I watched Moneyball on a flight between Toronto and Vancouver. I’d had no sleep the night before, and I was in the mood for a story about winning against severe odds. Moneyball is actually a story about winning because of extreme odds. It’s about the triumph of science over tradition, and in that respect it is more progressive than most science fiction films of its year.
The film (based on the book of the same title) is about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Beane is a failed ball player, a man in his forties who was scouted out of high school and turned down a full-ride scholarship to Stanford to pursue his dream of playing in the majors. He winds up in Oakland, managing a losing team thanks to a combined lack of confidence in himself, a skinflint budget, and an arcane belief on the part of his scouts that “good bodies” mean good baseball.
(From a feminist perspective, it was interesting to see men dealing with this “good body” nonsense, too. Anybody who’s ever listened to that prattle about models or actresses not having “it” will immediately understand Beane’s frustration with his scouting squad as they drone on about “square jaws” and “the crack of the bat” as indicators of who will win a championship. The idea that a player’s entire career could make or break based on a judgement of attractiveness was chilling.)
After a meeting in Cleveland during which he fails to trade players, Beane focuses on an analyst named Peter Brandt, a Yale graduate with an economics degree who applies math to baseball. Brandt asserts that MLB stumbles when it tries to buy players, when it should really be trying to buy wins, which come from runs. In short, the goal should be to buy skill-sets that put men on base, in a position to earn runs. In retrospect, it make perfect sense. Why invest highly in star players who are always at risk of being traded, when you can make small bets on teammates who are more likely to remain loyal? Why buy players, when you can buy a team?
At this point, you can tell that Moneyball is the kind of film that will be shown every June in undergraduate management and business courses. It’s about a manager, his relationship to his network, and his utilization of human resources. But where most films of this type are about leaders going with their guts, this is about Beane trusting science. The numbers are all right there. And they’re simple batting averages, not mortgage-backed derivatives. The whole premise hinges on the idea that baseball games are experiments that can be replicated again and again.
Never having played baseball in any real capacity, and being more a fan of baseball stadiums than the game itself, I don’t know how accurate that sentiment is. But it was interesting to see a thoroughly un-romantic view of America’s pastime, one that focused on the business of sports without showering sparks of magic all over everything. Professional sports are still professions, with the same ups and downs as any other, and a shorter career span overall. It’s the quantification of those ups and downs over the total span that the film shines. It does a fine job of illustrating the glory of numbers and the meaning they can have to the right people at the time.