One of the many pleasant surprises about Moneyball, a movie based on a book based on an idea, is how much humor director Bennett Miller smuggles into the picture. There is the moment, for instance, when Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt with a bravado tinged with desperation, sits in the living room of Scott Hatteberg, a 32-year-old, rag-armed catcher whom Beane nonetheless wants to sign as a free agent. He is smitten by Hatteberg's plate discipline, which will yield the on-base percentage that stamps the player as an undervalued asset, as a market efficiency, the central idea around which the book revolves. The catch: The A's want to turn Hatteberg into a first baseman.
"I've only ever played catcher," he objects.
"It's not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash," says Beane to infield coach Ron Washington, now the Rangers' manager, who is seated beside him.
"It's incredibly hard," replies Washington, not missing a beat.
The film is so crisp and clean, Miller's pace and storytelling so seamless, that it's fair to assume that the transplanting of Michael Lewis's best-selling book to the big screen was a facile operation. In this case, as in the cases of many of the bad-body players drafted by Beane through the years, appearances deceive. Even by the sclerotic standards of Hollywood's studio system, the making of Moneyball was tortured, halting, incredibly hard.
"It seemed like a shoot-the-moon project," recalls Miller, the movie's third director, "because it was complex and messed up in a thousand different ways." Eight years after it first went into development and two years after The New York Times carried its obituary (MONEY WORRIES KILL A-LIST FILM AT LAST MINUTE), Moneyball will open in theaters nationwide on Friday.
It was worth the wait. Like all enduring sports movies, this one transcends its genre. Moneyball is a movie about baseball the way The Sopranos was a series about the waste-management business. "What we were trying to do is tell an unconventional story in the Trojan horse of a conventional baseball movie," says Pitt, who clearly has a blast playing Beane, the wisecracking, furniture-hurling executive who is forced by events beyond his control to "adapt or die." With his fresh-out-of-Yale sidekick, Peter Brand (based on Paul DePodesta, Beane's former fresh-out-of-Harvard assistant, and played with delicious restraint by a contemplative, buttoned-down Jonah Hill), this odd couple takes on the baseball establishment. Armed with Brand's spreadsheets and rote memory, Beane's gallows humor and the courage of their convictions, they march against the grain of a century and a half of baseball orthodoxy. And in the end, they win.
But it's not a Hollywood sort of victory. The 2002 Oakland A's did not win the World Series, or even a round of the playoffs. But with a lineup full of cast-offs and undervalued players—"like an island of misfit toys," as Brand proclaims—they did win 103 games, including 20 in a row, the longest streak in American League history. And however many times his many detractors might point to World Series titles as the only totems of success, Beane was vindicated.
There is no floodlight-exploding, walk-off Roy Hobbs homer to win the pennant—none of the treacle and sentimentality to which the directors of baseball movies have long been susceptible. There is an abiding faith in the material at hand, which is very strong.
There was no need to tart up reality because "the real story gave us more than enough," says Michael De Luca, one of the film's producers. "Especially when there are moments that, frankly, a Hollywood screenwriter wouldn't have the imagination to make up." Case in point: Hatteberg hitting the pinch-hit walk-off home run that wins the 20th game in the streak, but only after the A's had blown an 11-run lead against the Royals. Says De Luca, "That's the kind of plot point that literally would get laughed out of a room."