Monday, October 17, 2011

Moneyball: The Anti Major League Movie

Last week I finally saw Moneyball. While the baseball community knows Moneyball for its unique perspective on team building, Moneyball is also unique as a baseball movie.

As in the book, Moneyball the movie focuses on the struggle of the Oakland A's to rebuild after the departure of Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen. While the story of plucky underdogs who make the playoffs after their superstars leave the team is not unusual in Hollywood, Moneyball writer Aaron Sorokin’s choice to follow the writing of author Michael Lewis and focus on General Manager Billy Beane is unique for a baseball movie.

Possibly the greatest baseball movie to use the underdog theme with a focus on the players was Major League, starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Corbin Bernsen, etc. While both movies are about a team of misfits, Major League focuses on the players and their quests on the ballfield, in the dugout, and in other places where teams collate. Moneyball on the other hand is the behind-the-scenes story of creating a team, making trades, and obtaining players. The focus is on Bean, his hiring of his young mathematical assistant, and his struggle to push a new numbers-based organizational philosophy.

There is no mathematical wizardry in assembly of the Cleveland Indians in Major League. Whereas the Oakland A’s drafted predominantly college pitchers with proven track records and minimized draft risks, the Indians took a flyer on a young right-hander in the California Penal League named Rick Vaughn. While the A’s signed David Justice to DH and milk whatever skills they could from his veteran body, the Indians relied on gimpy-kneed Jake Taylor to fill the toughest position on the field. The A’s looked for patient hitters who can take the occasional walk; the Indians signed Pedro Cerrano, a free-swinging slugger with problems laying off the breaking pitch. And there is no way the A’s would have taken a chance on a walk-on speedster who attempts to be a power hitter.

Similar to Moneyball, the Indians are led by a general manager, Charlie Donovan. But unlike Moneyball’s Beane, once the team is assembled Donovan slips into the background and becomes a minor character. The two characters do share an interesting trait, however, in that neither typically travels with the team.

Although the general managers are completely different, the managers of each team are quite similar. Both Indians skipper Lou Brown and A’s manager Art Howe are career baseball men who fight against the overarching philosophy of the ballclub with interesting and varying results. Whereas Brown struggles within the constraints of ownership until sparking the team against ownership, Howe, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Howe fights ownership in the beginning of the movie until ownership forces him in line where then, under the vision of the ownership philosophy, he is given credit for the team’s success by the media.

Finally, how they win and their respective on-the-field strategy is one of the biggest differences between the two movies. On the advice of his young assistant (the not-Paul DePodesta played by Jonah Hill), Billy Bean takes a stand on his players’ actions and disallows stealing bases and bunting. Compare that to the final batting scene by the Cleveland Indians in their climactic game against the New York Yankees. After Roger Dorn is hit by a pitch (a move Bean would probably advocate), pinch-runner Willie Mays Hayes is put in the game strictly to steal second base. While we are to assume Hayes was successful enough through the season to advocate a steal of second, what happens next is so anti-Moneyball it would have fried the circuits of DePodesta’s trusty PC.

Instead of swinging away and trying to drive home the run, injury-prone and slow-footed catcher Jake Taylor bunts. And not only bunts to advance the runner, but for a hit. And then Hayes takes the ultimate risk, rounds third, and heads for home. If we were to assume Hayes is the leadoff batter and Taylor is the number two hitter, then the Indians were to have their best hitter at the plate with two men on base. Hayes’s risk is incredibly un-A’s, I don’t even think the early season version of Art Howe would have approved it.

Although where Moneyball will rank in the pantheon of baseball movies has yet to be determined, there is no doubt it is one of the most different baseball movies ever. It’s reliance on realism and focus on the behind the scenes machinations makes it unique and an interesting comparison to Major League and other baseball cinematic favorites