Commentary

'Moneyball' a solid hit for casual fans

Hard-core fans might balk at factual missteps, but film delivers on book's main premise

Updated: September 23, 2011, 12:43 PM ET
By Matt Meyers | ESPN Insider

Editor's note: ESPN Insider writer/editor Matt Meyers saw an advance screening of "Moneyball," which opens Friday night.

Like many fans of the book "Moneyball," I was skeptical when I heard it was being made into a film. Pretty much every successful sports movie ends with some sort of dramatic win (or at least a dramatic loss), and as anti-stat types are happy to point out, "the Oakland Athletics have never won the World Series under GM Billy Beane." My skepticism only increased when I got word about the first iteration of the film, which involved interviews with actual players in some sort of docu-drama format.

But now, after many re-writes and much fanfare, the movie version of "Moneyball" will be released Friday. And if you approach the film with an open mind, you'll probably enjoy it.

Why do I say "open mind"? Because if you're expecting a straightforward adaptation of the book, you will be disappointed. The film certainly hits on the book's basic premise: Team with small payroll uses creative thinking to compete with baseball's Goliaths. However, the film takes a different route.

[+] EnlargeBrad Pitt
Columbia PicturesBrad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill star in "Moneyball."

Much of the book focuses on the 2002 amateur draft, when the A's had seven of the first 39 picks as a result of the compensation picks they received after Johnny Damon, Jason Isringhausen and Jason Giambi left as free agents the previous winter. Director Bennett Miller and writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin correctly realized that the ins and outs of the June draft would alienate most of the movie-going public, and instead chose to focus on the 2002 A's, a team that managed to win 103 games after a slow start and set a major league record with a 20-game winning streak in August. That streak, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it, ends up being a focal point of the film.

Brad Pitt is fantastic in the role of Billy Beane. He has the charisma and good humor that makes you want to root for him and the A's. It's a good thing, too, because he's the only character with any depth in a film that is as much about him as it is about the A's. Ken Medlock, who has been cast as a baseball umpire six times in his career, according to IMDB, does a fine job as Beane's foil in the role of former A's scouting director Grady Fuson, but his role is limited. Like the book, the movie is a little too heavy-handed in its "stats trump scouts" stance. And since it's been eight years since the book was published, some nuance on the subject would have been appreciated.

Most of the other characters are rather underdeveloped. Jonah Hill, in the role of Beane assistant Peter Brand (based on Paul DePodesta), is cast as the basement-dwelling baseball nerd who's obsessed with spreadsheets. On the flip side, the A's scouts are all clueless geriatrics much like they were described in Michael Lewis' book. Neither the portrayal of DePodesta nor the scouts does anything to dispel stereotypes, and this would have been a good place for the filmmakers to add the aforementioned nuance to the stats versus scouts debate. Art Howe, who is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, comes off even worse than Brand or the scouts. I'd wager that even Mets fans have a higher opinion of Howe than the filmmakers do.

The movie has flaws that will annoy the hard-core baseball fan. Most notably, it makes the A's appear as if they were naive about sabermetrics until 2002. However, it is well known that the A's statistical bent goes back to the Sandy Alderson regime in 1980s, when he hired Eric Walker as a statistical consultant.

Additionally, no mention is made of the 2002 A's featuring Barry Zito and Miguel Tejada, the AL Cy Young and MVP that season. While it's understandable that Sorkin et al would want to create a "Bad News Bears" narrative in which a group of scrappy upstarts overcomes all, it's misleading to suggest that Chad Bradford, Scott Hatteberg and David Justice are the reason the A's won 103 games. They were contributors, to be sure, but ignoring the A's primary stars is disingenuous.

That said, this is what happens when a film is "based on a true story." Look at "Hoosiers," widely considered one of the best sports films ever made. The real-life school had been a basketball powerhouse for a couple of years before winning the Indiana state title, even reaching the state semifinals the year before. In other words, the team did not come out of nowhere and was by no means an underdog. Storytelling is different than reporting, and the filmmakers' No. 1 goal is to tell a compelling tale. In doing so, "Moneyball" is overstated in its praise of Beane and his love of OBP. But then again, so was the book, which is why it was so divisive and compelling.

This movie wasn't made for hard-core fans. The filmmakers were guessing that serious baseball fans would see it no matter what, so they made a movie that would attract casual fans. That meant taking some liberties to create a more dramatic story arc, and bringing Beane's relationship with his daughter into play. That plot line seems unfocused for much of the film, but there is some payoff at the end.

The film is far from perfect, but it does a good job of drawing you into the "us-against-the-world" mentality that drives many good sports movies. Plus, Sorkin's trademark punchy dialogue is worth a few laughs, and Pitt is hard not to like as Beane. (If this film garners any Academy Award nominations, my guess is it will be for his performance.)

While the film will surely result in another chorus of "Beane never won a World Series," that is missing the point. The A's run of success at the turn of the century was remarkable considering their payroll, and it changed the way much of the world views baseball. Beane was not always right, and his club has struggled recently, but his methods forced people to think critically about baseball in a way they hadn't done before, which is a theme the film drives home fairly well.

As long as you can get over how the story veers sharply from the book and plays fast and loose with some facts, it's a solid film that, much like the book, should generate some healthy debate about baseball player evaluation and Beane's legacy as a GM.

Matt Meyers is a general editor for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider, where he has helped coordinate baseball coverage since 2008. He also writes about baseball and college hoops for Insider. Previously, he worked at Baseball America magazine and CBS College Sports. You can find his ESPN archives here and follow him on Twitter here.