Monday, September 26, 2011

Blogfight? A Conversation About Moneyball

By The Common Man and Bill

This weekend, Bill and The Common Man each separately attended a showing of Moneyball. Rather than provide you with a traditional review, which neither of us feel particularly qualified to do, we thought a discussion of the film and our reactions to it might be appropriate. In other words, we’re not telling you how you should feel about Moneyball, but how we felt as we watched it.


What follows is a slightly edited chat transcript. Be warned: (1) if you think there’s such a thing as “spoilers” for a movie like this (and we don’t think there is, really, if you have read the book, followed baseball in 2002 or have ever been to Baseball-Reference.com), what follows is absolutely full of them; and (2) we did say slightly edited – the transcript below is really just a conversation and isn’t nearly up to this site’s usual grammar or style standards. Nonetheless, enjoy!

Bill: So what did you think of Moneyball?

TCM: Moneyball is Johnny Damon: good, but not HOF quality. Overrated by casual fans, underrated by the stathead community and with a really underwhelming start and finish to its career.

Bill: Ha!

TCM: How did you like it?

Bill: I liked it. I think it's a very good film, actually. But it’s not as enjoyable if you know the whole real story as it might be otherwise, since it's almost entirely fiction and really, really oversimplified.

TCM: I loved the middle; but the end, especially, struck me as overlong and superfluous. The entire daughter plot was entirely unnecessary and now I have that damn song she was singing stuck in my head.

Bill: What about the end?

TCM: It dragged, and should have ended with the talk with Jonah Hill.

Bill: Hmm. Maybe.

TCM: I would have liked to see more of young Billy Beane to give his actions clearer motivation, like when he has to release Mike Magnante and to clarify how much he dislikes losing and failing. Also, I don’t think you need to add a daughter to humanize someone who's in every single scene and is already plenty human.

Bill: I disagree completely, actually. I thought the daughter thing was pretty essential.

TCM: Explain why.

Bill: I think without that he comes off almost completely flat. Most of the audience would have no reason to identify with him at all.

TCM: Really? No one in the audience has ever tried really hard at something and failed, and then had that failure haunt them? I think if you emphasize his professional experience even more, you get a that same characterization, with less fluff. I mean, if you need a daughter to get people to relate to a figure in baseball, why don't we just give Jake Taylor and Crash Davis a daughter too?

Bill: I don't know, though. If it's entirely about baseball I think they lose a lot of the audience.

TCM: Yeah, I'm going to go ahead and just completely disagree with you. I liked the daughter. She was good. But I just thought she was unnecessary and maudlin.

Bill: Her story just felt more natural to me than the professional struggles, which felt pretty obviously contrived. I think if they emphasized that more, it could've gone very, very wrong.

I mean, yeah, clearly he flamed out as a prospect, and that was hard on him. But that would just emphasize even more the "nerds vs. scouts" thing, which could've made it completely ridiculous. And the whole "oh no I might get fired" thing was so dumb.

TCM: I don't think that's so crazy when you look at how much flak Epstein and Cashman have taken this year.

Bill: But they're not going to get fired. And they're not in Oakland coming off of a 102 win season. And -- the more I think about this, the more it bugs me -- they act like they struggled terribly right out of the gate, but if you pay attention you can see that they started like 18-12 or something.

TCM: But if you're willing to give them leeway for the changes they made to actual events for the sake of a simplified and compelling narrative, don't you also have to forgive them for exaggerating the amount of trouble Beane was in? And doesn't the threat of firing also directly inform his discussion with John Henry at the end about how the first guy through the hole always gets bloody?

Bill: If they were going to do that, they should've changed the facts to make it somewhat believable. And no, I don't think the Henry discussion really relies on that, necessarily. I mean, he took a lot of criticism. I just think that emphasizing the "threat" to his job any more than they did would've been a mistake.

TCM: Did the historical inaccuracy bother you?

Bill: It interfered with my own enjoyment of the film. It didn't bother me in principle, and I think it probably made it a much better movie overall. The one thing that really did bug me about the movie is the way the attention to detail kind of went out the window at the far fringes. Eddie Guardado was played by a guy who couldn't weigh more than 170. Raul Ibanez was played by an actor with skin about eight shades darker than his. And then, of course, Jeremy Brown was played by a guy who could never possibly play any professional sport.

TCM: That's true. That Jeremy Brown guy must have tipped 350 lbs. if he weighed an ounce. I was glad they managed to get Brown in there, though, since drafting him is such a central part of the book. It was fun to play the "oh, I remember that guy" game with names like Ordaz, Venafro, Grimsley, and Velarde.

Bill: Yeah. And C.J. Nitkowski's name makes an appearance (literally, on a stat sheet), so that made me happy.

TCM: For any of the problems I have with this movie, the acting was pretty stellar. Agreed?

Bill: Yeah. I can't think of any weak spots there. I had to agree with Keith Law that Philip Seymour Hoffman's many amazing talents were totally wasted, though.

TCM: Yeah, he was pretty much stuck on "grumpy" the whole time, though that's really an emotion he does really well.

Bill: True.

TCM: I did really like Jonah Hill in this film. I recognize that it's a little problematic, in that he pretty much is a caricature of statheads and is incredibly dissimilar to Paul DePodesta, but his comic timing is terrific and he pretty much nails the character and it's really easy to sympathize with him.

Bill: He made me laugh a lot more than I expected. And I like that he was there in the stands watching the games and everything.

TCM: Was he distracting for you at all?

Bill: Distracting how?

TCM: Like the difference between him and DePo, or the character itself being so awkward?

Bill: No. And in fact, it's possible that a true-to-life DePo would've been more distracting, in a way. The point was that knowledge is more important than experience, so while I initially really hated the "ha ha fat nerd who is fat" thing, it actually works better than a former college athlete who is nerdy might have.

TCM: You mentioned laughing out loud. I probably shouldn't be, considering how much I tend to love Aaron Sorkin, but I was pleasantly surprised by how damn funny the movie is. Hill especially, but also Pitt, Scott Pratt, and the scouts. How much of the humor do you think was too "inside"?

Bill: I actually didn't think the humor was very "inside" at all. The parts I remember laughing at were all about human nature and/or timing much more than about baseball. What did you think?

TCM: Yeah, I thought it was broad enough for a general audience, but still smart because Aaron Sorkin wrote it. The entire theater was cracking up at a bunch of different points. But there were some nice throwaway lines about how Scott Boras is an asshole or how a player having an "ugly girlfriend means no confidence" that, if you read the book, you could get an extra little kick out of.

Bill: That's true. But they were plenty funny on their own. I got the sense that the 10:00 Saturday night crowd was, by and large, not a baseball-book-reading crowd, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.

TCM: Yeah, I saw it during the afternoon at the froo-froo art house theatre (note the spelling) in town here, while there was a college football game was going on two miles away. So I don't think our audience was full of real baseball fans either. I think a lot of people there to see the eye candy. I'm referring, of course, to Jonah Hill.

Bill: Definitely.

TCM: Chris Pratt was good as Scott Hatteberg too. I loved how he exuded absolutely no confidence in himself.

Bill: Yeah, I thought he was very good. He was great in the first scene you see him in (even though it was completely, hilariously unrealistic).

TCM: Speaking of unrealistic, that Cleveland scene? Can I just get that edited out of the DVD when I inevitably buy it? The acting in it was great, but that whole exchange was just so ridiculous.

Bill: It really was. I don't know why that couldn't have happened at the Winter Meetings, or some other occasion at which they might actually plausibly meet face to face. Plus, then you get the giant Wahoo head uglying up the whole picture.

TCM: That's a great point. It really showed a lack of imagination on the filmmakers' part, and a lack of familiarity of how baseball works. Also, yes, boo Wahoo. Do you think it's too early to do a Moneyball movie?

Bill: Not at all. The one benefit to doing it later might have been that the general sportswriting and sports-fan public might have a better idea of what it's actually about, so we wouldn't get all this "Moneyball is a great story but it didn't work" nonsense.

TCM: I wonder whether we're simply still too close to it. Memories are too sharp (so some of the inaccuracies appear magnified), the debate is still apparently ongoing about what Moneyball means (although in the stathead community that should be somewhat settled), and we may not have enough proper perspective on it yet. I guess I should say "me" instead of "we" since I don't really want to speak for all statheads, let alone all baseball fans, but still. Some of the nitpicking that's happened, I wonder if those issues would have been less of a concern 10 more years down the road.

Bill: Maybe so, but then, it might be a lot less interesting in ten years, too. I think the timing was just about right.

TCM: It's entirely possible that I just would never be completely satisfied with it, given how important the book was. Like if someone were to update The Great Gatsby.

Bill: The one other thing that made me enjoy it less than I should've, though, other than the inaccuracies, was that it brought up some kind of unpleasant memories. There are things -- two in particular, the uselessness of scouts and not caring about defense -- that we'd rather not admit that we used to believe, but that we really, really did. And those things were wrong, and we know that now, but the movie (out of necessity) treats them as the gospel truth. At one point, Beane actually says "who cares about his defense?," derisively, and I think he probably did say things much like that all the time, but it kind of made me cringe.

TCM: Yeah, I agree with that. There was a great opportunity for some push back to that narrative during Beane's fight with Grady Fuson in the movie, when Fuson points out that there are things in baseball that statistics and computers can't tell you. There's a chance for Beane to say "Yeah, that's true. But it's also true that baseball had been believing solely in those things for too long, and that scouting would have to share even a smidgen of the spotlight, and stats should shoulder more of the responsibility than it had been to that point.” I get that that is different from what actually happened in the book, but then, Carlos Pena wasn't traded in May for "a reliever and some cash" either.

Bill: No, and Pena wasn't playing well (at all) when they sent him down, either. I don't understand what they did with Pena's story. Seems to me he could've been left out completely and we wouldn't be missing anything. I don't remember him in the book at all.

TCM: He really wasn't. He was basically just in there to create conflict between Beane and Howe, and to give Hill a chance to tell someone they've been traded. Although the portrayal of Pena really is nothing like what Keith Law led us to believe it would be. Pena's not a bad egg or sullen or anything. He's actually pretty cool.

Bill: I agree. I think Law's comment on the film's treatment of Pena was unfair and totally missed the mark. All his other criticisms are fair, though I disagree with most of them. But that one seemed off-base to me.

TCM: Yeah, in fact, we get to know absolutely none of the players really except Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, Jeremy Giambi, Chad Bradford and Mike Magnante. It's funny that Johnny Damon is more of a character in this movie than Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, or Billy Koch.

Bill: Yes, and I think that's the biggest part of the "inaccuracies" that made it hard for me to enjoy it as much as I wanted to. You see almost nothing of, arguably, their four best players. They're not at all necessary to telling a good story, but they're pretty essential to understanding the "real" story.

TCM: Yeah, and that's a shame, because those guys really deserve some credit. It's like telling the story of The Three Muskateers by focusing on Lenny, Jack, and Sid instead of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan. They could still do more than being names on the backs of uniforms during the on-field celebrations. Hudson's biggest contribution is sucking in the 20th consecutive victory

Bill: Well, if you're telling the story of the 2002 A's, yes, absolutely. If you're telling the story of how Billy Beane and Bill James transformed baseball, then I think you can argue that those guys just get in the way. So what I'm saying is: we, who watched the A's quite a bit and are pretty familiar with the whole story, would have preferred to have seen more of Chavez, Hudson, Zito and Mulder. But the movie's purpose wasn't to chronicle the 2002 season and tell you what really happened. Its purpose was to follow this character of Billy Beane and capture the essence of how his ingenuity and willingness to take a chance ultimately changed the game of baseball. Those four guys had almost nothing at all to do with that story. They would've made it more enjoyable for me, but couldn't have done much to make it a better movie.

I actually think the movie's treatment of the book’s ideas – putting them forth as gospel, even the ones we know now were wrong -- was necessary. The smart new revolutionary guys can certainly have flaws, but those flaws can't be foundational to their belief system. The whole story goes out the window if that happens. It would be interesting to see the same great filmmakers make a Moneyball film directed only at the sabermetric crowd. I bet it would be a completely different, much more nuanced story.

TCM: Yeah, I think I will have to learn to be content with the fact that you and I aren't the primary audience this movie is aimed at, because there was no way we wouldn't go see this movie. It had to attract the casual fan, and you're right that, by choosing not to focus on the finer details, it's able to tell a much more compelling story to that crowd. To make it more compelling to the sabermetric folks, I think it would need to focus more on making it as accurate as possible. That means showing the obsessive focus on on-base percentage that the movie already shows, but it also means a more detailed discussion of the team itself and its construction, including WTF Terrance Long contributes.

It also means cataloging the failures of the 2002 team, like the draft. If the sabermetric movement is about objective player analysis, I think they'd want an objective movie and not just one that panders to them and their ideology. At least I hope they would.

Bill: I think generally the focus would've just moved away from Beane and toward the process. No daughter or ex-wife, for sure. And I think they would've softened the scouts-nerds conflict to better reflect current sensibilities (and reality).

I want to mention two other things: (1) the one guy I can't believe wasn't in it, or even mentioned at all (as far as I could tell), was the draft’s one big success story, Nick Swisher.

TCM: Great point.

Bill: And (2) from a realism perspective, Michael Lewis really should've been in this movie, shouldn't he? How great would it have been if they just had this ubiquitous character who never spoke, but was just always in every scene with a notepad or tape recorder, and no one ever mentioned him?

TCM: I kept thinking that. Where was the annoying writer guy who was privy to all this conversation and taking notes?

Bill: That would've been phenomenal.

TCM: That's actually pretty funny. The entire book and movie is possible because there was a writer there. Then the movie doesn't even mention that there was a writer who was going to be hanging around all season.

Bill: I mean, there are probably hundreds of movies based on non-fiction books that do the same thing. But I'm sure he became a pretty meaningful part of the team's season, and especially Beane's.

TCM: Very true. That’s definitely a major part of the season that isn’t covered even a little bit. It’s especially interesting because one could argue it helped lead to the A’s downfall. Or barring that, at least led to a broader understanding of what they were trying to do, and how that inspired an entire movement.

Bill: And with that, I think I need to be gone.

TCM: Ditto.

That’s the end of our conversation, but both TCM and Bill encourage you to continue it, both with us and each other. In the comments, on the Twitter, and in bars. Go see the movie. Both of us think it’s essential for any fan of the game, to help you understand, in part, how baseball’s statistical revolution gained a toehold in the industry. But keep in mind that it’s only the beginning. The stathead community has grown more diverse and more mature over the last nine years, has embraced what scouting and experience have to teach, and have come to value defense. The lesson of Moneyball isn’t to get guys who can walk. It’s to get the best players you can for as little money as you can afford. And the methods to achieve that goal are in a constant state of evolution and flux.

1 comment:

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

This was terrific. Great conversation. I can't add to it because I haven't seen it. But now I want to.