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September 13, 2011 at 9:58 AM

Moneyball movie misses chance to be as important as the story it tells

If you enjoyed the Moneyball book without reservation, you’re really going to like the movie (opening Sept. 23), which revives the tale of the 2002 Oakland Athletics run by general manager Billy Beane.
But if some of the context of the 2003 bestseller by author Michael Lewis left you put off, you’re probably going to leave the theatre entertained, but disappointed by a film that could have been more. The eight years since Moneyball hit bookshelves have shown baseball fans plenty of where Lewis hit and missed in his written pages, which detailed how Beane used statistical analysis to find cheaper players whose skillsets were undervalued by other teams.
Baseball fans don’t really need a refresher course on Moneyball, since its pros and cons have been heatedly debated in real life for years. For non-baseball fans, being introduced to Beane for the first time through actor Brad Pitt, they will be presented the story of a Little Team that Could through the lens in which former Washington State catcher-turned-first-baseman Scott Hatteberg and funky reliever Chad Bradford are the catalysts that vaulted the A’s from misfits into a 103-win juggernaut.
Those same non-ball fans will also be enthralled by the movie’s ending, which runs contrary to the title-winning scenes prevalent in nearly all Hollywood sports flicks. The A’s, as many of you know, never won a championship during their run of five playoff appearances in seven seasons. That fact allowed for screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steve Zaillian to produce the bittersweet type of ending that gets movies hailed as “compelling” when all they really are is a minimal departure from the cinematic assembly line.
And as far as groundbreaking, refreshing takes on a subject go, there isn’t much to be found in this Bennett Miller-directed movie that wasn’t presented in far more detailed and fun fashion by the book. With eight years of hindsight to its benefit, the movie might as well have been made in 2003 for all the effort it makes to put things in proper context.

The harshest critics of the book have long bemoaned that it contains barely a mention of the “Big Three” pitchers Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, whose performances that 2002 season were as responsible as anything else for the A’s winning the AL West. Nor were the achievements that year of the league’s Most Valuable Player, shortstop Miguel Tejada, given much mention by Lewis.
In the movie, the Big Three and Tejada are once again virtually ignored.
And that’s a shame, because the film misses the opportunity to address some of the most valid criticism of Moneyball, while putting the rest of what Beane accomplished into a context that deserves praise. All it would have taken was a 10-second line of dialogue in some opening scenes where the Pitt-played Beane meets at a conference table with his crusty scouts to outline the challenges ahead after the departure of free agent sluggers Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon.
The dialogue could have gone something like: “We have one of the best starting mound trios of the past quarter century, but need to figure out a way to score enough runs to support them.”
Instead, the movie merely echoes the book in describing the story of how Hatteberg and Bradford almost led the A’s to the promised land. Let’s face it: two of the Big Three were “can’t miss” first-round draft picks, the third guy, Hudson, could largely be attributed either to a fluke or great scouting and Tejada was a free-swinger at the plate whose style flew in the face of the patient, walk-taking on-base guys Moneyball liked to champion. Doesn’t quite jive with the storyline of undervalued overachievers being presented.
The film does show at least some hindsight, smoothing over the Lewis tendency to dismiss any GM who wasn’t Beane as a village idiot. Hard not to do that since Kenny Williams – savaged by the book – won a World Series with the White Sox in 2005 through his own brand of unconventional player acquisitions while Beane’s teams haven’t made the playoffs since 2006.
Indians GM Mark Shapiro comes across as somewhat goofy in the film’s opening scenes, but that’s about as harsh as things get. Former A’s manager Art Howe comes out ahead in the film, getting played by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stick-to-his-guns man of principle, rather than the Beane-controlled puppet the book portrayed him as.
There are the obligatory tributes to Nick Swisher and “Greek God of Walks” Kevin Youkilis. But unlike the book, the movie thankfully doesn’t drone on about 2002 draft pick Jeremy Brown, knowing now that his major league career flopped. There is mention of Brown later in the film during one of its more hilarious moments, set in a team video room.
Indeed, the humorous dialogue from Sorkin does keep the film well-paced when it could have been bogged down by statistics. Much of the comedy is delivered through Jonah Hill, playing (for legal reasons) fictional character Peter Brand – the guy who, in real life, was known as A’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta. Some of the humor is so sharp that you can forgive the Hollywood decision to go with a character straight out of Mom’s basement central casting rather than find an actor more like DePodesta, who was actually a college jock before he became known for stats crunching.
After all, wouldn’t want to confuse non-baseball fans as to who the movie’s hero nerds actually are.
Mariners fans might find some unintended humor in the African American extra cast as Raul Ibanez during one of the baseball scenes. There are also appearances by other current and former Mariners in both video and acted sequences.
Other than that, the movie remains true to the book and Lewis did pen a pretty significant and readable tome. The baseball scenes are authentic enough, with some eye-catching footage from inside the Oakland Coliseum. Pitt is the highlight of the movie, convincingly playing a guy who is physically bigger and more powerful than he is while at the same time making Beane seem vulnerable and sensitive.
In the end, Beane deserved this treatment of his work. Though much of baseball was well aware of on-base percentage before Beane came along, his pioneer usage of statistics to the degree he employed it has led to such analysis being incorporated into the scouting and personnel decisions of an increasing number of teams.
In its proper context, Beane’s success was enough to stand on its own.
Lewis faced the daunting task of trying to capture history as it was unfolding and context in such cases is often elusive. The movie had a far easier task, yet chose to go the ultra-safe route in merely parroting the Lewis view.
In the end, it makes for two hours of relatively enjoyable baseball movie watching. But as far as important films go, this one won’t tell people with even cursory knowledge of the Moneyball phenomenon anything they didn’t already know years ago.



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