With "Moneyball" coming out on DVD, here's a look at what its surprising success could mean for baseball movies in the future.
It took quite a bit for me to convince my wife to see Moneyball in the theaters. It took cajoling, begging, and bargaining. And what good is the promise of staring at Brad Pitt for a couple of hours if you have the real deal at home, right, ladies?
Me: It's the story of a baseball executive who uses statistics and goes against conventional thinking.
Wife: /hangs up
Me: Wait, how did you do that? We were talking face-to-face, but you managed to hang up on me. How did you …?
Wife: /makes fake dial-tone sounds
I eventually won out, and we saw the movie. She absolutely loved it. She can sit through a baseball game on TV about once every season, but she loved Moneyball. When the adaptation was announced, I gave it something like a 5% of not being a total dirigible accident of a movie. Then some big names started to get attached to the script -- Steven Soderbergh, Aaron Sorkin, Bennett Miller, Brad Pitt. It started to look interesting. And then it became a hit, grossing over $75 million with a chance of Oscar love next month. It was an astounding success.
I appreciated Moneyball. I'm not sure if I liked it. I was the idiot who couldn't enjoy it fully because I wanted to scream things like "THEY GOT TED LILLY BACK IN THAT DEAL. COME ON. MENTION TED LILLY." If I could just make it through one movie without wanting to scream things about, my quality of life will improve, but this one was especially bad. My problem with Moneyball was myself -- I spend thousands and thousands of hours absorbing baseball minutiae every year. A two-hour movie based on real, in-season events is rightfully interested in ignoring the minutiae. It's not you, it's me, Moneyball.
The movie used several players as anchors for the plot, and from the perspective of a baseball fanatic, the problem with making a movie about Chad Bradford and Scott Hatteberg is that you're making a movie about Chad Bradford and Scott Hatteberg. They were nice pick-ups -- symbolic of the market inefficiencies that were the point of Moneyball, sure -- but they were Chad Bradford and Scott Hatteberg. The 2002 A's won 103 games; I'm thinking without Hatteberg and Bradford, they win 100.
Again, that's not a knock on how the movie was constructed. As a way to explain how Billy Beane exploited the roster-building techniques that his competition was avoiding, Bradford and Hatteberg were as appropriate as could be. But when watching the movie, I couldn't stop thinking about the different things that really made the 2002 A's so good.
The front three of the rotation, for one. There would have been potential in a cinematic triptych based on a) the decision to draft Mark Mulder over Corey Patterson, b) Barry Zito's decision to transfer from UCSB to USC, and c) a scout seeing something in a short right-hander from Auburn, and convincing the people above him to see the same things. Those three things are just off the top of my head, but there have to be cinematic stories with those three.
I would have loved to watch something based on Miguel Tejada's rise to stardom. As a cynical joke-peddler in the era of unfortunate snark, I rarely missed an opportunity to use late-model Tejada as a punchline. But when I read this article, it made me appreciate the back story of Tejada, who was raised in poverty, and whose first experience in America was riding buses out of Medford, Oregon.
I'm sure I could watch a two-hour movie that was based just on the John Mabry/Jeremy Giambi trade. It would have mystery, drama, drugs …. That bad boy would have had everything.
But none of those movies would have been Moneyball, based on the book Moneyball. Which was a fine book. And which ended up being a very well-made movie. Totally different movies with totally different points.
My favorite things about Moneyball, then, were that the durn thing got made in the first place, and that it was so successful. That's amazing. And I'd like to think it's going to open the doors for a baseball movie that really will be at the intersection of baseball nerds and film nerds. The Godfather or Casablanca of baseball movies. The undisputed classic that transcends generations and genres. Moneyball was well made. But it wasn't that movie.
If "baseball executive uses under-appreciated methodology" can become a Hollywood hit, so can anything else. And I'm hoping that one day, the success of Moneyball helps another baseball movie get produced that wouldn't have before. Maybe something on the Dominican-to-American culture shock that Sugar almost nailed. Maybe something on the rise and fall of a player who signs a $126 million contract, but can't live up to expectations. Maybe that brilliant Mabry/Giambi idea, but with a hostage situation thrown in. Hollywood!
With Moneyball coming out on DVD this week, I'll probably watch it again. A second viewing might reveal nuances I missed, and it could catapult into my top tier of baseball movies. But even if that doesn't happen, here's hoping it did something that I never would have thought possible: made it commercially viable for studios to consider movies about baseball that don't end with exploding lights or a sweaty Kevin Costner.
Here's hoping that smart baseball movies are the new market inefficiency.