Tonight's TGIF victory dance was a movie, which I chose for the simple reason that it was the earliest available showtime: Moneyball, the story of the 2002 Oakland A's starring Brad Pitt as general manager Billy Beane and, you know, a sport. Sports movies choke me up. This one tried not to but still did.
Beane's 2002 season is historically significant because, on a paltry budget of $38 million (a tiny fraction of what the New York Yankees had), and in spite of an embarrassing losing streak at the beginning of the season, the A's broke the all-time American League record for consecutive wins (20 games) and ignited a revolution in major-league baseball that, the following season, helped the Boston Red Sox win the World Series.
What was Beane's secret weapon? It was a front-office staff of chubby eggheads who crunched player statistics based on a branch of mathematics called sabermetrics, pioneered by Bill James. The idea of sabermetrics is to use statistics to recruit players who are undervalued by the collective wisdom of baseball, so as to put together the winningest team possible on the titchiest payroll in the league. In actual history, Beane wasn't the first GM of the A's who used sabermetrics, but he followed through on it with dogged persistence in spite of being vilified as a heretic, blamed every time his team stumbled, and threatened by dire predictions of organizational doom.
Even the record winning streak only briefly silenced the naysayers, who gave all the credit to team manager Art Howe (played in the film by Philip Seymour Hoffmann), though the film depicts Howe as doing little except interfering with Beane's winning strategy. And when the team failed to make the league playoffs, Baseball (i.e., the collective consciousness of the game) forgot, for the most part, what Beane had accomplished. Except for the Red Sox, which used his strategies even more successfully the following season.
All this the film portrays in an alternation between documentary style and an intimate drama that focuses closely on Brad Pitt. And now that his face is no longer spectacularly pretty, it's interesting to discover that he is more than a pretty face. He may do better than Paul Newman and Robert Redford, previous holders of the title of "proverbial for good-looking leading man," and keep his leading-man chops even after the good looks fade. There are worse fates than becoming an elder statesman of the film industry, but if the acting in this movie is any indication, Pitt may be headed for a better one: continuing to be a box office draw into his fifties (which are coming soon).
The movie also features Jonah Hill of Superbad as a fictional character representing a whole range of people on Beane's staff, Robin Wright as his receptionist, Kathryn Morris of TV's Cold Case as his ex-wife, and a bunch of actors in the same talent bracket as the athletes they play—many of them with professional baseball experience of their own. Where I watched it, it had a surprisingly small audience for such a hyped movie, and such a good one at that. My laughter & snifter (I did get a bit choked up, as I always do at sport movies) echoed disturbingly in the empty hall, out of step with my unenthusiastic neighbors. As a fictionalized version of true events, I am sure it is no more historically accurate than it absolutely has to be. But as a look inside the business of running the front office of a team that is expected to win with a losing payroll, I thought it captured the desperation and drama pretty well. At any rate, it made for good viewing.