By Skip Sheffield
The premise doesn’t sound all that exciting. Manager of a cash-strapped baseball team hires a statistics whiz to help him scientifically predict the likelihood of success for any given player.
The good news is “Moneyball” is a rousing success, and you don’t even have to like baseball.
Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is played by one Brad Pitt. Pitt had so much faith in the project he signed on as co-producer.
The Yale University statistics wizard, Peter Brand, is played by Jonah Hill.
Pitt and Hill are a Mutt ‘n Jeff duo. Pitt as a former player is ramrod straight, chiseled, and good-looking just this side of beautiful.
Hill is short, dumpy and pudgy, but behind his wire-rimmed glasses he radiates fierce intelligence.
“Moneyball’ is based on a true story, chronicled by Michael Lewis in his 2003 book: “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”
The unfair part of all professional sports is twofold: the very best command the best salaries and the teams with the largest budgets can afford the best players.
As the 2001 season ended for the Oakland Athletics, they were reeling from the loss of their three star players to richer teams. Oakland was operating on a budget of $39 million. The New York Yankees had $141 million to play with.
Realizing he couldn’t compete in the money game, Billy Beane felt it was time to think outside the box. On his own initiative Beane went to the East Coast and hired recent Yale graduate Peter Brand on the spot as his assistant manager. Brand had no experience with baseball, but he did know his statistics. Using computer models, he could gauge the likelihood of any given player to hit or get on base. This cold logic ignores a player’s age, experience, attitude, physical appearance or injuries.
The conventional wisdom of baseball veterans making the decisions is subjective and therefore flawed. We meet the old pros who guide the Athletics, and watch them bicker, disagree and backstab. Nobody likes change. Billy Beane received formidable opposition for his revolutionary scheme to recruit undervalued players who given the chance, may play as well or better than the multi-million-dollar stars.
The screenplay by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (Social Network”) is a classic underdog story, but it is also a story of courage, ingenuity, heroism and true team spirit. Those who know baseball already know the outcome. I didn’t, so I got caught up in the Athletics’ uphill, against-all-odds battle.
Director Bennett Miller, who amazed Hollywood by winning an Oscar nomination for his debut film, “Capote,” understands a David vs. Goliath story, and unfolds the dramatic action accordingly.
Pitt the actor has never been better than in this immersion into the role of Billy Beane. Beane is far from perfect, and Pitt makes his flaws increase his appeal.
Like a veteran vaudeville team, Pitt and Hill have perfect comic timing, with knowing glances, pregnant pauses, and surprise quick decisions.
“Moneyball” is no simple “Rocky” story. It is about the harsher reality of 21st century life; the ruthlessness of business; the inevitability of change, and the crippling that comes with inability to adapt. Oh, but it still makes you feel good. Now that is an amazing accomplishment.