Reviews

Moneyball: Review

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 Beane (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, Beane 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 Beane a larger budget than what he had the previous season.  In an early scene, we see Beane 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, Beane meets with Indians GM Mark Shapiro (Reed Diamond) to discuss a trade. Beane becomes impressed with Indian employee Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who is signaling Shapiro from the back of the room not to trade various players Beane is interested in. So curious, Beane convinces Brand to meet him in the Jacobs Field parking garage to discuss his philosophy. Soon after, Beane hires Brand and brings him to Oakland where Brand’s  “moneyball” philosophy begins to shape Beane’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 Beane was an advanced scout for Oakland, hired by the A’s GM Sandy Alderson. A year later, Alderson took Beane 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… Beane 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 Beane 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 Beane 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 Beane ahead of Strawberry because he was concerned about Darryl’s makeup. The thought was that Beane 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 Beane would become an All Star.

Through flashback we see Beane 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 Beane for a contract extension not wanting to go into the new season as a lame duck.  Howe and Beane 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 Beane has brought to the club. Eventually Beane makes several key trades forcing his guys into the lineup. Again, we are reminded of the Mets when Beane 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.

Beane is portrayed as a very likable character in the film. His relationship with his young daughter allows us to see the personal side of Beane’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 Beane 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 Beane (Reed Thompson) coming up through the Mets system and with the big clubs he played for. In a game at Dodger stadium, we see Beane 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. One of the obvious points completely overlooked is the fact that the A’s had Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito fronting their rotation. 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 Beane’s Mets uniform from 1984 and 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 the 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. Beane 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, Beane 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 Beane 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.

 

The Last Play at Shea

Last week, Mets.com made available, for free I might add, the documentary film The Last Play at Shea. The film recounts the last concert played at the now razed stadium during the All Star break of the 2008 season. The artist was Billy Joel and much of the movie is about his career, and his performance in the concert as well as his thoughts as the concert unfolded.

But the real star of the film is Shea Stadium herself, filled with roughly sixty thousands enthusiastic rock and roll fans. If you are a fan of the Mets, Shea, Billy Joel, music, or New York City history, this film is a must.

My expectation of the film was much different. I assumed it was simply a rock concert (which I believe has been produced as a separate DVD and CD). But in fact the film very carefully covers the history of the storied ballpark, from it’s beginnings as envisioned by New York City planner Robert Moses to its dreaded end when the Mets blew yet another playoff chance on the last day of the season in 2008.

There are many celebrities in the film. Joel of course is front and center but we also hear from Paul McCartney, Sting, Keith Hernandez, Gary Cohen, Mike Piazza, Darryl Strawberry and others as they give their impressions of their experience working and playing in Shea Stadium.

Much of the film, specifically the historical part is narrated by actor Alec Baldwin. Here we learn about Moses’s plan to create a Roman Colosseum-esc stadium at the heart of massive roadways he helped create. This was a place Moses intended for the Dodgers to move to because they desperately wanted a new ballpark. Moses did not realize he would have had to build Shea about 3000 miles further west to get the Dodgers attention. But eventually the city got the Mets, and Moses got his new stadium.

A major theme of the film is the role that Shea served in regards to arena rock concerts. It all started with Shea Stadium in 1965 when the Beatles played the first outdoor rock concert in history. However, the Mets are very much a part of the film. At one point Joel asks the throng at Shea how many are Mets fans. The roar was deafening. The current Mets can only imagine such a reaction from their fans.

The film might be a bit trying at times, especially if you are not a huge fan of Joel. Much is made of his personal life growing up in Brooklyn, then Levittown on Long Island, as well as his failed marriages. However, as it is pointed out by Joel, his career coincides with the life of Shea Stadium. He started his first band in 1964, the year Shea opened. The film goes on to parallel Joel’s musical career with the events happening at Shea. It was only fitting that Joel close the biggest rock stage in the world.

Shea was famous worldwide. Early in the film, Sting said that to him and other English musicians who knew nothing of baseball, everyone wanted to go to Shea Stadium because that’s were the Beatles played. And in an unreal surprise that sounds as if crafted in Hollywood, Sir Paul McCartney, with the help of a police escort from Kennedy Airport, made it in time to sing I Saw Her Standing There with Joel and the band. Plus McCartney closed the ballpark with Let It Be, perhaps the musical equivalent of Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza closing the center field gates as they would a couple of months later.

If you have not seen this film, you should. Although the Mets have disappointed us over the years, never able to achieve the winning tradition enjoyed by that team in the Bronx, the stadium they once called home was historic. Citi Field is new, shiny, and beautiful but it has a long, long way to go to match the many memories of the building she replaced.

You can purchase the Last Play at Shea  DVD at Amazon.com for about 10 bucks.

This section contains reviews previously published…

Mets Annual 2011

The Mets yearbook is out. No, not the overpriced one full of advertisements that sells at Citi Field. I’m talking about Maple Street Press’s Mets Annual 2011.


Every season, Mets Annual is the go to guide for everything you need to know about the New York Mets. This season’s is no exception. The latest edition is jam packed with articles and statistics, not just in regard to the Major League club either. The entire organization is scrutinized from top to bottom.


This issue is a must simply because of the change in command within the Mets hierarchy. The many articles cover the new philosophy of the front office, Jose Reyes’s potential last season, Citi Field not being the blame for the Mets offensive woes of the last two seasons, R.A.Dickey’s long, strange road to the Mets and a review of the Mets Hall of Fame. There is also a synopsis of every team in the National League. There is even an interesting article documenting the many changes and quirks of Mets uniforms over the years.


The Mets 40 man roster and the 2011 schedule are included. So are the schedules of the AAA Buffalo Bisons and the AA Binghamton Mets as well as general information in regard to all Mets minor league affiliates. The Mets top prospects are reviewed and an entire roster of Mets minor leaguers is included.


The twenty-fifth anniversary of the last Mets world championship is represented as well. A very nice article that is accompanied by the top twenty-five moments of 1986 will help you relive memories of that magnificent season. And if you are two young to remember, the ’86 articles will at least prove to you that there was a time when the Mets were the kings of New York baseball.

An article that documents the Mets history with free agency is outstanding. It certainly brought back some bad memories for me. As I often tell younger frustrated Mets fans today…if you think things are bad now, you have no idea how bad it really was during the late 1970s. Mets Annual 2011 sugar coats nothing and is why I highly recommend this edition. Its writers are unbiased, telling the Mets story like it is.


As I do every year, I will keep Mets Annual by my side while watching or listening to the games. It’s a great reference book with lots of information about our favorite team. I highly recommend you do the same.


Mets Annual 2011 from Maple Street Press sells for 12.99 and can be purchased here.

 

 

Brooklyn Dodgers on HBO

 

HBO’s Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush is a must for anyone who loves baseball and want’s to understand its history. “Dodgers” is a two part two hour documentary produced by HBO Sports. Its focus, on this 50th anniversary year of the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, is on the relationship between the Brooklyn fans and the team. Within that context we learn about Jackie Robinson breaking the color line, the Dodgers being the class of the National League, and how they ended up leaving the borough of Brooklyn.


There is a brief segment on the origins of the team but most of the focus is on the glory years of the 1940s and 1950’s when the Dodgers of Brooklyn won 7 pennants. The Dodgers played the Yankees in every World Series they reached only defeating them once in 1955. Brooklyn played in two World Series previously in 1916 and 1920. Known then as the Brooklyn Robins, they lost both series.

The film’s first main topic is Jackie Robinson and what he meant to black America. Although you may think you have seen everything imaginable about Robinson, the film features footage rarely seen of the fleet footed Jackie wreaking havoc on the base lines. It made me think of what Jose Reyes is doing these days for the Mets. In a style started by Ken Burns, the narration and archival footage are interspersed with comments by players, fans, and celebrities. Comedian Pat Cooper points out the significance of Jackie Robinson crossing the color barrier at Ebbets Field and not Yankee Stadium. The feeling one gets is that the Dodgers and their Brooklyn fans represented the blue collar New Yorkers versus the elite and corporate Yankees. Certainly the modern day Mets and their fans have much in common with their ancestral Dodgers in that regard.


The two other main themes of the film focus on the great Dodger teams of the 50’s and their players and what led to the Dodgers finally leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles. This element is particularly interesting in that Walter O’Malley is not painted as the villain as much as Robert Moses, chief developer of New York City. Moses was responsible for the major highway systems being built in the late 40s and 50s. He had the final say in where a new ballpark for the Dodgers would be built. While O’Malley wanted to build a domed stadium in downtown Brooklyn, Moses insisted it be built in Queens where Shea Stadium eventually rose. Ironically at that same site, the Mets new ballpark which so much pays homage to Ebbets Field is well under construction.


This documentary is a must for Mets fans. The Mets beginnings will always be tied to the departure of the Dodgers and Giants. Had Moses given in to O’Malley and allowed the Dodgers to build a new stadium in Brooklyn, there would never have been a New York Mets team. The special airs on HBO countless times over the next couple of months. If you do not have the premier channel, get a friend to tape it for you. It’s a must see.

 

Miracle In New York: The Story of the ’69 Mets – A Review

The new SNY special about the miracle Mets of 1969 is extremely enjoyable. I have a couple of complaints I’ll get out of the way first. The difference between the “Ghosts of Flatbush” produced by HBO and “Miracle In New York: The Story of the ’69 Mets” is painfully obvious. HBO, a subscription channel, presents their programming without commercial interruption. SNY does not have that luxury. Unfortunately, there were so many commercials during the first fifteen minutes of “Miracle”, I turned on my DVR and waited for the airing to conclude so I could watch it later and zip through the ads. It seemed SNY got most of the long commercial breaks out of the way during the first quarter hour. This and the fact that “Miracle” was not produced in high definition are my only complaints (at least on Cablevision, the format was presented cropped on the bottom and ends with black bars).

The content in the program was terrific however. The show was produced in the Ken Burns style including interviews with many who were involved or who observed the events of that time. Actor and life long Mets fan Tim Robbins recounted his memories and narrated the documentary. Having experienced 1969, “Miracle In New York” did a wonderful job of telling the improbable tale of the National League’s worst team of that decade storming to the championship during a year when we recovered from two assassinations, witnessing the ongoing Vietnam struggle, men walking on the moon, and Woodstock.

One of the highlights of the show are the impressions made of Gil Hodges. Most players interviewed repeated the common theme that the success of the ’69 Mets rested clearly on the shoulders of the former Brooklyn Dodger and New York favorite, Hodges. Players recounted how his leadership made a difference, how Gil changed the philosophy and attitude, that losing would no longer be tolerated. One of the best interviews in the program is that of former Mets coach Joe Pignatano. His New York style interpretation of events painted a great picture of how things changed for the Mets under Hodges.

The program also includes some great archival footage of important moments of ’69, specifically the Tom Seaver near perfect game of July 9th, the Mets taking over first place on September 10th, and of course the post season in October. The video highlights are interspersed with comments from Seaver, Bud Harrelson, Cleon Jones, Al Weis, Jerry Koosman, Jim McAndrew, Pignatano, Jimmy Breslin and a former Shea Stadium usherette. Mets broadcasters Howie Rose and Gary Cohen are interviewed as well. Those two grew up in Shea Stadium’s upper deck. Who better to offer a perspective from the fans point of view than two life long Mets fans, Cohen and Rose?

Some original video tape from that year is shown along with news reel clips. I was a bit disappointed with the use of some world series footage lifted from the MLB highlight reel narrated by Curt Gowdy commercially available but the producers probably did not have much else to draw from. Also the game winning hit by Ed Kranepool from the July 8th win against the Cubs is used at least three times throughout the program. I guess there is not as many clips available from forty years ago as I would have thought.

All in all, ”Miracle In New York” is well done and is very good. I wish they would have made it longer. So much happened during that season, the special could easily be 90 minutes or more. Also, it would have been nice to display the names of the 1969 Mets that are now deceased at the end of the show. However, I am just being picky. If you are a Mets fan and want to remember that first championship season or experience it for the first time, I recommend catching “Miracle In New York: The Story of the ’69 Mets” which will be repeated often this season on SNY.

 

No Minor Accomplishment – a Major Book Worth Reading

For those of you looking for something baseball related in the cold months ahead, I strongly recommend an excellent book titled No Minor Accomplishment, The Revival of New Jersey Professional Baseball.


Bob Golon, the book’s author, has done an outstanding job of telling the story of the rebirth of minor league baseball in the Garden State. The majority of the book focuses on the eight modern professional baseball teams currently making New Jersey their home and how they have come to be. But in doing so, Golon first goes back in time and recounts the storied history of professional baseball in New Jersey. The Newark Peppers, the original Newark Bears, the Jersey City Giants, Jackie Robinson, Alexander Cartwright, and New Jersey negro minor league teams all played significant roles in New Jersey’s incredible and perhaps not very well known contribution to America’s pastime.

No Minor Accomplishment gives the reader a great view into what brought professional baseball back to New Jersey after an absence of almost fifty years. Plus, for those interested in the operations of the minor and independent professional leagues, Bob Golon does a great job of giving the reader the ins and outs of the daily operations of running a team. For example, Golon writes how the general manager of a minor league club does so much more than his major league counterpart. Learn how the GM is responsible for team personnel but also can be found on the field helping the ground crew roll out the tarp when inclement weather interrupts play.


One section of the book, that I thoroughly enjoyed, was Golon’s account of how the independent Atlantic and Can-Am Leagues were created. Both professional leagues have three teams each that call New Jersey home. These leagues are not considered minor leagues because they are not affiliated with any major league teams. However, Golon explains the unique relationship the independent teams have with the majors. Also, you will be surprised when you read how the New York Mets were the unwilling participants in the creation of the Atlantic League.


After Golon recounts the minor league history and what brought professional baseball back to New Jersey, he devotes a chapter to each of the current professional teams. Although many of the franchises experienced similar difficulties in their development, Golon presents the uniqueness of each team and the impact each has had on their respective communities. Each ballclub’s story is loaded with all kinds of great information as to how the team has succeeded, or in a couple of cases, how they have struggled. Plus, Golon provides a detailed history of each location. He explains how cities like Newark, Camden, and Atlantic City have experienced troubled times and how baseball is helping aid in their rebirth by providing affordable family entertainment.

 

No Minor Accomplishment also tells about baseball and the success of each team on the field. As you will read, New Jersey teams have done well. In fact, almost every New Jersey team has won a championship. The Somerset Patriots, the Atlantic League’s biggest success story, has won several.

The book concludes with Golon providing a detailed description of what it was like to be at a Lakewood BlueClaws playoff game. He writes, not only about what was happening on the field, but also how the crowd was much more involved in the action as compared to a regular season game. His description will have you counting the days until the start of the 2009 season.

 

I had the privilege of meeting author Bob Golon at one of his presentations and book signings. His passion for baseball and especially New Jersey baseball was quite apparent. Whether you live in New Jersey or not, No Minor Accomplishment, the Revival of New Jersey Professional Baseball is a must read. If you are a baseball junkie and love all facets of the game, on and off the field, you will not be disappointed.


No Minor Accomplishment, The Revival of New Jersey Professional Baseball is published by Rivergate Books and is available at Amazon.com.