“How can you not be romantic about baseball?” muses Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane.
Except that Billy isn’t. Instead, he’s a trailblazing iconoclast who takes 150 years of collective baseball wisdom and chucks it right out the window, replacing it with … spreadsheets.
But Billy didn’t start out as a hardheaded maverick.
Once upon a time, many years before, he was a romantic. A true believer. A scout from the New York Mets convinced Billy (then a high school senior) and his parents that he was one of those rare talents who excelled in every aspect of the game. But when Billy stepped up to bat in the bigs, he couldn’t make good on that promise. Confidence flagged. Trades ensued. Disillusionment set in.
Fast-forward two decades, and Billy’s landed in the front office of a team almost on the verge of going all the way: the 2001 Oakland A’s. Ultimately, though, the A’s just can’t compete with the powerhouse bats of the New York Yankees, a team with a budget nearly three times that of lowly Oakland’s.
Almost as soon as they’ve yanked their cleats off at season’s end, Oakland’s three marquee players defect to clubs with deeper pockets. And Billy is forced into rebuilding mode without the luxury of the one thing he needs to lure talent: money. “We’re a small-market team,” the owner tells Billy when he asks for a slightly bigger budget. “You’re a small-market GM.”
But Billy refuses to accept that prescription for mediocrity.
Desperately trying to work a deal with the Cleveland Indians, he meets a young man in that organization who’s got an altogether different idea about how to build a team. Peter Brand, a twentysomething Yale graduate with a degree in economics, believes baseball isn’t about instinct and intuition and hunches. Instead, he convinces Billy, it’s all about the numbers.
“Baseball has an epidemic failure to understand what’s really happening,” Peter tells him. In his estimation, you don’t need sluggers who command multimillion-dollar contracts. Instead, you need guys who can consistently eke out hits. Any sort of hit. Get hits, get on base. Get on base, get runs. Get runs, win games.
You’re hired, Billy tells him.
With actuarial acumen, Peter’s exacting statistical analysis enables the A’s to assemble a team of mostly no-name players that the “system” says can hit but who are nevertheless undervalued. The scouts hate this new idea. Talk radio hates it. Team manager Art Howe hates it. And when the new team takes to the field, it initially looks like the scoreboard hates it too, with loss piling upon loss. And that means the fans hate Billy.
Until, that is, something magical (I mean statistical) happens: The A’s begin to win.
Perhaps more than anything else, Moneyball is a story about perseverance. Virtually everyone in the A’s organization thinks Billy has lost his mind—including Billy, who at one point asks himself, “What the h‑‑‑ am I doing?” But he sticks with Peter’s system, even when it requires trading two rising stars to make it work. Eventually, that doggedness pays huge dividends for a team that finishes the season with a record-setting 20-game winning streak (even if the league pennant still eludes them).
Along the way, Billy becomes increasingly engaged with his team and the players. At first, he wants little to do with them personally, charging Peter with the grim business of letting guys know when they’ve been traded. As his passion for the team grows, though, Billy begins to engage more and more, coaching individual players and the team as a whole.
In a rousing speech in the midst of a deep mid-season slump, he tells his motley crew, “You may not look like a winning team, but you are one. So play like it tonight.” And so, in typical Hollywood sports-movie fashion, they do. He tells one aging former All Star to stop acting like he’s a prima donna and start acting like a leader. He confronts another player with a reputation for partying and eventually trades him for his bad behavior.
Billy is fiercely devoted to young Peter. He never throws the young analyst under the bus or tries to make him a scapegoat for an initially disappointing season.
Off the field, a poignant subplot has to do with Billy’s relationship with his 12-year-old daughter, Casey, who lives with his ex-wife and her new husband. Billy absolutely dotes on Casey, buying her a guitar and encouraging her in her music. When Casey sings a song she’s written about how much she’s struggling, Billy realizes that his career instability and the threat of being fired is taking a toll on her too.
[Spoiler Warning] Billy is eventually offered $12.5 million to work for the Boston Red Sox, which would have made him the highest paid general manager in professional sports at the time. But he tells Peter, “I made one decision in my life based on money, and I swore I’d never do it again.” It’s clear his daughter longs for him to stay in California, and Billy turns down the offer, mostly it seems, for the sake his relationship with Casey.
We see a nervous ballplayer praying before the season opener and then hear him tell Billy, “I’m going to be praying for you and your family.” One of Billy’s staff members says that his boss answers only “to ownership and to God.” Someone appropriates the biblical phrase, “Many are called, few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14), to comment on the fact that not all young ballplayers reach their potential. Passing references are made to fortune cookies, superstitious ballplayers and jinxing the winning streak.
We hear a crude comment about the size of one player’s sexual anatomy. Two or three verbal references are made about another’s penchant for frequenting strip clubs. A couple of women wear low-cut tops. A’s players are shown shirtless in the locker room; one guy’s pants are partially undone.
Billy hates losing, which often prompts him to hurl various objects. A radio out of a car, for instance. And when it’s still working, he stomps on it until it ceases making noise. Another time, he hurls a chair into a picture on a wall. He flips a desk over. He tosses a water cooler. And so on.
Billy uses a violent metaphor as he coaches Peter on how to tell players they’ve been traded, asking Peter which he would rather have: one bullet to the head or five to the chest that leave you to bleed to death slowly.
Two f-words, 15 s-words. A handful each of “a‑‑” and “h‑‑‑.” We also hear “d‑‑n,” “b‑‑ch” and “p‑‑‑ed.”
During stressful moments—and he has plenty—Billy’s seen at home drinking. He and others spit what is presumably chewing tobacco. We hear a brief reference to a player’s weakness for “weed.”
Repeated comments are made about a player’s love for Las Vegas, where he’s got a reputation for partying, gambling and chasing women. (It is, however, a reputation that lots of his peers don’t think much of.) Speaking of Vegas, the system that Peter creates is repeatedly described in gambling terms, such as, “Every at bat is like a game of blackjack.” Billy drives recklessly a couple of times.
First things first: I’m not a baseball fan. At all.
But here’s how well Moneyball worked for me: A little more than halfway through, I found myself almost subconsciously praying for a batter to get a crucial hit. And then I thought, “Adam, this is a movie. A Hollywood movie. Of course he’s going to get the hit.” And so he does.
But maybe I was drawn in so effectively because so little of this story unfolds on the field. This movie isn’t really about the Oakland Athletics and their RBI rebound. Instead, it’s about a man who dared to approach an old game in a new way. “To the degree that baseball served the story and could be an expression of the drama, it’s in there,” director Bennett Miller told The Huffington Post. “But hopefully not a frame more.”
Thus, Moneyball (based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis) transcends baseball’s particulars in the way that any really good sports movie does. Ultimately, movies like Rocky or Seabiscuit or Miracle are about more than boxing, horse racing or hockey. They’re about the human spirit, the determination to win, and the inevitable roadblocks faced and lessons learned along the way.
Moneyball shares those films’ feel-good DNA. And, as was the case in those movies, Billy Beane’s personal journey here is as much about his important relationships—with his daughter (especially), his young protégé and even his own expectations—as it is about taking home the victor’s trophy.
If there’s a curveball, it comes in the form of foul language. Two f-words, a dozen-plus s-words, a crude anatomical reference and a smattering of other profanities mar Moneyball’s script, spitball strikes against its otherwise out-of-the-park inspiring storyline.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.