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Capitalism and baseball.
Baseball’s back and better than ever! Especially if you’re a Baltimore Orioles fan, like me, but definitely not if you’re an Oakland A’s fan, like my cousin Reynold. In that case, baseball’s temporarily back and far from good. Take that, Reynold!
Moneyball. Is there another sports movie like Moneyball? Major League (1989)? Back in the day1, sports movies highlighted teamwork, and in the cases where a man stands alone at a plate: individual achievement. Films like Hoop Dreams (1994), The Mighty Ducks (1992), Hoosiers (1986), and Rocky (1976) are all great sports movies. Further, these sports movies come from American values: dreaming big, teamwork, experienced leadership, and working hard as hell. But they lack the purest of American values: (not unfettered gun violence) capitalism.
Moneyball is a sports drama directed by Bennett Miller and starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. The film is based on Michael Lewis's 2003 non-fiction book of the same name, which chronicles Beane's attempt to build a competitive baseball team on a limited budget using statistical analysis and data-driven decision-making. It’s a sports movie for all of the statistics nerds that lived for too long in the shadows, poring over tiny print in newspapers, later, poring over tiny print on computer screens. It’s a film that, despite its focus on the behind-the-scenes minutiae of building a pro baseball team, creates the same will-they-won’t-they underdog suspense you’d want to feel watching any of your favorite sports movies. It’s hard to watch the film and not become a fan of the Oakland Athletics.
At the heart of Moneyball, which makes it such an interesting film, is a seemingly paradoxical indictment and celebration of capitalism. As if we should be proud of overcoming the obstacles we’ve created in the first place. Maybe we should be? The film lays a clear problem at your feet in the first two minutes: How is a team with a 39 million dollar budget supposed to compete with a team that has a 114 million dollar budget? As Pitt’s Beane puts it, the problem is “there are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty feet of crap. And then there’s us.” One could argue that Moneyball presents a nuanced view of capitalism, acknowledging its flaws while recognizing its potential for innovation and progress. After all, we meet Peter Brand2 (Jonah Hill), the Yale-minted nerd who shows Beane there is a better way to win; how the free market system can be improved through data-driven decision-making and the willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. But one could also argue that an even more nuanced view would be to look at the A’s record despite Beane’s “forever-changing-baseball” season.
The glorification of business acumen and capitalistic endeavor kicked off by Moneyball and fueled by 2010’s hustle-culture and LinkedIn Lunatics is reaching fascinating new heights, and not without artistic merit. The recent release of Air (2023), a movie about a sneaker deal, and somewhat recent releases of films like High Flying Bird (2019) or Draft Day (2014) show us an entertainment industry catering to the Gordon Gecko in us rather than the Rocky Balboa. In Major League, the capitalists crunching the numbers were the villains, and this was in the 80s! The 80s! Now the heroes are the folks working hard behind the scenes to make a fortune.
I enjoy returning to Moneyball because it is a movie of our age, for better or worse. The score is subtle, the direction is steady, and the pacing builds like an actual baseball season. Before you know it, you’re invested. You get the sports film that has you rooting for the local heroes, but you also get the dirty green carpet in the back offices of the stadium. The radio broadcast of the away game from the seats of the home stadium. The click-clack of the mechanical keyboard in the front office. And, of course, the earnest capitalists working within a rigged system. It’s glorious. It’s human. It also has one of the funniest lines you’ll hear fly under the radar in any movie:
Billie (suggesting a player for the team): Scott Hatteberg.
Scouts: Who? Huh? What?
Billie: Exactly, sounds like an Oakland A already.
Moneyball is a good sports movie and a great American movie. If you look closely, perhaps even closer than the filmmakers' intention, you’ll see a scrappy team of hustlers who do everything they can to win against all odds. (Spoiler alert) They still can’t win. It’s a film about America’s pastime: being crushed under a boot while holding out hope that one day you’ll get to wear the boot. Watching Moneyball feels like playing the board game Monopoly, a game invented by notable babe Lizzie Magie as an educational tool to demonstrate why concentrated land ownership is bad. We’re supposed to play the game a few times and go, “huh, yup, seems bad!” Instead, we got hooked on resetting the board repeatedly, happy to take another shot at being the one who ends up on top. Unfortunately, in real life, the board only gets set once.
Fortunately, baseball isn’t real life.
Written by Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin; Directed by Bennett Miller