. Sports thrive on sentimental idealizations – unconscious efforts to tie what happens on the field to our values off it. We want our sports heroes to look like the Greek gods we make them out to be. Even more, we want them to be good people. We want losers to be jerks receiving their comeuppance. We want to believe that victorious teams have chemistry and camaraderie, and that they win because they want it more and work harder for it. Beyond all of that, many of us want to believe that we matter, that the team couldn’t do it without our support, and that the position in which we sit as we watch the game, or whether we watch it at all, affects the balance of the force that decides the outcomes of the games. Moneyball opens with a shot of Beane sitting in Oakland’s dark and empty stadium listening to his team take on the New York Yankees in a postseason game 3,000 miles away. Beane flips on the transistor radio sitting on his knee to get an audio glimpse of what’s happening. Then he flips it off. Then he flips the radio on again. Then he flips it off. Oakland’s season has come down to this moment of this game and yet Beane avoids listening – not so much because he can’t bear the stress of elimination but because he’s fearful that his listening might somehow hurt his team’s chances of coming through in the clutch.
Moneyball is about the effort to demythicize baseball, to see it for what it really is. Based on the tremendous (if imperfect) book by Michael Lewis, it tells the tale of Beane’s efforts to keep Oakland and its subterranean payroll competitive against the likes of New York and its money-printing machine. Beane realizes that for as long as the A’s try to beat the Yankees by playing their game – acquiring the consensus premier talent that fetches baseball’s highest salaries – it will forever be playing from behind. In order to close the gap, Beane and the A’s must redefine what talent looks like, starting by accepting that the naked eye is an imperfect judge of talent. Beane’s idea is to embrace the philosophies of Bill James and assess talent through the stat sheet and, just as important, let a computer determine which stats are worth paying attention to. This all seems fairly logical when read on the page, but when put into practice Beane receives everything from puzzled looks to hostile objections from baseball’s romanticists. In their eyes, Beane is suggesting the A’s should pick whom to date based on a computer algorithm, with aesthetic beauty and chemistry thrown out the window. In their eyes, Beane is shitting on romance.
Adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, Moneyball does a commendable job of conveying the magnitude of this culture shift. Early scenes show Beane sitting with Oakland’s grizzled scouts, men whose careers are based on the belief that they can spot talent better than the skilled guy next to them, and much better than the proverbial kid on a computer in his mother’s basement. As different players are tossed out for discussion, the scouts provide input on the player’s swing, his looks and even the looks of his girlfriend (the idea of the latter being that if a stud athlete doesn’t have a smoking hot girlfriend, he must have self-esteem issues). Sorkin and Zaillian may be exaggerating a bit there, but the genius of the scene is the moment when Beane points out that one of the stud hitting prospects has a mediocre batting average. “If he’s such a good hitter,” Beane says, “why isn’t he hitting?” The scouts suggest the player needs more time to prove his talent, but Beane doesn’t buy it. In these scouts, Beane sees the confused girlfriend who thinks that getting married will fix the intimacy problems she has with her boyfriend. They aren’t evaluating, they’re dreaming. And when they look at the list of available prospects and debate who to bring in to replace their departed talent, Beane sees the suddenly single 50-year-old male who assumes that his next relationship will start with a 25-year-old woman, because that’s the way his last relationship began. It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.
Funny then that this is a baseball movie that could benefit from some romance – not the Crash Davis-Annie Savoy variety, but the other kind found in Bull Durham, Field of Dreams or The Natural, those three baseball classics. Moneyball is lacking a convincing love of the game, not for lack of effort but lack of execution. The flashbacks to Beane’s own playing career exemplify the imperfection of “can’t miss” scouting reports, which explains why Beane would be so willing to rethink Oakland’s philosophy for talent acquisition, but the film’s attempt to portray Beane as a baseball lifer desperate to feel the game’s glory falls flat, no matter how many times Beane articulates his desires. Played by Brad Pitt, Beane is one of the least charismatic lead characters in a film that isn’t intentionally defined by the main character’s lack of charisma (see: The Man Who Wasn’t There). He smiles, he spits tobacco, he squints his eyes, but he has no personality. Jonah Hill fares much better as Peter Brand, the Yale graduate and stats geek who uses various algorithms to slice through baseball’s conventional wisdom with the precision of a surgeon. Short, stout and lacking the swagger of a former professional athlete, Peter is the perfect contrast to Beane and a personification of the change he brings to the A’s organization.
Sorkin projects are often recognized by their wit and the gracefulness with which complex subjects are hewn into easily understood morality plays, but most characteristically they are recognized by their hyperactive hypertalkiness. Moneyball, surprisingly enough, has none of that. It’s a wordy picture, to be sure, but it unfolds with the deliberateness of a man chopping wood, not the machinegun rat-a-tat-tat of Sorkin’s The West Wing or The Social Network. Bennett Miller, directing his first film since 2005’s Capote, stages the scenes simply – lots of shot/reverse-shot – as if expecting the dialogue to sing like in a Bette Davis movie. It doesn’t. There’s a scene in which Beane tears into the A’s for having a festive atmosphere in the locker room following a loss: he slams the stereo with a baseball bat and then knocks over a big plastic water jug. In the stillness of the team’s stunned reaction, a displaced plastic plate can be heard spinning and wobbling to the floor in the background. “That’s what losing sounds like,” Beane says, and alas that’s what this film often sounds like. Its silences have an empty echo.
None of this is to imply that the film isn’t sometimes wonderfully alive. (Spoiler warning, unless you’re familiar with baseball history or sports movie conventions, in which case never mind.) When the A’s are in the midst of their record-setting 20-game winning streak those empty echoes are displaced by reverberations of excitement and joy. But notice how they’re achieved: mostly by inserting archival footage from the real games. Unmentioned in the movie, because it’s really beside the point, is that the “moneyball” era of baseball began in what was also the height of the steroid era, and fittingly enough these clips from actual games are artificial performance enhancers. What’s winning us over isn’t the writing, acting or directing, it’s the thrill of baseball itself. The slight exception is when Miller recreates that 20th win, deftly connecting the historical footage with the Pitt-led backstage drama. It’s one of the few times that Miller stages on-field action, but it’s skillfully accomplished, in large part because the guys playing the A’s look like real baseball players (and, sure enough, some of them used to be).
Critics of Lewis’ book will likely be disappointed, though not surprised, to see that the movie is faithful to the source material’s problematic portrayal of the 2002 A’s. Sure enough, Sorkin and Zaillian offer no mention of the team’s outstanding starting pitching (headlined by Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder) or its cast of budding stars (including Miguel Tejada and Ray Durham), each of whom made bigger impacts than Justice, Bradford or Scott Hatteberg, and each of whom were with the team not because they’d been discovered by some revolutionary formula but because they, like Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon before them, simply hadn’t reached their first big paydays yet. But as historically misleading as these omissions might be, they’re dramatically irrelevant. In the bigger picture, the impact of the “moneyball” A’s was actually even greater than what the film describes, influencing teams to value on-base percentage over batting average, to ignore runs batted in, to put the red light on average base-stealers (a move that changed with the “end” of the steroid era), and so on. Thus, I don’t object to the way Moneyball is faithful to the book but to the theme-altering way it departs from it.
Although Beane is the jock-genius of both the movie and the book, the printed version of Moneyball isn’t a character analysis at all. It isn’t about inner demons, hatred of losing, fear of failure, or a cute daughter who can sing and play the guitar. Lewis’ book is about baseball. No, more specific than that: it’s about the science of baseball. The insertion of Beane’s personal life into the movie is Sorkin and Zaillian’s attempt to keep the film relatable to the nonsports fan, to humanize the story and give it a familiar dramatic arc. It works, I suppose, but it creates a bitter irony. This movie about a man daring to challenge deeply engrained conventions is itself utterly conventional. To make a movie about Moneyball in its own image would have required a willingness to forget what a sports movie is supposed to look like. It would have required breaking the mold. Moneyball is more than adequate, but to be great, to contend with the best of the best, it needed to dare to be different.
Addendum: Confused by the title of this review? Sorry, I couldn’t resist getting baseball stats geeky. “VORP” is the acronym for Value Over Replacement Player. Remember the scene in the movie when Jonah Hill’s character says that what they’re looking for is a certain number of wins, which will take a certain number of runs, etc. VORP is a tool that combines all the stats a player will contribute and puts a numerical value to them that is compared to the average (or “replacement”) player. A great player, then, would have a VORP in the 80s. A just better than average player would have a VORP around 16. Hence the title.