Friday, October 7, 2011

Moneyball (and a bit of Big Windup)

Baseball gets a bad rap for being dull. There’s no clock. A pitcher can take all the time he wants and can attempt a pick-off at first base 30 times in a row if he feels like it. And the seventh inning stretch sometimes seems so named because it offers the crowd a chance to stand, work out the kinks, and yawn.

I’ve always been fascinated by the game though. While football is akin to gladiators and lions and bloody remains, baseball has always seemed more like a game of chess – or an evening at a poker table. The game is cerebral with pockets of thought lurking beneath every pitch-out, lead-off, and outfield shift.

I recently watched an anime television series with my daughter called Big Windup and we were totally absorbed. It’s about a Japanese middle school baseball team and focuses on the relationship between a pitcher and his catcher and all the mind games they play with each other and with opposing hitters. Entire episodes play out within a single inning which should, one would think, lead to boredom.

But it doesn’t. It reveals just how much thought goes into whether to throw a slider, a curve, or a fastball next. It reveals the heart of the game to be a catcher as Spassky, a hitter as Fischer, and a pitcher as a highly skilled pawn caught in the middle.

The terrific new baseball movie Moneyball is every bit as thoughtfully stimulating, but in a different way. To return to my casino metaphor, it portrays the General Manager Billy Beane of the 2002 Oakland Athletics (played by Brad Pitt) and his new chief assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) – a stats obsessed computer nerd – as crafty card-counters playing the odds in a giant poker game.

The movie opens with an anecdote about how, if nothing changes, the Yankees will always beat the Athletics because they have vastly more money to spend on players. And this sets up the challenge: How can one build an affordable team that can beat the Yankees? Beane knows intuitively that it means thinking outside the box. Brand shows him just how far outside.

The answer is to stop paying for players and start paying for runs, runs being what win games. And you score runs by getting runners on base. The logic, which is almost diabolical and is often presented devilishly by computer printouts scrolling across the screen, is to find damaged, over-the-hill, and otherwise undesirable (and therefore bargain priced) players who possess one magic quality – a high percentage of at-bats that lead to their bodies crossing home plate.

It’s a bold experiment suggested by Brand and embraced by Beane, though not without reservations. He grasps for it like a drowning man and takes the heat from his entire staff of scouts for trying to reduce player analysis with all its human variables to an ice cold spreadsheet. And he must fight tooth and nail with his team manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who refuses to accept the idea that he should be starting a trembling former catcher at first base simply because the numbers say so.

And fight Beane does, but is he rewarded for his commitment? Does the grand experiment work? It is here that the film is at its most teasing and tantalizing. In two of its most beautiful moments, the human element finds a way to sneak back into the works, once to keep a winning streak alive and once to remind him why it is that he so loves the game.

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