“Moneyball” reinvents the “sports” movie much the way Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) remakes the concept of a major league baseball team. Both are unconventional, yet both are winners.
The film opens in 2001 with the Oakland A’s losing the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees, 5-3. Across the screen flashes a startling statistic: “$114,457,768 vs. $39,722,689.” That’s the Yankee budget compared to that of the A’s.
When his three top players are traded away, Beane realizes that baseball has to be more than which team has the biggest bucks. Hooking up with Yale economist/computer whiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), Beane begins “counting beans.” That is, he searches for specific qualities in undervalued players, whom he buys on the cheap and puts together into a statistically “perfect” team like a puzzle. He even takes on a guy who can’t hit, but is great at getting on base by “walking.”
It may seem bland and boring for a Hollywood baseball movie. However, Pitt’s performance digs deep into Beane’s soul, tormented by his own failure as a once-promising rookie for the Mets. His own hang-up makes him mistrust scouts, who judge players’ potential in absurdly superficial ways. (One says, “If a player’s girlfriend is ugly, it means he lacks confidence.”)
“Moneyball” is a “sports” movie that spends less time on the field and more focusing on the mad manipulations of managers in back of the action. In one riveting sequence, Beane buys and sells players over the phone with rapid speed, shortly before a major game. The athletes have no say. They’re like cattle, commodities, or slaves. Yet, strangely, “Moneyball” is a romantic movie about baseball, because Beane is a magician who makes the magic work, against all odds.