‘Moneyball’ offers good sports story, better life story

Bill Thomas, Staff Writer

Once upon a time, music came in tangible form and “tweets” were something a little kid with bad enunciation asked you for on Halloween. Back then, baseball was the “national pastime.” Now, in the Age of Blogs, statistics may have stolen that title. You can thank “Freakonomics,” math-manipulating partisan pundits and fantasy sports leagues for that.

Enter “Moneyball,” a fictionalized film based on the non-fiction book of the same name. “Moneyball” tells the story of sabermetrics, a field which revolutionized the way professional baseball teams were managed after previously skeptical industry insiders finally began to embrace it in the early 2000’s.

More so, “Moneyball” tells the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), GM for the Oakland A’s, whose budget hampers his ability to compete with the big boys. Beane equates the A’s with a “farm system.” His best players get scooped up by more famous teams, who seduce them with lucrative contracts and the promise of fame, leaving Beane with just the chaff. Money talks, baseball walks.

Hemorrhaging talent and unable to negotiate a decent trade to save his life, Beane starts looking for a new way to go toe-to-toe with the ritzier teams for a third of the price. In comes Yale-graduated economist Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). His philosophy? If you can’t beat ‘em, go around ‘em.

Eschewing the obsolete drafting strategies of yesteryear, Beane and Brand start looking at raw data instead of star power. Together, they put together a team of under-appreciated misfits whose subtle gifts have been overshadowed by age, appearance or personality. Of course, none of that stuff matters next to the simple fact that they consistently get on base.

Alas, it’s no good arguing that to team manager Art Howe (a low-key, but scene-stealing Philip Seymour Hoffman), who actively works against Beane’s efforts to reinvent the wheel. Beane knows if he can just get people to give his strategies a shot, the tide will turn for the ailing A’s. But can he?

One part “Bad News Bears,” two parts “The Social Network,” “Moneyball” may disappoint fans of traditional sports flicks, as little of the film is spent out on the field. However, the movie manages to make seemingly humdrum office politics as exciting as the game itself.

The baseball story is good. The human story is better. Most notably, “Moneyball” brings the sense of disposability with which athletes are treated once they’re supposedly “washed-up” into stark, haunting focus.

This isn’t necessarily a story of trailblazing success. Just trailblazing. History tells us nothing if not that it’s the pioneers who are most likely to get dysentery and die. The ending of “Moneyball” may leave a bittersweet taste in your mouth, but it will also imbue your heart with a renewed sense of love for both the sport and the people who play it.

On the surface, the sabermetrics of “Moneyball” might seem like a cold, clinical approach to the game. But, as Beane himself says in the film, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”

Rating: 4 stars out of 5