Every Wednesday between now and the end of baseball season (of 2009) the Cru Jones Society brings you a new baseball movie examined for both overall entertainment value and treatment of our favorite game. This is a special edition of that series. To suggest a film, email us at staff [at] crujonessociety.com. Otherwise, pour yourself an $8 beer, crack some shells, and let’s play ball.

 Date Released: September 23, 2011
Box Office Total (as of 10/2/2011): $38,469,000
Team Featured: Oakland Athletics

“It’s unbelievable what you don’t know about a game you play every day.”– Mickey Mantle, the opening quote in Moneyball.

It’s said that being creative is seeing the same thing as everybody else but thinking of something different. Inventors do this, business leaders do this, comedians do this, and in 2002, Billy Beane did this with baseball player evaluation. Moneyball tells the story of creativity in a classically stubborn and traditionalist sport. It’s less a story about baseball, and more a story of the challenge of innovation and reward of determination.

Plot Synopsis

After losing in the 2001 playoffs, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is faced with losing Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen, three large cogs in the Oakland A’s wheel, to free agency. As a small market team, Beane knows he cannot compete with the payrolls of Boston, New York and others.

After learning from his owner that his payroll will not be increased, Beane heads to an exploratory meeting with the Cleveland Indians and GM Mark Shapiro where a dumpy, young, accountant-looking guy named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, playing a composite character largely based on Paul DePodesta) gives secret advice that Shapiro seems to listen to. Brand, an economics degree holder from Yale, has a new way of looking at the game and argues that traditional player evaluation methods do a disservice to teams trying to win. Knowing his team cannot compete against the mammoth payrolls of his opponents, Beane hires Brand.

As the season approaches, Beane and Brand clash with his scouting staff over the players they hope to pursue (washed-up David Justice, Scott Hatteberg with nerve damage in his throwing arm, Chad Bradford with the funky delivery), and his old school manager Art Howe. Howe fails to back the moves Beane makes because he’s “managing in a way that he can defend himself in job interviews during the off-season.”

As a result, Beane fires his head scout, trades away the likely rookie of the year who plays instead of Hatteberg, forcing Howe’s hand, and the team proceeds to rip off 20 straight victories en route to tying the well-heeled Yankees for the best record in baseball that season. Despite falling short in the playoffs yet again, Moneyball’s impact was felt for years after and continues with the proliferation of advanced metrics and marginalization of old evaluation tools.

Treatment of Baseball/Quality of Baseball Scenes

Moneyball’s on-field action is fairly light, yet the feel of a baseball game permeates the entire viewing experience. Watching Moneyball feels remarkably similar to watching a Major League Baseball game. Moments of excitement and exhilaration punctuate long stretches of contemplative, quiet reflection and formulation of strategy. There are several shots of Beane solemnly pondering over a beer in his kitchen or working out during a game between the most thrilling sections of the movie.

Much like how the act of writing computer code in The Social Network shouldn’t be a thrilling endeavor, neither should a discussion about Jeremy Giambi and over-the-hill David Justice between Billy Beane and his scouts in Moneyball. Yet, that scene is invigorating and surprisingly suspenseful.

My favorite scene in the movie is when Beane wheels and deals at the trading deadline to land relief pitcher Ricardo Rincon. I love – love, love, love, love – the Hot Stove League during the off-season, so hearing Beane bark out to his secretary “Get Ed Wade on the phone,” “Call Brian Sabean,” “Get me Dave Dombrowski,” was like catnip for E Dagger. The Rockies fan in me was just sad he didn’t have a reason to call Dan O’Dowd.

Why do scenes like this work, even for non-hardcore baseball fans? Because we care about Billy Beane and respect the risk of trying a new way of doing something. We want him to succeed because, dammit, he’s spitting in the eye of convention and putting himself on the line. It’s as American a story as there is. Top notch performances by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill certainly help our experience.

Annoying Romantic B-Story/Stifling Spouse?

None. How glorious is that?! Beane’s relationship with his daughter is developed with some detail, but amazingly neither the usual saccharine sweetness of a child actor performance, nor what appears to be superfluous addition of unnecessary character padding detract from this. On the contrary, Kerris Dorsey almost underplays Casey Beane, and seeing Beane with his daughter helps us better understand him as a businessman. I have no complaints about the scenes between Billy Beane and his daughter. That sentence alone might put this movie in consideration for best baseball movie ever.

Final Thoughts

A small but vocal subset of the hardest core of the hardcore baseball nerds piss and moan about this movie because it ignores the 2002 A’s contributions of that year’s MVP Miguel Tejada, and the three-headed pitching monster of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. This criticism is misplaced because this is a movie, not a criminal trial. This is less a movie about the 2002 Oakland Athletics than it is a story about the catalyst for changing the perceptions of an entire sport.

And when judged that way, Moneyball is outstanding. It’s a movie that manages the difficult trick of appealing to everyone while satisfying hardcore baseball geeks like myself. The archetypes are broad enough that everyone can identify with either Beane or Brand or Hatteberg while hissing at the media or Art Howe or whoever. Yet, there’s enough cool baseball detail like Beane arguing against sacrifice bunts and his “come to Jesus” pep talk to David Justice that it satiates baseball fans’ desire for nerdist minutiae.

Moneyball is for you. And if you happen to love baseball already, then that goes double for you. Take a walk to the theater, and sacrifice nothing to get there.

Ruling from the Scorer: Like Scott Hatteberg trying to win Oakland its 20th straight game, Moneyball crushes it over the right field fence.

edagger@crujonessociety.com