The gap between rich and poor teams in Major League Baseball parallels the gulf between the haves and have-nots in society at large. Granted, there's a big difference between having a budget of $120 million versus $40 million on the one hand, and the billions-versus-nothing that is the common lot of most people today. Nonetheless, the disparity between a club like the Yankees and one like the Oakland A's — with a payroll one third of New York's — does represent one of the iniquities of capitalism.
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Ten years ago, though, A's GM Billy Beane spearheaded the kind of revolution in the world of baseball that we're not likely to see in the real world. Discarding the traditional myths of baseball success and replacing them with hardnosed calculations and counter-intuitive strategy, he forever changed the way the game would be managed .
Adapting Michael Lewis's bestseller of the same title, director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian take up Beane's story in 2002, when the A's, fresh from the previous season's playoff loss to the Yankees, try to rebuild after losing three of their superstars — Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen — to richer teams. Desperate, Beane (Brad Pitt) turns to an unlikely savior, Peter Brand, played in dryly hilarious, geeky glory by Jonah Hill. The antithesis of former big leaguer Beane, Brand is a portly, Yale-educated numbers-cruncher who's reduced all the intangibles of the game to arcane calculus and unlikely statistics. Brand's system states that you spend money on wins, not names, and that runs are what get you wins, and so the way you win championships is not with Jason Giambi but . . . Scott Hatteberg?
It's the classic Hollywood underdog tale, with a bit of buddy movie thrown in, plus a father/daughter subplot that feels tacked on. It combines Major League with the revenge-of-the nerds dynamic of The Social Network, which was also co-scripted by Sorkin. Sorkin's dialogue in Moneyball is as brilliantly acerbic as it is in Network. Luckily so, because for a baseball movie, there isn't much baseball. Beane, it seems, hated watching his team play, so the film's on-the-field activity is limited to snippets on TV or play-by-play on the radio, or to flashbacks to Beane's own major league career, a montage of strikeouts and smashed equipment.
That, you see, is his motivation: turning the tables on the old guard of baseball, the ones who relied on their gut instincts in making decisions, like the scouts who misjudged Beane's talent and set him up for failure. Guys like A's manager Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who distressingly looks more like Don Zimmer than Howe. Pot-bellied and glum, Howe can't bring himself to comply with the more heretical Beane/Brand ideas, like playing the inept Hatteberg at first base.
But Howe, too, will be proven wrong when the A's go on to a record-breaking 20-game winning streak, which is as close as the movie gets to the traditional Hollywood big-game finale. And so the little guy wins, almost. But how is it that this triumph of the human spirit against the odds is by means of a system in which the odds are more important than the human spirit?