Moneyball and Sports-Movie Moralism

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09/28/2011 4:00 AM |

Michael Lewis is good—maybe too good—at shaping statistical abstracts into compelling storylines set in the worlds of finance and sport. Reading his Moneyball, it’s easy to see what attracted a filmmaker as data-driven as Steven Soderbergh to the project; watching Bennett Miller’s film Moneyball, it’s easy to see how the dictates of the studio sports flick drove him off.

Moneyball‘s underdog story concerns how, in the early aughts, Oakland As General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt here) ran a competitive team on a meager budget, using then-arcane statistical tools to measure value overlooked by a scouting community more fixated on physical potential than empirical data—basically, per Lewis’s hook, by finding cast-offs skilled in the unsexy art of pitch selection.

“An island of misfit toys,” offers Jonah Hill, in his cautious, schtick-reliant performance as the chubby and bespectacled Prometheus who brings the fire of advanced statistical analysis to pro baseball. Introducing run expectancy principles, he recites nut-graf explanations while the camera pans glazedly over computer screens; there’s a moralistic soft-sell to his explanations—it’s mostly a matter of giving people a chance, having faith in what the eye can’t see, and giving the big boys a run for their money.

One of the principals of sabermetrics, which Lewis is more ok with than the movie is, is that outcomes over a small sample will deviate significantly from the mean—a fancier way of saying, “anything can happen in a short series,” but it also implies that, contrary to the way scouts—and TV analysts, sportswriters, and especially fans—build athletes up, the guys on the field have less than complete agency. (And GMs like Beane have even less, despite the many pep talks Pitt delivers to his improbably attentive charges.)

In Chad Harbach’s new novel The Art of Fielding, a slumping ballplayer ponders the point of practice, no longer believing that “You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way.” It’s a question with no little existential sting: why labor, if virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded? American atheists have been working this through for some time, without, frankly, much response from the culture at large. (Harbach’s novel answers deftly, embracing the process of self-improvement as an outcome in itself, a sort of Zeno’s Paradox of the soul.)

Moneyball, though, doesn’t really know how to handle defeat: when the Twins bounce the As out of the playoffs it barely registers, the film having already climaxed with the team’s walk-off win of their twentieth game in a row. And then it ends with a victory—a moral victory, as victory in sports movies invariably is—as Beane turns down a better job, the better to stay close to his daughter.

The objection to sports movie simplifications isn’t just the pedant’s insistence that really it went like this, not like that (if anything, Moneyball is most pleasurable in its ripped-from-the-sports-page details, notably Arliss Howard’s cameo as John Henry, the slightly Asperger’s-y hedge fund kajillionaire who turned the Boston Red Sox into a model franchise, which suggests better than Pitt’s active performance as MLB vet Beane the sort of anxiety the new math still inspires in baseball). It’s the knowledge that you’re being sold a bill of goods. It’s how I felt watching the documentary Senna, even without knowing anything about Formula 1—the way it manipulates its narrative arc and leaves assertions ungrounded in specifics, the better to conjure a symbolically pure vision of racing driver Ayrton Senna.

The highlight-reel version is the overwhelming trend in sports movies—as it is in the national discourse surrounding sports, not entirely excluding some progressive corners of the internet. We streamline slightly wonky, sometimes self-contradictory but nonetheless crucial systemic understanding into wide-aperture narratives of moral instruction. As such, Moneyball is also an unpleasant reminder of our eternally broken political rhetoric.