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'Moneyball' watchable even for non-fanatics

Posted: September 28, 2011 - 11:01pm  |  Updated: September 28, 2011 - 11:03pm

O n the list of sports I care about as a fan, baseball is well behind both football and basketball. I reserve the right to move America’s pastime past hoops if the National Basketball Association’s labor dispute actually results in a cancelled season – which I believe is a real possibility. Nothing like the reality-check-gut-punch for a fan to watch as greedy group A (overpaid millionaire players) plays chicken with greedy group B (stupid owners who offer overly bloated contracts to said overpaid millionaires and then complain about it) to the point of maybe missing a season and in the end only hurting pathetic group C (us fans).

For now, baseball is third at best for me. I am, though, a fan. My wife would probably argue “fanatic” is the more appropriate word; I wouldn’t argue too passionately against her. When the Miami Dolphins lose, it actually affects my life. Ask my wife. I know that isn’t rational, but that’s kind of my point: I’m a sports fan. I read Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”.

Fantastic read. If you’re a fan.

For normal people, it would be a struggle to finish. That is why I was dubious from the start when I read that Brad Pitt was going to play Billy Beane (the real life main character of “Moneyball”) in the movie version of the book.

Sure, it appeals to me and the guys in my long-running fantasy football league (we’re in various fantasy baseball leagues, too). But does it make sense to make a Hollywood movie based on a book that only piques the interest of people that nod knowingly at the phrase, “on base percentage”?

Then I saw the name attached as screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin. Okay, maybe. He made a movie about Facebook (“The Social Network”) into an Oscar winning, box office smash. Maybe he can do the same for a movie about baseball statistics.

Maybe.

“Moneyball” actually is an interesting story. Beane is a former, failed major league baseball player. He washed out and quit to become a scout and eventually winds up with the gig as general manager of the Oakland A’s. The A’s make the playoffs and are competitive, but Beane is faced with the reality of a $40 million payroll. That sounds alright until you realize teams like the New York Yankees pay their guys about three times that.

The result of that reality is this: Beane finds young talent and competes with it. That young talent plays out initial contracts and then hits the open market just as the talent is becoming marquee. On the open market, the A’s have exactly zero chance to compete. Beane starts from scratch.

Rinse and repeat.

It’s unfair, truly. Hence the title of Lewis’ book. What did Beane do about it? He hired a Yale grad with an economics degree (Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill) and flipped the way the franchise evaluated players on its head. Instead of listening to the various, aging scouts with decades of “baseball experience” and their gut feelings on players (“He’s got an ugly girlfriend. Ugly girlfriend means no confidence.”), Beane and Brand used a computer. They went after players most other teams didn’t even want.

It was gutsy. It was groundbreaking. It was risky as hell. It [filtered word] people off.

And it worked.

Great story, right? Beane changed the game, literally. The only problem is that the A’s (and it doesn’t count as a spoiler because real life already spoiled it) don’t win a championship. They succeed in competing with a team payroll that some of baseball’s bigger stars almost equal on their own. But that’s it. No Hollywood ending, sorry.

Sorkin and co-screenwriter Steven Zaillian do what they can. The dialogue is often funny, and it’s delivered with comedic skill by Pitt and Hill especially. There’s some decent tension for stretches of the film, namely when Beane’s bold roll of the dice appears to be falling flat on its face. The actual baseball isn’t overdone, so the movie is mostly watchable for even non-fanatics.

Still, there’s no happily ever after. For Lewis’ book, that doesn’t matter because the folks reading it dig the entire thing. For the movie, watching Beane choose between joining the Boston Red Sox and enjoying a huge salary and an even huger payroll or staying loyal to the small-market A’s falls a bit short as a climactic finale.

My wife’s reaction when the movie ended seemed to be a mixture of relief (it does get a little bit slow) and confusion (“If you ever turn down $12.5 million, you’re in big trouble!”). Me, the fanatic? Hey, my wife just watched a movie about baseball with me and she didn’t fall asleep!

Perhaps that is the “Moneyball” version of a Hollywood ending.

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