It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.
— Mickey Mantle
Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, is the movie version of Michael Lewis’ best selling book depicting Beane and the 2002 over-achieving Athletics.
The movie begins with the A’s blowing a 2-0 game lead in the ALDS (not the World Series as Roger Ebert said in his movie review) against the Yankees as the Bronx Bombers come back to win 3 straight to oust Oakland. The 2001 A’s were the best wild card entry in the history of baseball, finishing with 102 wins, but a mere 14 games behind a phenomenal Mariners team. The A’s near win is amazing in that its less than $40 million team salary is 1/3 that of the Yankees’ payroll.
To begin the 2002 season, the A’s have to try to defend its playoff club without the benefit of stars Jason Isringhausen (to Cardinals), caveman Johnny Damon (to Red Sox), and Jason Giambi (to Yankees). While the grizzled, veteran baseball scouts decide on the fate of players based in part on how hot their girlfriends are (One calls a girlfriend “ugly” and a “6″ which shows that the player “doesn’t have any self-confidence.”), Beane has other ideas.
Based on Bill James‘ ground breaking sabermetrics and the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a pudgy and geeky recent Yale grad whom Beane plucked from the offices of the Cleveland Indians, Beane puts forth a new concept in evaluating baseball players. He sets out to pick up Jason Giambi’s cheaper under-achieving brother Jeremy Giambi, because he “gets on base.” (This is a case of Hollywood not quite telling the truth, because Jeremy Giambi was already on the A’s 2001 team, although it wasn’t portrayed this way.) In addition, the A’s seek out Scott Hatteberg, a washed up converted catcher, because he also “gets on base.” They add aging veteran David Justice whom the Yankees no longer wanted, because he “gets on base.” They also add bargain basement reliever Chad Bradford who has good stats, but nobody wants due to his unorthodox under-handed delivery.
When manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) refuses to buy into the sabermetrics program, Beane takes matters into his own hands by trading Giambi to the Phillies and dealing rookie star Carlos Pena to the Tigers. Therefore, Howe is left with no choice but to play Beane’s favorite Hatteberg. (By the way, Art Howe was not happy with the way he was portrayed in the movie and is considering legal action against Beane. No doubt that Howe was not portrayed well and was even played by a fat guy when Howe was listed as 6’2″ and 190 pounds.)
Good things suddenly start to happen for the A’s. Beane and Brand are seen giving advice to the Oakland players, urging them to take more pitches to work walks and encouraging them to resist bunting and stealing bases. Brand watches a ton of film and analyzes the players’ batting averages based on pitch location.
The result is an unprecedented 20 game win streak that Beane himself almost blows when he shows up at a packed Oakland Colosseum and the A’s almost blow an 11-0 lead against the Royals who are led by Raul Ibanez. After Kansas City ties the game at 11-11, Howe suddenly becomes a believer and inserts Hatteberg as a pinch hitter. Hatteberg, in a dramatic Hollywood style, hits a game winning homerun to give the A’s the all-time longest winning streak.
The game scenes are realistic and the actors look like they can really play, unlike what you might have seen in The Natural and the Lou Gehrig Story. The movie does use some ex-Major Leaguers in the cast, including Royce Clayton as Miguel Tejada, Nick Searcy as Matt Keough, and Chad Kreuter as Rick Peterson. Umpire Ed Montague plays himself.
While the baseball play was solid and convincing, Beane’s portrayal of his whirlwind trading style was not believable. Beane’s deal with Ed Wade to send Giambi to the Phillies took about 15 seconds to consummate. Somehow, I can’t believe deals at the Major League level are done with less discussion than Kevin Arnold and Paul Pfeiffer spent making baseball card trades on the Wonder Years.
Also, while Beane continues to extoll the virtues of playing Hatteberg at first base despite his admitted defensive liabilities, the general manager simply continues to talk about Hatteberg’s ability to get on base. Maybe I’m old school too, but Pena had a great rookie season hitting 19 homeruns and has gone on to hit 258 dingers to date. I guess the defensive concerns were unwarranted; Hatteberg made only 5 errors in the 2002 season. Hatteberg finished the season with 68 walks, a .374 on base percentage, .280 average, 15 homeruns, and 61 RBI. Pena’s on base percentage was just .305.
But, the biggest omission of the movie was the real reason for the success of the 2002 Athletics. Barry Zito (23-5; 2.75), Tim Hudson (15-9; 2.98), and Mark Mulder (19-7; 3.47) combined for 57 wins that season. Zito’s unusual jersey number 75 is shown in one scene sitting in the locker room. Hudson has one pitching appearance, although he gets bombed. Mulder is not mentioned or seen at all. It’s hard to understand how these stud pitchers could be overlooked, but the Hollywood story was more “he gets on base” than outstanding pitching.
Beane’s success with the 2002 Athletics did not go unnoticed. In the movie’s final scene Beane visited Fenway Park and is offered a $12,500,000 salary to become general manager of the Red Sox. But after Brand shows him a humorous video of then Visalia catcher Jeremy Brown, a first round pick from Alabama who had 11 MLB plate appearances, falling over first base on a home run, Beane gets the metaphor and stays in small market Oakland.
Without “wininng the last game,” Beane’s work is not done.