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Moneyball hits a homer

October 18, 2011

Anyone who thought big league baseball lacked drama and larger meaning needs to see this one

My wife is not, decidedly and emphatically not, a sports fan. She’d rather watch her garden grow, which it was slow to do this past late-starting summer, than watch a baseball game…even a World Series game. So, when she agreed to join me for a showing of the new movie Moneyball, I was surprised.

Wait a second. I get it. The film stars pretty boy Brad Pitt and the usually superlative Phillip Seymour Hoffman. That must be it, right? Wrong. You’re out. You are benched. She really liked this one and we both walked out of the theatre, knowing that it had snuck up on us like a side-arm slider, a knuckleball or a wide-breaking curve ball.

Well, my wife didn’t think about it in exactly those terms. She’s never played the game. But I won the Little League pennant in my home town about 50 years ago and have been a ball fan ever since I was a kid. My dad and I used to watch the games when Dizzy Dean and Peewee Reese were doing the play by play.

Every time there was a lull in the action, they’d get into rousing argument. The two old-timers would battled it out for the prize of “I’m right and you’re dead wrong” while the network looked to fill time between pitches. Sometimes it would be almost as amusing as the game itself. Other times it distracted us and we shouted at the TV for the old guys to shut up.

That battle of who’s right and whose wrong is sort of the theme of Moneyball except that one old-timer decides to try something new. He hires a whiz kid with an economics degree from Yale to help him find the right player roster for turning the losing Oakland Athletics into the winning Oakland A’s.

The old scouts don’t like it and they tell A’s general manager Billy Beane he’s crazy for rejecting all their learned years of spotting talent in exchange for a fuzzy-faced kid with a laptop computer. Well, guess what guys? A failed player who commands respect in spite of it, Beane does exactly the opposite of what the A’s brain trust advises.

Adding hold-your-breath tension to the mix is the wise old coach played by Hoffman. He’s not going to let Beane dictate how he deploys his players and rightly so. He’s doing his job as he knows it from decades of practice. You admire his struggle to hold his own against a higher authority, but you’re persuaded to go with Beane and the kid just to see what happens.

That and other points of tension are what make this a memorable and instructive film for today. Yes, it is about rebuilding a ball club but it’s more than that. It’s about changing the system – any system – social, political, economic, cultural. It’s about believing in change.

Beane faced the resistance of a respected coach, a roomful of old-guard scouts and an arrogant corps of sports media experts. He could have caved, gone with the tried and true. But he wouldn’t have changed a thing. He wouldn’t have had the satisfaction of trying. Instead, he takes them all on and shows them that change is possible and healthy. You can find unexceptional players and turn them into inspired players that can help a small-budget team beat big-money teams like the Yankees.

By the same token, governments can be changed, attitudes can be changed, and whole economic systems can be changed. But you have to believe that change is possible and positive. That’s what Moneyball shows us.

One other thing it teaches us. When his new system works to help the A’s make baseball history by winning 20 games in a row, Beane is offered a lucrative contract with the pennant-bound Boston Red Sox.

He should grab it. He should pick up the spoils. He deserves it. He’s proven them all wrong. But he’s also the father of a 12-year-old daughter. He turns down the offer and stays in Oakland to be with her…and with the team he’s rebuilt. Maybe the A’s aren’t quite ready to win the pennant but the man who against the odds forced a change in the game will be there with them to keep on trying.

Anyone who has ever played ball remembers what it was like as you stepped up to home plate in the bottom of the ninth. You’re the last one at bats. You can make or break the game and maybe win the series with one well-calculated swing. The chucker winds up after taking a little resin powder and rubbing the ball. After a good long spit of tobacco or maybe bubblegum juice. Then he releases the ball. You know it’s coming at you but you’re not quite sure how to hit it. You swing….

In Moneyball’s case, it swings and hits that ball clean out of the park. I don’t think my wife will opt to watch the World Series with me this year but it showed her that baseball is more than a game.

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