Is there a more unconventional sports film than Moneyball? On face value, it is a baseball film about an underdog team, Oakland Athletic, that overcomes the odds which is pretty standard fare as sports movies go. And yet this is a film without any star players, no stirring halftime talk and the star of the film is the general manager Billy Beane who doesn’t even stay to watch the games.
Ostensibly this is a sports film but in actuality it is really a film about economics. It’s the kind of piece that would appeal to Malcolm Gladwell or the guys who do the Freakanomics books.
To understand the concept of the film, first you need to understand the structure of Major League Baseball. Although there is a draft that gives first pick to the worst performing teams which slightly helps balance the scales, there is also no salary cap so its possible for wealthier teams like the New York Yankees to simply buy the best players. Which is exactly the situation Billy Beane finds himself in at the start of the 2002 season. The Oakland A’s had an excellent 2001 season in which they fell just short of making the finals but this simply resulted in the elite clubs swooping in and cherry-picking their best players. A frustrated Beane sits in a pre-season meeting with his scouts and lays out the fundamental problem: They are operating with a budget that is roughly a fifth of what the Yankees are able to spend on players. How can you compete with that?
Enter Peter Brand, a Yale economics graduate and baseball fan. Brand introduces Beane to the ‘Moneyball’ concept. To analyse baseball purely as a statician and remove emotion from the equation. ‘Your goal isn’t to buy players, it’s to buy runs,’ he explains.
He goes on to say that in professional sports, players are overlooked for a variety of reasons. Attitude, age, unconventional style and so on. I found that this is a truism of virtually every sport. I remember reading about the strikers who were chosen to play for England in the FIFA World Cup 2010. Between them, they had scored just six goals that year. But they were chosen for tenure, experience and a belief that past form would return. In cricket, surely one of the most statistically documented sports on the planet, the Australian selectors seemingly threw away the 2010 Ashes series by playing one rookie spin bowler after another. Clearly the selectors weren’t looking at a ‘buying wickets’ philosophy.
Beane implements the Moneyball strategy with Oakland Athletic and initially yields little success. He faces challenges from his coach who refuses to use the new recruits and relies on one of the few remaining star players. Some of the players also seem indifferent to losing. Beane sticks by philosophy however and sells the star player and sacks the players with attitude problems. This forces his coach into playing the side Beane wants and finally brings about results. Results in the form of a 20 game undefeated streak, the greatest in the 100+ year history of the league. Athletic would go and make it into the first round of the playoffs.
Although Oakland do not go on to win the World Series that year, its not really the point of the film. What Beane has managed to do is turn the odds on the bigger sides and give his team a fighting chance.
In the film’s epilogue, it is revealed that Beane walked away from a megabucks contract offering from the Boston Red Sox which would have made him the highest paid General Manager in baseball history. He declined the offer to stay geographically closer to his daughter. It was an interesting bookend to the film that highlighted Beane’s personal choices which he faced regarding money and baseball. A once promising baseball star himself, Beane once opted to play baseball over attending college. By the film’s end he decides that personal happiness is more important than sport and he walks away from the Red Sox offer. As I said at the start, this is one unconventional ‘sports film.’