New ball game

Root, root, root for the statistical formulae that changed professional baseball

Who knew baseball could be so fun and sexy?

Who knew baseball could be so fun and sexy?

Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Directed by Bennett Miller. Cinemark 14. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

Based on Michael Lewis’ best-selling book about the Oakland Athletics’ unorthodox general manager, Billy Beane, Moneyball is more than a simple baseball movie. I must confess that I’m not a baseball guru (and when I do root for the sport, it’s in favor of that other Bay Area team). Luckily, the film version of the story by director Bennett Miller (Capote) doesn’t require one to be an aficionado of the game or a fan of the A’s—you just have to be willing to root for the underdog.

The film opens during Major League Baseball’s 2001 post-season. The A’s have not only just lost in the opening round of the playoffs to the New York Yankees, but shortly thereafter they will also lose their three superstar players to other teams (one to the same Yankees). With only a fraction of the payroll that the richest teams (ahem, Yankees) have, the A’s can’t afford the salaries commanded by top-tier players.

Burned out from always losing their most talented players to the richer teams, a desperate Beane (Brad Pitt) has an a-ha moment during the off-season. With the help of Yale econ grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), and drawing from the theories of oft-maligned baseball statistician Bill James, Beane starts relying on detailed mathematical performance analyses to evaluate the potential of new players. The goal is to spend the limited funds on a lot of inexpensive and mostly overlooked specialists instead of just a superstar or two. Naturally, the nontraditional management approach creates heavy tension between Beane, his crusty scouts, and A’s head coach Arte Howe (the always great Philip Seymour Hoffman), who prefer to stick with the old, mostly instinctual scouting approach.

So, how does a movie about number-crunching have any heart? First, the players Beane picks are characters in desperate need of some faith. They’re a bunch of unknowns and has-beens, and Beane and Brand are the only ones who have faith in their potential. He’s picked them not because they swing big, but because they know how to get on base often (thus in scoring position)—whether through walks or smaller hits. And we root for their blue-collar approach.

Second, there are Beane’s personal demons. The constant stress and doubts about his managerial style are juxtaposed against flashbacks of his tumultuous career as a young ball player who never did measure up on the field despite a lot of hype. The whole haunted-by-his-past subplot, while occasionally cheesy, provides a real depth to Beane’s story.

With Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) adapting the script, it’s no wonder that the narrative stays especially sharp for a sports movie, and Pitt elevates things further with his charismatic portrayal of Beane.

Unlike other sports movies, Moneyball doesn’t fall back on sensationalizing some big miracle, reveling instead in small, refreshingly unexpected victories as much as the big-game moments.