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Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011 10:33 pm

Moneyball, a fascinating look at baseball economics

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Brad Pitt as Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as Peter Brand in Moneyball.

Coming off a successful season in 2001, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane was faced with a daunting task. Having made it to the playoffs but losing his best players to free agency soon after, he was charged with replacing their production with far less cash than his competitors. The New York Yankees had a payroll of $114 million at the time while the A’s had only $39 million to play with. Necessity being the mother of invention, Beane put together a team in an entirely new way, discounting traditional scouting approaches and basing many of his decisions on a new approach towards players’ statistics. This was a method that proved divisive, alienating many baseball traditionalists and shocking still more as this approach proved far more successful than anyone anticipated.

Bennett Miller’s Moneyball looks at the A’s’ 2002 season and the effects this new system had on Beane and baseball itself. Though you might not be an aficionado of the game or a sports fan in general, the director has fashioned a film with a distinctive human element, as we see the effect this process takes on those caught in its net. Just as The Social Network – a film that has more than a passing resemblance to this one – was not solely about Facebook, this examines how a revolutionary new approach can shake the foundations of an established institution and the ripple effects it creates.

While this description may make the film sound like a dry exercise in modern economics, nothing could be further from the truth. Miller and writers Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin inject moments of wry humor that come out of nowhere as we see the incredulous reaction of baseball veterans to Beane’s approach. As the desperate GM, Brad Pitt is at his most likable, projecting a sense of ease that hides his character’s competitive edge, which reveals itself when the A’s’ fortunes are at their worst. The actor has gained a degree of confidence over the years that holds him in good stead. This is one of his most assured and subtle performances.

As good as Pitt is, the biggest surprise is the emergence of his co-star Jonah Hill as more than a one-note actor. As Peter Brand, the Yale graduate who came up with the system in which he “finds value in players no one else can see,” the performer shines in the first fully realized character he’s been given. A brainy fish out of water initially adrift in this world of jocks, the actor does a wonderful job building the character, showing us a man who remains committed to his method while others discount it. Hill’s contribution can’t be discounted; he ends up stealing more than his share of scenes with his new less-is-more approach.

The film does lose a bit of momentum at times when Miller utilizes flashbacks to show us Beane during his playing days. Though the scenes are well done and shed a bit of light on why he’s so committed to Brand’s approach, they’re simply not as fascinating as the day-to-day operation of the A’s. Baseball fans will love this film, especially during one of its best scenes in which we see Beane quickly wheel and deal players, changing their fortunes on a whim. It’s irresistible stuff, especially when we see Brand drop his calm demeanor and get swept away by something far more tangible than the cold numbers he employs.

Moneyball is a gentle and somewhat reassuring reminder that the world around us is changing far faster than any of us can anticipate. We can survive in it, as long as we’re willing to change with it. It doesn’t take a genius to see this, but it does require Beane’s brand of fortitude to tilt against the windmills of accepted wisdom to see what lies in the realm of the possible.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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