Before the baseball season ends in a few days and before “Moneyball” leaves movie theaters and the public consciousness, I need to say a few things. Not that many sports issues get me riled up, but “Moneyball,” the first letter capitalized or not, gets me going. Now, let me state first that I consider Michael Lewis, who wrote the book on which the movie was based, to be a brilliant thinker and writer, the absolute best at what he does, which is making complicated subjects accessible, new and revealing.
But I absolutely hate the movie “Moneyball” and everything it stands for. I think it is a fraud, one that people I respect bought into, for what they thought were noble reasons having to do with the little guys vs. the big bullies. I also dislike the philosophy of moneyball as it is applied to sports. My problem with the movie is a matter of truth. My problem with the philosophy is a question of art and beauty.
The movie features Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, and his struggle to make a success out of a small-market franchise in a world where baseball teams with the most money can buy the best players.
Nothing to dispute there; the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and a few other big-market teams have the money and buy the best players when they can. (I hate them, too, by the way.) But to watch “Moneyball,” one would think that Beane, played by Brad Pitt, was a genius because, with the astute guidance of a lovably pudgy baseball nerd, he forced the manager to play Scott Hatteberg, a poor fielder with an excellent on-base percentage, at first base, and pulled off a trade that brought in a reliever named Ricardo Rincon, who also projected well in the mathematical equations Beane and his sidekick decided led directly to wins. Those are the two key bits of baseball strategy in the movie. Watching it, one would think that those moves led inexorably to the record-breaking 20-game winning streak of the 2002 A’s.
And that is the deceit of the movie, one that the writers, directors and actors had to know. Why were the A’s successful that year? The main reason was that they had three of the best starters in the American League — Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder — pitching for them. All three were drafted on the recommendation of the team’s scouts, who are portrayed in the movie as morons who just don’t get it. Zito, the A’s first-round pick in 1999, won the Cy Young Award in 2002 with a 23-5 win-loss record and a 2.75 earned run average. Hudson, selected in the sixth round by the A’s in 1997, went 15-9 in 2002 with a 2.98 earned run average. And Mulder, picked in the first round by the A’s in 1998, went 19-7 with a 3.47 earned run average.
Yet Zito and Mulder are not mentioned in the movie, while Hudson is shown only fleetingly, blowing an 11-0 lead. And there is only one brief action shot of the other true star of that 2002 team — Miguel Tejada, the Dominican shortstop the A’s signed as a teenager. All Tejada did that year was bat .308 and hit 34 home runs and win the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. What did moneyball have to do with these four key players? Nothing. And what happened to the genius of Billy Beane after they all eventually left the A’s? The team has barely been heard from since. Other small-market teams, including the Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays, have far outpaced them.
But enough about the inside-baseball aspect. My biggest problem with “Moneyball” has more to do with aesthetics and the meaning of life. This is my answer to those friends who think that “Moneyball” is some paean to the underdogs. That notion is garbage — it really is an ode to the old Vince Lombardi saying (which was not his, but that is another story), “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” If the moneyball concept worked to perfection, what would it lead to? A team full of Scott Hattebergs who play no defense, hit okay but not great and draw a ton of walks.
Nothing against Hatteberg — it was not his fault that he became a symbol; he was just a ballplayer. But what is the beauty of baseball? What is its meaning beyond wins and losses?
The thrill of baseball has nothing to do with statistics, as much a part of the game as they are. It has to do with the athletic skill of the players: the rifle throw from right field to third base; the dazzling speed of a runner stealing a base; the grace of a second baseman making the turn on a double play.
Perhaps “Moneyball” struck a chord with audiences because it presented what seemed like a fresh, unromantic, realist’s view while also presenting a smart plan of attack for the little guys. But in doing so, it not only perpetrated a fraud, it also glorified statistics over beauty and joy, and that is a trade-off that diminishes life itself.
The writer is an associate editor of The Post. His latest book is “Where He Came From: The Story of Barack Obama,” to be published next summer.