Wednesday, January 21, 2015


"Re-Inventing the Game/Enjoying the Show"
"...Like an Island of Misfit Toys"

"It is played parks and playgrounds and prison-yards. In back alleys and farmers fields. By small boys and old men.  Raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game in which the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of Spring-time and ending with the hard facts of Autumn. Americans have played baseball for more than 200 years, while they conquered a continent, warred with one another and with enemies abroad, struggled over labor and civil rights and the meaning of freedom. It is an American Odyssey that links sons and daughters to fathers and grandfathers. And it reflects a host of age-old American tensions: between workers and owners; scandal and reform; the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope and coming home.  At its heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game born in crowded cities;  an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating and has excluded as many as it has included; a profoundly conservative game that often manages to be years ahead of its time. And...the men who fail seven times out of ten are considered the game's greatest heroes."      
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, "Baseball"

Baseball is my favorite sport. I've played that and soccer (never well) but baseball has always seemed to fascinate me as an observer as no other sport can. Yes, it depends on athleticism, but it also has an intricate strategy, a formula that can be tossed out in favor of an improvised gambit—baseball can go for long stretches with nothing happening except anticipation, which will snap into frenetic activity, going from 0 to 60 at speeds that NASCAR fans can only dream about. It can create long-term loyalties but crush your heart in an instant. It is a cruel mistress, inspiring love but at the cost of your spirit.

There's never been a movie about baseball that has satisfied me. Often,  the game is ignored for personality, or uses it has a metaphor, wrapping it in myth (The Natural) or legend (Eight Men Out). But the game is lost in the melodrama, serving only as backstop or stage.
This is why Bennett Miller's film of Moneyball grabbed me so intensely. Written brilliantly by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, it manages to tell the story of the game—as it is now, where budget and salaries have as much to do with a winning season as the efforts on the field, the front office strategy (or lack thereof), team dynamics and its construction, the reliance between old ways of doing things and the boiling down of what it takes to win, its joys and failings in one film, created by filmmakers all playing their A-game.

The Oakland Athletics have just lost another chance to make it to The World Series and their general manager, former washout-as-a-player Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) faces a long winter trying to re-build a winning team after losing his three key players while his budget for salaries is capped. He can't compete with money-pits like the Yankees ("It's like a farm system for the New York Yankees," he gripes to his scouts at one point. "We're organ donors for the rich!"). Convinced that the economics of the game, as it stands, is unfair, he tries unsuccessfully to make headway, until he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill—never better), former Yale student in economics, who is working his first job as an adviser to the Cleveland Indians. The nonathletic portly kid has a unique way of working, matching stats against potential, finding a niche of talent that is undervalued by the old-school way of judging talent ("He's got an ugly girlfriend—means he lacks confidence") Beane's first recruit is Brand as Assistant GM, who can look past the "conventional wisdom" and see the best advantages of the worst paid players. The strategy is to abandon the "home run hitters" and find the guys who can get on base, make plays and score in-field runs. The top-dollar guys can have their home run derbies, Beane wants to win, and find a way to win that doesn't depend on the size of the purse-strings.
But, the conventional wisdom still runs the A's. Beane clashes with the vet scouts and with the coach (
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in Bennett's Capote), whose traditional ways tend to hamper the efforts rather than enhance them. The A's start the season at the bottom of the AL West, and the traditional empty-air of sports opinion turns against Beane.

The story is in the record-books, but that's just a collection of stats. Moneyball, as with "Moneyball," depends on what you do with them. The nicely streamlined script is smart, subtly funny, and performed by all involved, especially by Pitt, who's never seemed so relaxed in front of the camera, can be caught in nary "a pose," and even manages to do some nifty tricks with delivery that seem beyond casual. Hill is a performer I've always seen as comic stunt-casting, but here, playing a character perpetually on the verge of a peptic ulcer, he gives a performance of such restraint, that when he does break out it's a bit of a revelation. And Hoffman, playing the A's "seen-it-all" cynical coach, barely lifts an eyebrow playing smug defiance. There are pieces of this film that I already know will be showing up in my "Best Moments of 2011" at the end of the year.
The film does hedge the timeline a bit. "The system" didn't pay off quite so immediately for Beane, but it did pay off—enough that the "level playing field" he dreamed of, is even leveler while more askew, thanks to other teams adapting his methods. The "mythic contradictions" of baseball never seem to cease.  

Moneyball is one for the record books and (yes) the best film about sports I have ever seen.

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