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Thursday, September 29, 2011

The God Particle: "Moneyball"

Baseball is God’s game. Or at least Goddess’. And not just because it’s the American pastime. It revolves around the mystery number of the goddess, “9,” with the number of players on the field and starting lineup, the number of innings, three strikes multiplied by three outs, the estimated circumference of the ball, and then 90 as the number of feet between bases. It’s apparently a miracle of evolution that 9 and Baseball came together the way they did. There’s no known reason other than that’s the way natural selection worked things out. But the result was good enough that we apply a variable of magic to baseball. Football is a man’s game involving chess-like strategy. Baseball revels in the mystery of every pitch. A divine hand sometimes droops in to interfere. That’s why it’s such a kitschy sport, able to make men weep unlike others. The Natural and Field of Dreams may not be “masterpieces,” but they’re awfully potent emotional affairs. The trials of life, from the fertile consciousness of spring to the dying amber autumn, is baseball’s setting, with the chosen few surviving shortly before the first snowfall. But even in defeat there is resurrection, rebirth, or reincarnation. Life begins anew five months down the road.

But the ineffable is evaporating. There’s a lot of chatter lately about discovering the “God Particle,” and our science is closing in on the dark synaptical spaces on a cosmic map. The new film Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller (Capote) and adapted from Michael Lewis’ bestseller by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, shows how our algorithms have worked to likewise crack the code of baseball. The drama is broken down into its Aristotelian units, deconstructed to determine how one creates a winning team. But the dramatized story shows that science itself isn’t perfect. It requires the human spark. Moneyball is a movie bigger than both money and baseball, continuing Sorkin’s Social Network themes of Information Age paradigms forcing working men to “adapt or die.” And also like The Social Network, Moneyball ends on a note reminding us that in embracing new formulas for success, nothing exceeds importance to human relationships. Indeed, the “Moneyball” system works only when the unpredictability of human emotion takes mechanical determinism by the hand. And deeper than that, Moneyball may be a movie about the gridlocked America of pragmatism vs. ideology, Obama vs. Boehner, where economics and ideology are programmed into a digital battlefield.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was once a golden child, a high school star in baseball and football, excelling on the field, the mound, and in the batter’s box, where he could display hitting prowess with power. As a student, he’s also got a free ride to Stanford University, where he would have a more stable, if less glorious, start in business. He chose major league baseball instead. But his promise never bloomed. Billy Beane is Joe Mauer if Joe Mauer sucked. Before long, he’s out of starting lineups, in the minors, and then working as a scout. He’s done well for himself as a businessman, working as the Oakland A’s general manager during a playoff season.

But winning a championship is impossible. Stomping out the magical unpredictability of baseball is the concrete fact of money. The New York Yankees embody the superrich of George W. Bush’s Administration, getting bigger budgets with each year – and so acquiring more star players. After the Yanks handily defeat the Athletics during the division series, a great sequence where Beane turns the radio off and on in the backroom as Miller shows MLB footage from the actual game, his own star players – Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon – are bought by New York. The Yanks have a budget of hundreds of millions, while Beane is stuck with a paltry $40 million. How can he compete or get a simple leg up? “It’s like we’re a farm system for the New York Yankees,” he says frustrated. The game is unfair, and the comment is later made that the team is like “organ donors for the rich.”

Beane asks the owner for more money, and his scouts pester him with young players “with good faces” who would serve as apt avatars for the next season’s A’s. But he knows this won’t bring him wins, and without those wins he might be out of a job. He’s falling behind in life, haunted by the prospects of his past. His ex-wife (Robin Wright) has moved on with a wealthy husband (humorously played by director Spike Jonze), and he sees his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) less often than he would like. She’s 12 and has a cell-phone. The world is moving ahead fast, and Billy can’t make a deal to ensure his professional and private security.

At a meeting with the Cleveland Indians’ team office, where Billy’s proposed trade is turned down, Billy is interested in a fresh graduate, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), whose analysis drove the Indians to their rejection of the offer. How did Peter come to make his decision? He doesn’t even seem interested in baseball. Ken Griffey Jr. isn’t on his wall; Plato is. This overweight kid values reason above the unpredictability of a physical sport, and Billy sees that he has something of an objective formula for winning. According to Peter, it’s not about individual batting average or runs batted in or home runs, those qualities that create All-Star players whose baseball cards become valuable over time. It’s a collective on-base percentage: players getting on base, walking on balls, sometimes old with bad knees. Somehow, pennants measure out in correlation to this statistic. Billy has a hunch and hires Peter, bringing him to Oakland.

Peter’s system, which neglects age and sex appeal, is not welcomed by the old codgers working for Billy, or the A’s team manager, the dour Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Peter is dismissed as “Google Boy,” an outsider who threatens to take the sport out of baseball. But Billy is embracing pragmatism, gambling with the only innovative option at his disposal. “We are the card counters at the casino,” he tells his scouts. But isn’t this a team being put together by a computer? Billy adopts the merciless and uncompromising command of a machine, informing his employees that “this is not a discussion.”

Where did Peter’s system come from? Bill James developed “Moneyball,” but he is hardly a figurehead of success. Billy is told that James currently works as a security guard. And the abstract formula isn’t working on the field. Even with Howe’s obstinacy in not following Beane’s instructions, there’s little indication that Peter’s schema would pay off. Is the problem the machine, which draws from the same energy as the inflexible New York Yankees’ budget? Moneyball handles its player characters in an unusual way, teasing with their centrality to the story, like we have seen in so many sports movies, and then taking them away from view, reflecting the arbitrary reality of team sports. You can be a major leaguer just as soon as you can find yourself traded or, worse, in AAA. “I can’t develop personal relationships with these guys,” Billy tells Peter, and he’s got a valuable point. Firing is very direct and undramatic. Billy, a major league reject, understands the anguish. Emotions must be kept minimal. The players, managers, scouts, media personnel, are all a part of a great machine, which is increasingly governed by money and superficiality.

Maybe this makes Art Howe’s antagonism helpful. To quote Emerson, “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” The duel between business manager and sports manager leads to Billy acting on his – possibly dangerous – emotions. When Howe won’t bench the rookie All-Star first baseman and play Billy’s choice, Billy resolutely trades the rookie away. “This is the kind of decision that gets you fired,” Peter warns Billy. Even though the firing ties in with Peter’s formula, because it is an emotional reaction – and so contrary to Plato’s Reason – it is not good.

What Billy Beane is doing, though, is marrying his human intuition to the digital programming of Moneyballing, even ditching some of his own original choices for what his instincts tell him are right. Things begin to turn around for the A’s only as he begins to have dialogue with the players, the grunts who bring his abstraction into concrete action. While still being reserved, he opens himself up to their concerns with fair exchanges. For instance, he listens to aging David Justice (Stephen Bishop) by giving his players free soda, while asking if Justice could be a more paternal leader on the squad. The process of human interaction, coupled with the mechanics of Moneyball, pays off in spades and the A’s begin a record-breaking 20-game winning streak, going from worst to first in the division.

Miller, Zailian, and Sorkin satisfy our hungry sports-movie expectations by making the streak the film’s structural climax. After the victory happens, Billy admits that it doesn’t matter. They need to win a championship. “They will dismiss us if we lose the last game of the series.” An American League pennant would change the game, easing the economics for the whole league. Baseball could possibly become more democratic. But in 2003, the A’s lose the division series to the Minnesota Twins (not that I complained at the time). The commentators repeat the naïve and short-sighted talking points, accusing Billy Beane of embracing “statistical gimmicks.” The A’s defeat was inevitable.

Billy is validated by history. Bill James is no longer a security guard but an icon. Moneyball is the way of the future. The Boston Red Sox are going to implement the system, and offer Billy the biggest salary ever given to a GM. But he has to think about it.

He turns it down because if he accepted the job, he would simply be following the numbers. His heart is led by the musical CD given to him by Casey, his daughter, singing a song to him while playing her guitar. He chooses to reject superfluous prosperity and stays close to his family. It’s a significant bridge of the familial heart to the professional and technological head, and it’s worth remembering that Steven Soderbergh – who also dreamt of being a baseball player – developed Moneyball with Pitt and Zailian before parting ways with the studio. This scene between father and daughter is repeated with the same resonance of intimate emotions and impersonal technology that we see during Contagion’s concluding moments, the film Soderbergh directed in Moneyball’s place. Both films are about this present age of digitalism and avatars, but they also accentuate the positive aspects of post-human ornaments. The machine in the use of Love is more important than its use for Money. When Moneyball is enacted by the Red Sox, we learn that the new system seemed to spiritually wash away the curse of the Bambino, and they finally got their World Championship. The Goddess is still in baseball, even with computers.

Bill Maher recently joked about how baseball was capitalism while football was socialism. In baseball, the most successful teams only grow more successful, while losing teams keep on starving for money. In football’s draft picks, there’s a kind of redistribution of wealth, flattening things out, so that you can’t really be sure of anything (besides knowing that the Vikings won’t be in the Super Bowl). I think West Wing creator Sorkin wants us to hear the talk about “spending” in Moneyball and think about the current political discourse, where talking heads rewrite history and pragmatism is not an option. Barack Obama’s administration, taking its place during a terrible economic crisis requiring a solution that considers a global economy and the nefarious workings of late capitalism, is up against a challenge like Billy Beane’s. He is stuck at an impasse, and if a stimulus package or health care plan doesn’t go all the way, the media will assign his failure. Whether one is a Republican or Democrat, it’s not unreasonable to compare Hoffman’s portrayal of Art Howe to congressional Republicans. Maybe Moneyball is a late season (administration) bid for hope, spurning a pragmatic deal-maker president to change plans, following intuition and emotions more than the machine logic of people who cannot be reasoned with.


Moneyball works because it understands the life metaphor implicit through baseball. It’s a sad sport, long and not long enough, like life. It is filled with dreams and hope that aren’t realized, and still unexpected surprises of transcendent unlikelihood. I respond to baseball because it’s a part of my youth. I distantly remember 1987, with Minnesota’s Mt. Crushmore of Puckett, Gaetti, Hrbek, and Brunansky, the Game 1 grand slam of Danny Gladden, and Hrbek’s in Game 6. The Twins had the worst road record, but were the best at home. There was Frank “Sweet Music” Viola, Bert Blyleven, the .191 average of catcher Tim Laudner (while our other catcher, Sal Butera, was lower), and Jeff Reardon as the 0-8 closer.

But from that year I most remember, for whatever reason, Jack Clark, the St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman. Clark was probably entering the final act of his career at age 32, assigned as the only power hitter on an otherwise near-homerless team. He put up MVP numbers, leading the National League in game winning RBIs, slugging percentage (.597), on-base percentage (.459), and walks. He may have been the MVP too, if Andre Dawson didn’t have his mid-season surge while Clark experienced some slumps, and Clark’s season hadn’t been cut short by an ankle injury. This kept him out of post-season play, and it’s logical to think that had Clark been on the Cardinals’ starting lineup in October, they would have finished off the Giants in less than seven games, and the Twins just as quickly.

But after 1987, Clark was a free agent and George Steinbrenner acquired him. He was a star-player whose brightness was diminished by more attractive players, like Don Mattingly. Clark was now a DH, and while he still had power and got on base often, his glory days were waning. He was traded to Boston, and then the Padres, hitting well below .250. Soon his career was over, the light of his 1987 second-wind snuffed out. Interestingly, my favorite player of 1991, year of the Twins’ second world championship, was Moneyball’s David Justice, playing for our World Series adversaries, the Atlanta Braves. I collected nearly every single Dave Justice baseball card, knowing that his young career would pay off in the future. But the gods frowned on his bat too. Time got away from him, and now he’s probably more remembered as Halle Berry’s first husband than a World Series baseball player – or maybe now, a supporting character in Moneyball. And I still don’t know what to do with his baseball cards.

David Justice is a breathing metaphor for baseball’s resemblance to the movies. The game floats above time, and being that motion picture frames are the repeated patterns of specters spun through light, the movies exude another awe laced with the sadness that knows how time gets away from you. The movies show us things, but like baseball, their greatness rests on a mystery related to our human qualities. People find the game boring, but so many pitches hurled from the mound seem to have the content of an intimate prayer.

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