In sports, the players are the stars of the show. It is they who draw the crowds, get their faces on billboards and marry drop-dead- gorgeous people. Pop-culture reflects this through innumerable books and movies about players (and sometimes coaches).
But what about those who hold the destiny – and employment contracts – of these superstars in their hands? The scouts scout, the coaches coach and the players play. What difference then, could a general manager make to a team’s performance?
In 2003, Michael Lewis answered that question in his seminal book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Tracking the progress of a professional baseball team through its 2002 season, the non-fiction work told the story of General Manager Billy Beane who “stopped buying players and started buying wins instead”.
At the end of the 2001 season, the Oakland Athletics had lost three of their most important players to richer teams. The financial gulf between the teams was enormous and Beane had to figure out a way to win without the resources that the others had. Using knowledge accumulated by pork-and-beans factory security guard-turned-statistician Bill James and Harvard economics graduate Paul DePodesta, Beane went about assembling a team that achieved precisely that.
This was essentially a numbers story. The problem is that if you are writing such stories for a mass audience, it can be hard not to lull them to sleep. And while it has been done now with some success (with such books as Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist and Bounce), in 2003 it was hard to find a mainstream market for a book about statistics.
But find a market it did and such was the book’s impact on public consciousness that moneyball is now the buzzword for extracting maximum advantage from minimal resources.
Moneyball the book had two things going for it: sports and Lewis’s talent.
The book had a ready market in baseball fans. Moreover, with much of sports literature comprising sappy hagiographies, fans of other games gravitated towards it as well.
It also helped that Lewis is a really good storyteller. This is a man who has written entertaining books about the stock market and the financial crisis. He is a meticulous researcher and captures the human element in these stories brilliantly. In fact, he paints such an impressive portrait of Beane that even Brad Pitt, the personification of handsome, just about matches up in Bennett Miller’s movie version.
The movie came out in 2011 after a change in director and two script rewrites. While the final version was written by Aaron Sorkin, the movie also credits Steve Zaillian for the screenplay. Zaillian has written the scripts for Schindler’s List (1993) and Gangs of New York while Sorkin wrote what many consider the best political show on TV (West Wing) and the 2010 blockbuster The Social Network, which won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Clearly, the story was in good hands.
The movie followed the book in most aspects but differed in that it wrapped the whole story around Beane. With good reason too, for Pitt gave one of his career-best performances in Moneyball. For an actor who has always seemed more comfortable in physical roles (think Fight Club and Inglourious Basterds), this was a revelation.
Pitt is perfect as the ex-jock turning conventional wisdom on its head. Despite his towering personality, Pitt’s Beane is still believable as the underdog. The film also makes him more human by writing in some scenes with his daughter and ex-wife. These add little by way of the story but flesh out Pitt’s character to just the right degree.
Pitt’s recreation of Beane encapsulates a line from the book: “Any very large angry man can unsettle a room...but Billy has a special talent for it.” This is most evident in the scene where Beane ensures silence in the locker room by walking in and smashing the stereo. This is a space full of baseball players with big muscles and bigger egos. But when Pitt’s Beane is in the room, there is no question of who is in control.
The movie also stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as the team’s coach. Hoffman delivers a masterful performance as a man who reluctantly tries to fight Beane but honestly just wants a longer contract. The ability to be dismissive even to a superior is a Hoffman special and he does it impeccably every time.
Any movie adapted from a book is necessarily a distillation of its source material. Some of the story must inevitably be lost to produce a smaller, visually fulfilling product. In Moneyball, this is done by dropping one of the best parts of the book: the draft, or the selection of high school or college players for Major League teams
In the book, Lewis devotes an entire chapter to the process. It is replete with rich detail as Lewis delves into the strategy of the Oakland Athletics. The way the selection pans out is more interesting than most actual baseball games. However, there was no way the film could replicate this as the viewer would need too much background information to appreciate what was happening.
On the flip side, you can read a thousand times about a ball hitting the bat but the vicious crack when leather meets wood can only be captured in the talkies. And Lewis can do his best to describe the jubilation of a 110-kilo player hitting a home run without realising it but it is only when you see the scene play out on the screen, with even the opposing team cheering him, that you realise there are things a movie can convey that a book just cannot.
Moneyball was a ridiculously good book. Moneyball was a ridiculously good movie. If you are even the smallest bit a sports fan, you will enjoy them both.