I really liked the movie Moneyball. I know the film is missing a lot of detail from the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game written by Michael Lewis. Director Bennett Miller certainly took liberties with the truth. But from the perspective of a baseball story, Moneyball hits a home run (sorry for the gratuitous baseball reference).
The story revolves around Billy Bean (Brad Pitt), the long time general manager of the Oakland Athletics who embraced Bill James’ mathematical concepts of evaluating baseball players. Being tasked with rebuilding the 2002 A’s after losing to the Yankees in the 2001 first round division series, Bean had to figure out how to replace first baseman Jason Giambi, center fielder Johnny Damon, and closer Jason Isringhausen. All three left as free agents going to the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cardinals respectively.
A’s owner Steven Schott would not give Bean a larger budget than what he had the previous season. In an early scene, we see Bean working with his scouts shortly after their season ended. The scouts were touting particular players that would be available via free agency or trades. The process was done in typical fashion, stats played a part but the scout’s intuition played more of a role in the recommendation of players.
Later in Cleveland, Bean meets with Indians GM Mark Shapiro (Reed Diamond) to discuss a trade. Bean becomes impressed with Indian employee Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who is signaling Shapiro from the back of the room not to trade various players Bean is interested in. So curious, Bean convinces Brand to meet him in the Jacobs Field parking garage to discuss his philosophy. Soon after, Bean hires Brand and brings him to Oakland where Brand’s “moneyball” philosophy begins to shape Bean’s thinking.
What’s interesting here is the character Brand is actually Paul DePodesta, currently the Mets vice president of player development and amateur scouting. For whatever the reason, DePodesta did not want his name used in the film, likely because of the inaccuracies portrayed in the story. For instance, Billy Bean was an advanced scout for Oakland, hired by the A’s GM Sandy Alderson. A year later, Alderson took Bean under his wing and began teaching him Bill James’ concepts. Alderson, the current GM of the New York Mets, is not even mentioned in the film.
Back to the movie… Bean and Brand begin to put a plan together to bring in players based on their on base percentage as opposed to the more traditional numbers of batting average and RBI. The traditional scouts predictably become furious, thinking that Bean has lost his mind listening to the pudgy Yale graduate who looked as if he never played in Little League. Ironically the real life DePodesta is tall, thin, and a graduate from Harvard.
There are many connections in the film to the Mets, after all Bean was signed by the Amazins in 1984, in the same round as Darryl Strawberry. In fact, Frank Cashen, the GM of the Mets during the 80s almost selected Bean ahead of Strawberry because he was concerned about Darryl’s makeup. The thought was that Bean would develop to be a five tool center fielder. Cashen wasn’t wrong in regards to Straw being a problem off the field but he was never more wrong than thinking Bean would become an All Star.
Through flashback we see Bean playing for scouts in high school then being signed by the Mets making the decision not to go to Stanford University, a decision he later admits was a mistake.
Another connection to the Mets is the character of Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Howe was the A’s manager at the time and in the film, he is portrayed as a weaselly small minded manager. In Howe’s first scene we see him hassling Bean for a contract extension not wanting to go into the new season as a lame duck. Howe and Bean conflict throughout the film, arguing over who should and should not be in the lineup. This is another “moneyball” concept in that the manager is an unnecessary evil who should do simply as management has directed him.
Howe insists on not playing the “moneyball” players Bean has brought to the club. Eventually Bean makes several key trades forcing his guys into the lineup. Again, we are reminded of the Mets when Bean puts in a call to Steve Phillips regarding a trade. Shortly after, the A’s begin to win, eventually clinching the division and setting an American League record of winning 20 games in a row along the way.
Bean is portrayed as a very likable character in the film. His relationship with his young daughter allows us to see the personal side of Bean’s life. He is divorced, getting to see his talented daughter (she sings and plays guitar) on weekends. It is his relationship with her that ultimately makes Bean turn down an offer from the Boston Red Sox to be their GM for 12.5 million. Also, as mentioned, there are several flashbacks where we see a younger Bean (Reed Thompson) coming up through the Mets system and with the big clubs he played for. In a game at Dodger stadium, we see Bean strike out in a crucial situation while playing with the Mets.
Unfortunately, like most movies from books, much is missing from the story and the truth has been blurred. But regardless, Moneyball is one of the better baseball movies ever made. It’s heartwarming, interesting, and funny. The film is well directed and edited, and does give us an inside view of the operation of a Major League baseball team. There was also great attention paid to detail in this film. The uniforms the players wore were accurate to the periods portrayed, including the orange and blue racing stripe on Bean’s Mets uniform from 1984 or 1985 when he played just 13 games before being traded to Minnesota. (However the nit-pickers may notice the Dodger Stadium seat colors reflect the renovation of a couple of seasons ago, not he colors from the 80s.)
Baseball wise, the highlight of the film is when the A’s are attempting to win their 20th game in a row in early September. Bean is headed to watch one of the A’s farm clubs play when his daughter convinces him to turn around and head back to the Coliseum. As we learn in the film, Bean is very superstitious and rarely watches the game having Podesta… err, I mean Brand text him as to in game updates.
In the game, the A’s are out to a huge lead scoring 11 runs in the first three innings when Bean finally shows up. Things then go unbelievably wrong as the Royals manage to tie the game in the top of the ninth. You will have to see the movie or look up the game on Retrosheet cause I won’t spill the beans (no pun intended) here. In fact I probably already told you more than I should have.
Those that are historically minded probably will not like the film because it does deviate from the truth and many details from the book are left out. But in good Hollywood tradition that states to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, Moneyball succeeds. This is a film you can bring your baseball hating spouse to. They will enjoy the human side of this story.
If you have not read the book, you will enjoy this movie, especially if you are a baseball fan. If you have read the book, you can still enjoy this film, a great baseball story regardless of how true it is. But one thing is very true, the players were real and the Oakland A’s of 2002 managed to win as many games that season as the New York Yankees with one important difference. The A’s payroll, the smallest in baseball, was a third that of the Yankees.