Life is more about dealing with failure than success. In spite of popular tropes about winning at all costs and nice guys finishing last, even the most competitive and skilled in any high risk profession fall flat on their face now and again and over again. For every success story we are subjected to there are countless stories of failure that litter the landscape that go unheard and ignored. But really, the toughest to handle is incredible success that is met with ultimate failure when the stakes are, as they are in professional sports, clearly marked in black and white. At the root of Moneyball is that rare expression of frustration and despair we all feel when we get so close to what we want only to have it vanish before our eyes like a mirage in the Sahara.
Whether located in Philadelphia, Kansas City, or Oakland, the Athletics have basically been a farm team for the richer teams in baseball. Except for four three-year stretches sprinkled over a century when the team would go to or win World Series in bunches, the A’s have been a perennial middle-of-the-pack team that has had to sell off its best players to stay in the black. So, in the winter of 2001 after a two-year stretch of division titles that ended in crushing five-game losses to the Yankees, and free agency picking off his best players, A’s general manager Billy Beane decided to roll the dice and try an unorthodox, but mathematically based, way of evaluating talent bornmore out of necessity and desperation than strategy and cold calculation.
We get to see a tension-filled possible reality that played out inside the bowels of the Oakland Coliseum. Nothing in the atmosphere speaks to optimism, only persevering through a constant state of nervous dread mixed with fleeting moments of miniature successes. Remember, baseball is a brutal world where players are one short man-to-man meeting away from selling insurance and the best players still fail seven out of 10 times at the plate.
From the start Beane is resisted by almost his entire cadre of scouts and baseball men, especially his dismissive and traditionalist head scout and his reticent and ultra-orthodox manager. At every turn Beane must face down his own staff because, as he reveals later, it’s more about changing the mindset and overall approach than explaining the why. “Don’t explain yourself,” he says. This thread is constant through the film and acts as its center.
At the heart of Beane’s choice to try something different are flashbacks to Beane’s own failure as a professional baseball player. In 1979 he was considered by many to be a can’t-miss prospect and was drafted by the Mets who envisioned him as a Hall of Fame caliber center fielder. He chose the Mets and a decent signing bonus over a full-ride scholarship to Stanford. Instead of anchoring an outfield that should have included himself, Lenny Dykstra, and Darryl Strawberry, he failed miserably. This colors how he runs his club. His head scout challenges him with this sentiment in a heated exchange where he essentially tells Beane not to blame traditional scouting for his failure as a player. Beane fires him. After he has assembled the team he wants, he forces his manager to play those players by trading away any potential replacements he could put on the field. It’s an exercise in power and will and when the team turns its fortunes around, the people who resisted him the most are given the credit by the press and Beane just doesn’t give a shit. He has more important things to worry about, like finding a left-handed reliever.
Moneyball carries the distinct taste of fear and dread and fighting against failure and this is where Miller really delivers. Beane never watches the games in person. He disappears into the weight room of the stadium and furiously works out or drives to the middle of dirt lot while catching snippets of the games on a television or a hand held radio. He throws chairs through windows in a fit of rage and overturns his desk when Howe doesn’t do as he’s told. He firmly chastises a past-his-prime David Justice and calmly convinces him to be a team leader. He breaks his personal code of not getting too close to the players by personally instructing them and, most importantly, we get to see him deal with his fragile and gifted daughter who seems to be his only outlet from the insular and obsessive world he lives in.
In the end, Beane’s work does not go unrewarded. Yes, the A’s lose another heartbreaking playoff series after they shocked the baseball world with a 20-game winning streak, but he is wooed by the Red Sox in the off-season and offered their GM position and a staggering $12.5 million salary with the promise of unlimited resources at his disposal. Beyond that, in the last 10 years the theories of Bill James have been embraced to a certain degree by the established baseball world because Beane proved it could work. Yet, in the end, he chooses to stay in Oakland, which he lovingly refers to as a “dump” in a way that only someone who can see through the bullshit can.
Being human is a pain in the ass, but to steal a little from Rod Serling, who we are is defined by what we do when we are scraping the bottom of the black pit that houses our greatest fears and are desperate. The rewards, as such, that we receive when we get out of the pit are relative and Moneyball’s study in this element of humanity brilliantly brings that to bear in the final scene. After Beane tells his young protégé Peter Brant, wonderfully played by Jonah Hill, that he has decided to stay in Oakland, Brant shows him a clip of an overweight catcher hitting. The player belts the ball and chugs to first base, but as he rounds the bag he slips and falls and tries to scramble back to the bag before the throw comes in from the outfield. Only then does everyone tell him that he has in fact hit a homerun. The player laughs and the opposing team playfully tease him as he rounds the bases and Beane says, “how can you not love baseball?”
Alex also reviewed Moneyball and you can read his views here