The Biggest Brain Wins

I SAW MONEYBALL AND ENJOYED IT. Though I don’t follow sports, I’ve nevertheless seen most sports movies because sports are a metaphor for courage in the face of life’s challenges. The sports movie formula is simple: an underdog beats the odds and emerges as a champion. The consistent success of sports films lies in the fact that life doesn’t usually follow this formula, though we wish it would.

In real life, the underdog is usually less talented and driven than his opponent. And if his opponent is the New York Yankees, he also has less money, and this matters. Most sports movies gloss over the fact that our hero’s opponent gets the big bucks because he’s more talented and driven, and the money he gets only widens the gap between them: he has better training, better equipment and facilities, and thus will likely crush our upstart hero.

Sports films usually end with the gladiators meeting on the field of battle, usually with the hero upsetting the order and besting his opponent. But not Moneyball, and that’s risky. In Tin Cup, Kevin Costner blows the U.S. Open in a spectacular orgy of self-destruction so over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh. That’s good, because Tin Cup is a comedy and it is fiction.

Moneyball is neither. Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, former pro baseball player who now GMs the Oakland A’s. Though he was a player, he is filled with regret about the road not taken, in his case a college education, maturity, perhaps of soul as well as athletic ability, and the unrealized promise of a more complete life.

This is especially poignant for Beane because he exhibits something we don’t often see in sports movies: book smarts. Sports movie heroes are always hard-working, talented, and driven. But often—think Rocky here—they are somewhat dim, because when it comes to battling Goliath, a certain amount of dumb on David’s part is essential.

But Billy Beane is not dumb; he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know. He discovers that baseball statistics truly do add up to something: a numbingly complex calculus that can accurately predict performance on the diamond. And when Beane and his Yale economics-trained assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) crunch the stats, they discover that baseball pays too much for the wrong abilities. Hitting home runs is not as important as the ability to regularly get on base. Troubled, imperfect players, not sleek superstars, offer the best ROI, and Beane and Brand set out to build a winning team with the talent a limited budget can buy them.

Unlike most sports movies, where the action is on the field, the drama in this movie largely takes place in the windowless offices beneath the bleachers. It sees athletes as commodities that are sold when they do not pay off. So when three superstar free-agents are lured away from the team by the highest bidders, Beane and Brand rebuild with injured, flawed, inexpensive talent and, after a rocky start, manage a 20-game winning streak (one of the longest in baseball history), and win their division.

Oh, and then they squander an 11-run lead to lose to the Minnesota Twins in the league playoffs.

But they made it to the finals with a per player cost only a third of that spent by the Yankees, and at the end of the film Billy is offered an immense sum to bring his management style to the Red Sox.

Here, the film falls back into formula. Billy Beane was never an insider, even though he made it to the Show. He failed there, as he’s failed in his marriage, and, as the final card in the film tells us, he is still failing to build a World Series championship team in Oakland. But Beane’s story is not about championships, it’s about changing baseball, which many insiders believe is already perfect. But strikes, prima donna millionaire superstars, and declining attendance tell the true story: baseball is dying and money may be killing it.

What I liked most about the film was not the inevitable match-up at the end where the hero does/does not succeed. Winning is actually irrelevant to a post-modern sports film anyway; it’s about the journey, so we’re not surprised when the A’s lose to the Twins. What surprises us is that Billy Beane had a vision, kept at it, did the awful, grinding, numbers-crunching work, found a thread, pulled on it, and built a winning team without the most important tool of modern sports: money.

The lack of money in baseball is like Rocky without his southpaw switch, without which he could not have beaten Apollo Creed. And yet Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics competed without a southpaw switch, won a championship, and Boston took note.

But even the title is misleading. This movie is not about money or lack of it in pro sports. It’s about playing your game, not your opponent’s game—playing the cards you’re dealt. In that regard, Billy Beane is a champion because of his response when the Sox asked him to do in Boston what he had done in Oakland, which would mean moving three thousand miles from his daughter.

But Billy Beane is smart, so you know how the movie ends.

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