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Mostly about money, only tangentially about baseball, Moneyball is still pretty damn good.

click to enlarge Brad Pitt, like Billy Beane, staked a lot on a project everyone considered a loser.
  • Brad Pitt, like Billy Beane, staked a lot on a project everyone considered a loser.

If you’re looking for a baseball movie that’s actually about playing baseball, look elsewhere. This is about as close to a “baseball” movie as It Happens Every Spring, in which scientist Ray Milland becomes a winning pitcher after he invents a formula that makes bats repel balls.

Moneyball is a true story about the business of baseball, and about how a renegade general manager changed the way that business is conducted. It kicks off in 2001, when Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), GM of the Oakland Athletics, learns that his team has gotten knuckled under by the Yankees in an American League Division Series game.

It’s obvious from the look on his face that he’s not happy and hasn’t been for a long time, concerning his losing team.

A background radio burbles on about the Yankees having deep pockets and how they’re “pilfering players.” In fact, at that time, the Yankees had about three times the budget to spend on players that the lowly Athletics had.

With the loss of three key players to the Yanks, Beane tells his gaggle of stone-faced old-school scouts, “We have to think differently.”

That new style of thinking leads him, by chance, to Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an analyst for the Cleveland Indians who has very little self confidence, but sure knows a lot about the game. (Brand is based on real-life analyst Paul DePodesta, who apparently didn’t want his name involved in the film after seeing his portrayal in the source book.)

It’s Brand who pulls together a plan using numbers and statistics over talent and perceived value as a way to assemble a winning team, a method that seemingly everyone else in the sport at the time wouldn’t even consider. In other words, it’s scouts putting together a team through experience and knowledge versus this new guy suggesting it should all be done with information from a computer. Beane likes Brand and his radical ideas and hires him. That line from Casablanca comes to mind: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Actually, these guys don’t have a true friendship, but every scene Pitt and Hill share together is terrific. As actors they come from two completely different camps, yet they mesh perfectly here, with Pitt as the smiling, sparkling, confident one, and Hill as the shlubby, shy, eventually equally confident one, going back and forth with each other.

There’s fascinating stuff about the struggles of creating a team of undervalued players who they can afford and are convinced will becomes winners. There’s also a strong, if oddly presented side story of ongoing head-butting between Beane and the team’s stubborn, non-believer of a manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

In areas of acting and of getting the complicated main story told in an entirely accessible manner, the film succeeds. It only suffers when it tries to bring in too many other strands. It’s interesting to know that Beane was once a professional ballplayer who never really made it, but there are a few too many flashbacks of those non-glory days. The inclusion of Beane’s 12-year-old daughter and his ex-wife (Robin Wright) doesn’t add anything of major importance here. Too many inconsequential pieces like those make the slightly overlong film feel like it’s gone into extra innings.

To the film’s credit, Pitt gets to deliver what’s got to be the shortest locker room pep talk in baseball movie history. And its second half features some exciting playing sequences that hardcore fans will remember and even non-fans will get caught up in. In the end, watching Moneyball is a fine way to spend the waning days of the baseball season.

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