The only thing I hate more than watching sports on TV is watching sports movies. And as for baseball, well, I would rather watch the AstroTurf grow. So when I tell you that Moneyball is an excellent film, that really means something. All my prejudices were against it, so the bar was set very high.
In Moneyball, Brad Pitt plays “Billy” Beane — the diminutive is emblematic of the arrested boyishness of sports fandom — a failed professional baseball player who is the general manager of the Oakland A’s, which I learned is a baseball team here in the Bay Area. The film is supposedly based on a true story, but I have zero interest in where it mirrors or distorts history. My interest is in the drama and the psychological and even “philosophical” truths it portrays.
The film begins in 2002. The A’s are facing a crisis. They have far less money than the teams against which they have to compete. (Maybe that has something to do with being located in Oakland.) The richer teams, moreover, are poaching their star players. Beane is told that he simply cannot spend more money rebuilding the team. So Beane needs to think innovatively.
But when he meets with his cabinet of scouts and trainers — a bunch of sentimental old ex-jocks — he finds them fixated on building a team of individual “star” athletes, each of whom is evaluated in terms of astonishingly superficial criteria: their looks, whether they have a “baseball body,” the aesthetics of their play (the crack of the ball off their bat), the hotness of their girlfriends, and the like. Yes, of course, they also factor in athletic ability, the ideal of which is to have “tools” in as many areas as possible: hitting, running, etc.
The trouble with these star packages is that they are very expensive. Moreover, a group of prima donnas polishing their resumes and constantly searching for more lucrative contracts does not necessarily work as a winning team.
I found the “cabinet” scene astonishing. The spectacle of ostensibly straight old men making serious staffing decisions based on the looks and physiques of young men (I call it “jock-sniffing”) is something I have seen again and again in the real world, but never on the movie screen.
Of course such criteria are relevant in modeling. They might be understandable in sports and acting, were these not billion dollar industries with objective standards of performance — and countless good-looking failures testifying to the enduring temptation of this particular folly.
But jock-sniffing is astonishingly common in serious endeavors, such as politics and the military, where the dire consequences of failure would seem to dictate making decisions strictly on the basis of character and objective qualifications, not looks.
I would be very interested to read a good psychological, even evolutionary psychological, investigation of jock-sniffing and “golden boys.” Many elements need to be disentangled: the nostalgia of old men for their youth, romanticized self-images, vicarious gratification, latent homosexuality, etc.
Culture also surely plays a role. A German comrade once spoke disdainfully of the prevalence of conscious and unconscious of “Anglo pederasty” throughout American culture, which astonished me, because I did not see it at the time. It is, however, a phenomenon that Jews see clearly and do not hesitate to exploit. Jewish philosopher Jonathan Lear once wrote about how Anglo pederasty served him well in his academic career in England and America.
Nobody involved in serious enterprises can afford to be unaware of the power of these sorts of motives, which can be profoundly destructive if allowed to work unconsciously.
Beane decides that he needs to junk the “star” system and instead focus on building a team of players who are not stars on their own but who are capable of working together as a team to outperform teams of expensive prima donnas. He is aided in this project by Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill Feldstein, who inexplicably omits his last name from his film credit), a young Yale economics graduate. Brand obviously loves baseball. But he is not a jock. He is an obese geek with a love of sports statistics and a knack for number crunching. Together he and Beane assemble a team of undervalued players — has-beens and near misses — who, based on their statistics, can “in the aggregate” (e.g., as a team) outperform more expensive rosters of stars.
At first, the new team seems to be a disaster. But it is just growing pains. After Beane trades a few prima donnas for other undervalued players, and kicks a bit of middle management ass, his team hits its stride and goes on a record-breaking 20 game winning streak. Beane’s new management techniques are adopted by other teams, giving the Boston Red Sox (which even I have heard of) their first World Series victory in nearly 100 years.
Beane’s quantitative approach met a lot of initial resistance from old school management and fans whose approach to baseball is essentially romantic and aesthetic. They maintain that there is something mysterious and ineffable about baseball that cannot be quantified. Baseball, they say, is an art, not a science. It all smacks of 19th century Romanticism and holism. And it is true, of course, that not everything can be meaningfully reduced to numbers.
But it is also true that numerical models can have such predictive power that we can frequently act as if the quantifiable is the only factor that matters. For instance, we know that there is more to human intelligence than IQ, and more to the human soul than intelligence. But in terms of its predictive power for a whole array of real-world effects, it is as if IQ alone matters.
What I find objectionable about Beane is not that he subjects the hallowed traditions of baseball to empirical criticism. The ability to stand up to empirical tests (quantitative or otherwise) is what differentiates between what Edmund Burke called “blind” and “wise” prejudices.
No, the real objection to Beane is that he is using quantitative methods to subject the game of baseball — which is inextricably caught up with romanticism, sentimentality, and the cult of well-rounded and excellent athletic heroes — to the business of baseball, which rates the Oakland A’s better than the New York Yankees, simply because the A’s spend less money per win. To this mentality, a man who airbrushes Jesus on black velvet is superior to Michelangelo if the former produces more pictures for less money.
I admit that I am annoyed by professional sports, sports fandom, and sports movies. I despise their ethos of self-indulgent romanticism and perpetual boyishness. I want to smack grown men for wearing baseball caps (if they are not actually playing baseball, that is). Thus I found Moneyball‘s unsentimental, intellectual approach to baseball appealing. Part of me loved this movie precisely because I don’t love baseball.
But that’s just my prejudices speaking. If Billy Beane went to work for the San Francisco Opera (talk about self-indulgent Romanticism!), rather than the Oakland A’s, I would be screaming for his head too.
In the end, the romantics are right, because baseball is a game, after all. It shouldn’t be serious. It belongs to the realm of play, not work; luxury and freedom, not necessity; the sacred and aristocratic (the worship of heroes), not the profane and leveling (the statistical “aggregate”).
If Moneyball teaches us anything, it is the old lesson that the heroes of the business world are all too often the destroyers of the rest of the world: history, tradition, nature, culture, and everything that people hold sacred. Moneyball is another example of how the 9 to 5 world erodes and destroys the 5 to 9 world.
Beane is portrayed as a character whose emotional detachment is uniquely suited to a quantitative approach. He obviously loves baseball, but it is intimated that his own professional career fizzled because he was somehow not emotionally invested in it. It is also hinted that he feels victimized by the patter of the old school scouts who convinced him to pass up a full scholarship at Stanford to go professional. Beane then went into scouting and management, which is one step removed from actual play. As a manager, he tries to remain detached. He does not attend games, and he cuts players in a cold, business-like manner. But perhaps as a sop to the romantics, the script shows that Beane has to become more of a “people person” and more emotionally invested in his new team to make it work.
I highly recommend Moneyball. It is a serious, intelligent film with a superb script. It is dramatically paced, beautifully photographed, and free of sports movie clichés. There really isn’t a weak link in the cast, but Brad Pitt’s performance is particularly noteworthy. I would like to see him play Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, another story of innovation versus tradition on an even grander scale. (And unlike Billy Beane, Howard Roark’s struggle is not merely a disguised form of subjecting art to commerce — although most modern architecture is precisely that.)
But best of all, Moneyball is not just thought-provoking and full of lessons for politics and life in general. It is also highly entertaining — which is what sports, at their best, should be.