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3 December 2011

A New Ball Game

I have seen two or maybe three baseball games in my life and still haven't come close to working out exactly what is going on. One of those games may well have been an Oakland As game when I was in California with my family in 2002, this being the season that is the subject of Bennett Miller's new film Moneyball, which is based on Michael Lewis's book of the same name.

Fortunately, perhaps, there isn't very much baseball in the movie, which focuses on the attempts of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the As, and his attempts to use hard-core stats to put together a winning baseball team and finally win the American League. At the start of the movie, we see the As having a good season and reaching the playoffs, before losing to the New York Yankees. Three of their best players are poached and with a tiny budget compared to most of the other teams, Beane doesn't know what to do--it doesn't matter how well you do all season because if you lose the last game, that's all anyone remembers, he says.

He can't afford to buy any of the players he wants but he can afford Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a gawky, 25-year-old Yale economics grad and number cruncher whom he poaches from the Cleveland Indians. Brand subscribes to the theories of Bill James, who first suggested that by doing some complex number-crunching on player data, you could find the most under-valued players and buy them cheaply. Beane starts buying new players, based on Brand's recommendations, and they think they're on to a winner. But manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who doesn't get to do much other than look sad, old and curmudgeonly) and many others, including the As' talent scouts, aren't convinced and Howe, in particular, refuses to go along with Beane and Brand's plans, playing his more expensive players instead of the new recruits. With the players not being played correctly, the team keeps losing so Beane takes the step of transferring some of his best players so that Howe has no choice but to play the new guys. Sure enough, the As hit onto a record-breaking winning streak, but of course, it's the final game of the season that counts...

The stat-crunching and rapid-fire player-trading is interspersed with elements of Beane's past and home life. At the age of 18, he had the choice between a full scholarship to Princeton or a place on the New York Mets. Most of the guys the scout recruits are good in only one or two areas, the scout says, but Beane excelled in five. Beane decides to play baseball but it doesn't work out and he never lives up to his potential as a great player. He is still on relatively good terms with his wife (Robin Wright) and her new husband and dotes on his 12-year-old, guitar-playing daughter. Pitt's portrayal of Beane is very sympathetic. We want his strategy to work and we want him to win.

And I liked Moneyball a lot: in some ways, it reminds me of a cross between The Damned United and The Blind Side (also based on a Michael Lewis book), with a twist of The Social Network thanks to co-writer Aaron Sorkin (the score reminded me of The Social Network too, although it is by a different composer). Sorkin's screenplay (co-written by Steven Zaillian) is compelling and with just the right amount of wit and humour. In fact, I enjoyed the movie so much that I'm now going to go and rewatch The Social Network.

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