Friday, September 26, 2014

Film Friday: Moneyball

This weekend marks the final games of baseball's regular season, meaning the real season, the playoffs, will begin next week. Powerhouse teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will be watching at home with the rest of us while teams that have languished for years without seeing a drop of championship glory are about to end their drought.

Sports teams have searched for years for some formula to repeated success. Some sports like football and hockey have a blueprint while others like baseball do not have any real formula outside of the cliched pitching and defense. Baseball is a sport that has so many arbitrary effects, it's nearly impossible to calculate. Pitchers can have a stellar season then return the next season and not have as good of command or miss the strike zone so much, their earned run average rockets upward (typically, the lower the average, the better the pitcher). Statistics like ERA and the search for a success formula in baseball is the basis for Michael Lewis' Moneyball (W.W. Norton), considered by many to be one of the best sports books ever written.

The book centers on Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who is consistently saddled with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, yet manages to field competitive teams in most years. After losing slugger Jason Giambi to the Yankees during the 2001 offseason, Beane resorted to using sabermetric statistics and acquired players that had high on base percentages as opposed to the traditional home runs and runs batted in. As a result, the 2002 A's went on an unlikely run before losing in the playoffs that year.

In 2011, a film version of the book directed by Bennett Miller and starring Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jonah Hill made it to the big screen. Like the book, the movie was challenged in making a sports drama without much action and making statistics digestable. Frankly, the movie managed to do it better than the book. When reading the book, I felt it was mechanical at times, and I got lost in the statistics. There were memorable moments like when Billy addresses the scouting department that translated well to the film...

The screenplay, adapted by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, a favorite script writer of mine, was very good in terms of getting the key points without being bogged down in the statistics. Pitt, as Beane, and Hoffman, as manager Art Howe, square off like their counterparts did in real life and make for some of the better scenes in the film. Many of the players were profiled in the book, but the only one that really stuck out to me was first baseman Scott Hatteberg, played in the film by Chris Pratt. The book doesn't talk as much about Beane's present personal life, while the film has a whole subplot involving his daughter (mentioned briefly in the book) that was a highlight of the movie. Both the book and film delve into his past as a failed major league prospect.

My favorite scene in both the book and the film was showing how trades in baseball can be made. Sports fans salivate over trade rumors and it was cool to read and see how one goes down. Here's a clip where Beane and Peter Brand, played by Hill, try to get the team's owner to add to the payroll to acquire Ricardo Rincon, a pitcher for the bullpen...

Overall, I'd rate the book a 3/5 stars while the film I rated 5/5 stars and was my pick for Best Picture during the 2011 Oscars. It was nominated for six Academy Awards including the aforementioned Best Picture, Best Actor (Pitt) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Unfortunately, it struck out and went 0/6 in wins. It isn't my favorite baseball movie, but it is certainly in the top 5.

Do you have a favorite baseball or sports movie that was adapted from a book?

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