Moneyball began as an idea that became a best-selling book that became a revolution that became a movie. So, how did the numbers become sex symbols?
This is an article from the Sept. 26, 2011 issue
One of the many pleasant surprises about Moneyball, a movie based on a book based on an idea, is how much humor director Bennett Miller smuggles into the picture. There is the moment, for instance, when Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt with a bravado tinged with desperation, sits in the living room of Scott Hatteberg, a 32-year-old, rag-armed catcher whom Beane nonetheless wants to sign as a free agent. He is smitten by Hatteberg's plate discipline, which will yield the on-base percentage that stamps the player as an undervalued asset, as a market efficiency, the central idea around which the book revolves. The catch: The A's want to turn Hatteberg into a first baseman.
"I've only ever played catcher," he objects.
"It's not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash," says Beane to infield coach Ron Washington, now the Rangers' manager, who is seated beside him.
"It's incredibly hard," replies Washington, not missing a beat.
The film is so crisp and clean, Miller's pace and storytelling so seamless, that it's fair to assume that the transplanting of Michael Lewis's best-selling book to the big screen was a facile operation. In this case, as in the cases of many of the bad-body players drafted by Beane through the years, appearances deceive. Even by the sclerotic standards of Hollywood's studio system, the making of Moneyball was tortured, halting, incredibly hard.
"It seemed like a shoot-the-moon project," recalls Miller, the movie's third director, "because it was complex and messed up in a thousand different ways." Eight years after it first went into development and two years after The New York Times carried its obituary (MONEY WORRIES KILL A-LIST FILM AT LAST MINUTE), Moneyball will open in theaters nationwide on Friday.
It was worth the wait. Like all enduring sports movies, this one transcends its genre. Moneyball is a movie about baseball the way The Sopranos was a series about the waste-management business. "What we were trying to do is tell an unconventional story in the Trojan horse of a conventional baseball movie," says Pitt, who clearly has a blast playing Beane, the wisecracking, furniture-hurling executive who is forced by events beyond his control to "adapt or die." With his fresh-out-of-Yale sidekick, Peter Brand (based on Paul DePodesta, Beane's former fresh-out-of-Harvard assistant, and played with delicious restraint by a contemplative, buttoned-down Jonah Hill), this odd couple takes on the baseball establishment. Armed with Brand's spreadsheets and rote memory, Beane's gallows humor and the courage of their convictions, they march against the grain of a century and a half of baseball orthodoxy. And in the end, they win.
But it's not a Hollywood sort of victory. The 2002 Oakland A's did not win the World Series, or even a round of the playoffs. But with a lineup full of cast-offs and undervalued players—"like an island of misfit toys," as Brand proclaims—they did win 103 games, including 20 in a row, the longest streak in American League history. And however many times his many detractors might point to World Series titles as the only totems of success, Beane was vindicated.
There is no floodlight-exploding, walk-off Roy Hobbs homer to win the pennant—none of the treacle and sentimentality to which the directors of baseball movies have long been susceptible. There is an abiding faith in the material at hand, which is very strong.
There was no need to tart up reality because "the real story gave us more than enough," says Michael De Luca, one of the film's producers. "Especially when there are moments that, frankly, a Hollywood screenwriter wouldn't have the imagination to make up." Case in point: Hatteberg hitting the pinch-hit walk-off home run that wins the 20th game in the streak, but only after the A's had blown an 11-run lead against the Royals. Says De Luca, "That's the kind of plot point that literally would get laughed out of a room."
It's been nearly a decade since Lewis spent the 2002 season shadowing Beane, chronicling his then revolutionary approach to evaluating baseball talent. "When he first came here," the G.M. recalls, "we didn't know he was going to write a book. But he's a great storyteller, and just an interesting person. And really, that's how he ended up getting the access he did. He sort of hypnotized us."
The G.M. of a low-payroll team accustomed to seeing his best players poached by more affluent organizations ("We're organ donors for the rich," as Pitt puts it in the movie), Beane fought back by conducting an audacious experiment. "At the bottom of the Oakland experiment," Lewis wrote, "was a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why." Beane's search for "inefficiencies in the game" and the embrace of new metrics that solved those inefficiencies in essence "amounted to a systematic scientific investigation" of his sport.
Experiments! Systematic scientific investigations! Not exactly catnip to studio executives. Moneyball is a terrific book that has sold more than a million copies and is required reading at the nation's leading business schools and executive training seminars everywhere. But was there a motion picture in it?
The author didn't think so. "The Blind Side was a movie," says Lewis of his 2006 book on Michael Oher, who grew up in poverty in Memphis and is adopted by an affluent Tennessee family and makes his way into the first round of the NFL draft. "The problem [with Moneyball] was, I always thought of it as a biography of an idea," he says. "And I wrote it as a biography of an idea. And you can't make a movie of an idea."
You can, however, make a movie about a man at a crossroads, a onetime baseball wunderkind whose major league career had been a major bust; a man "whose life was turned upside down by professional baseball," as Lewis put it, "and who, miraculously, found a way to return the favor."
That, at least, was Rachael Horovitz's hunch. After nearly 12 years of working for Hollywood studios, she'd just ventured out on her own as a freelance producer when she picked up Moneyball in 2003. Its themes—taking a new path, having the belief in one's self to take a risk and move forward—"sang to me," she recalls. "Thirty-five minutes into the book, I knew it was a movie."
Studio after studio disagreed. "I felt like Billy," she says, "trying to convince people to see something that didn't look like a movie to them."
Finally, Sony bit, eight years and countless setbacks later. Yes, things did look grim for a while. But Lewis makes a good point: "As long as Brad Pitt wanted to make this movie, it was going to get made."
The batter made contact, launching a high pop fly to centerfield, patrolled on this muggy Missouri afternoon by a 12-year-old Brad Pitt, who lost the ball in the sun. It bounced off one of his storied cheekbones, opening a gash that would take 18 stitches to close and reduce his mother to tears. (Jane Pitt had no way of knowing it at the time, but she wept on behalf of women all over the planet.) While Pitt was charming, grounded and self-deprecating throughout a recent, lengthy interview—"It's shameful how little I know about baseball... . I'm amazed they let me do this movie"—he could not resist adding that he did pick up that ball and throw the runner out at second.
For the most part, he says, "Baseball and I didn't get along that well." At Springfield (Mo.) Kickapoo High, he gave football a shot. "I wrestled one year. I dove one year. Everything but baseball."
This uneasy relationship with the national pastime didn't prevent him from falling for Moneyball. After reviewing the script and agreeing to play Beane four years ago, Pitt devoured the book, which he basically memorized, says De Luca. During meetings questions would arise, "and Brad would say, 'Oh, wait—Michael Lewis writes about that on page 272.'"
Pitt admits making a dramatic movie based on a book "with math and science and sabermetrics at its forefront ... was a huge question for us. But somehow it didn't feel like a risk. I was just so taken with the book. It had these universal themes."
A small-market G.M. with a small-market budget, Beane is a decided underdog. "And I'm a sucker for the underdog story," says Pitt. He's also a connoisseur of '70s films, which, to his mind, Moneyball evoked. Beane's and Brand's compulsive number-crunching—their sabermetrician's geekiness—reminded Pitt of the obsessiveness of Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. Like Jack Nicholson's R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Beane is "the voice of reason," says Pitt, an antihero "speaking against establishment." In the banter and byplay between the jaded G.M. and his ambitious assistant, Pitt was looking for a Woodward-and-Bernstein kind of chemistry from All the President's Men.
"In scripts today," he explains, "someone has a big epiphany, learns a lesson, then comes out the other side different. In these older films I'm talking about, the beast at the end of the movie was the same beast in the beginning of the movie. What changed was the world around them, by just a couple of degrees. Nothing monumental. I think that's true about us. We fine-tune ourselves, but big change is not real."
Beane will argue that he has changed since '02, in at least one regard. "I'm almost 50 years old. There are very few desks I can flip anymore." Lewis details the bat-breaking tantrums for which Beane was notorious as a player. If the movie is to be believed (it is), he has continued to lash out at inanimate objects as a G.M. "Have I tossed some things in my career? Sure," he admits. "But that's along with every other G.M. you've ever interviewed."
The chairs, desks and coolers at the Oakland Coliseum are safer now: Beane had partial shoulder-replacement surgery in the spring. "They put a titanium cap on the humerus," he explains. "I had no cartilage in there—it was bone on bone. I won't be surfing Mavericks anytime soon, but at least I can put my hands over my head when I go through airport security."
Beane remembers a morning last year when his wife, Tara, rose unusually early. "She was up at six in the morning, blow-drying her hair." Later, when the nanny arrived—the Beanes have young twins—Billy noticed that she was wearing a skirt. "I'd never seen her in anything but jeans."
As it happened, they were having company that day: Pitt was stopping by for a combination social call and role research. As Beane said to his wife and nanny, "Who are you guys kidding?"
Another time Pitt visited with Angelina Jolie and two of their six children. After sending out a decoy car from the Claremont hotel in Berkeley, where they were staying, they pulled out, unnoticed, in a regular rental car—"just like any other family," Beane recalls. Pitt called Beane from the road to give him a heads-up. "I'm not sure I lost 'em," said the cinematic Beane to the real-life Beane. "Some paparazzi might show up at your doorstep."
"But they didn't," says the real-life Beane. "He'd lost them."
Yes, it was a tad surreal, Beane allows, hanging with Pitt, whom the G.M. describes as "a really good guy" with a gift for putting people at ease and for engaging in the banter that goes on in the clubhouse. "He just jumped right in."
Nor did it hurt, while steeping himself in the culture of baseball, that Pitt knows his way around a tin of chewing tobacco. "I'm an Oklahoma-Missouri boy," he notes, "so I'm no stranger to a bit of dip. We start early with that, so really, I was just revisiting my roots."
In one of the movie's strongest scenes, Pitt sits at a large table with 10 or so veteran scouts who speak to each other in a tongue understood only by them. The clash of old and new thinking is on stark display. Creased and weather-beaten, they effuse about the purity of a prospect's swing, the sound made by the ball coming off his bat. It is left to Beane to puncture the reveries.
"If this guy's such a good hitter," he says, "why can't he hit good?"
For these scenes, Miller used actual major league scouts—some of whom no doubt butted heads with Beane—and encouraged them to put things in their own words. Those sessions yielded a trove of unscripted lines that ended up in the movie. The funniest ad-lib, Pitt recalls, came from a scout who pointed out that a prospect had an ugly girlfriend. "Ugly girlfriend means bad eyesight," warned the scout.
Says Pitt, "We put a version of that line in the script, 'Ugly girlfriend means no confidence.' But what he really said was 'bad eyesight.'"
In that scene with the scouts, Beane poses a question to his bespectacled assistant, the newly hired Brand, who doesn't answer right away. "You want me to speak?" Jonah Hill finally says.
"When I point at you, yeah," Pitt replies.
Hill would not be in the picture had the film's second director, Steven Soderbergh, not left the project in the summer of '09. Soderburgh's art-house vision for the film entailed on-screen interviews with ex-players, a kind of "documentary enhancement" that set off alarms in the offices of studio execs, who pulled the plug on production.
But Moneyball was not dead. It was, to quote The Princess Bride's Miracle Max (played by Billy Crystal), "only mostly dead." The film was resurrected when Sony hired a third director, Miller, who hadn't made a movie since his Oscar-nominated Capote in 2005. He and Pitt clicked, their visions for the film dovetailing nicely. "Both of us were drawn to some of the same films from the '70s," says Miller, "where you don't have to have a character that stops the asteroid from hitting the earth."
Miller brought in Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Academy Award for his performance as Truman Capote, to play A's manager Art Howe. (Hoffman's obstinate, dyspeptic take on the obstinate, dyspeptic Howe is a darkly comic gem.) For the role of Brand—for which DePodesta, uncomfortable with the script's portrayal of him, refused to lend his name—he pulled a Billy Beane, going way off the board to cast Hill, best known for his comedic roles in such movies as Superbad and Get Him to the Greek. But the 27-year-old Hill was ready to spread his wings, try something new. His depiction of Brand, the savant Yalie, is a masterpiece of understatement. "As an actor, the willingness to sit in a pregnant pause shows a certain confidence," says Hill. "You don't have to make a meal out of every moment, you can sit and think like you would in real life."
To find the "in" to his character, all Hill had to do was look around. With veteran A-list actors such as Pitt and Hoffman, heavyweight producers like De Luca and Scott Rudin, top-shelf screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, "I kind of felt just like Peter Brand," he recalls, "the youngest person in the room with all these revered professionals."
In Boston in the spring of 2010 to promote Get Him to the Greek, Hill agreed to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game. While at Fenway, as part of his prep for Moneyball, he visited Sox G.M. Theo Epstein. "Him and his guy were there, working hard, but having a lot of fun. They were younger guys, and they seemed like they were really good buddies. It seemed like me and my friends, if we had run a baseball team."
How did the first pitch go, he is asked.
"I was proud of my pitch," he says.
Windup or stretch?
"I went for a Hideo-style windup, but it didn't really work."
"F------ heater right down the middle. Broke the catcher's hand."
"I heard the Jugs clocked you in the mid-90s."
"All I know is the catcher's mitt exploded like a pi√±ata."
True, Peter Brand gets more straight lines than wisecracks. But it's nice to see that Hill is still ... funny.
Hill threw out the first pitch at the A's-Tigers game on Sunday, the day before the movie premiered in Oakland. Lewis was also slated to be at the premiere. The writer knew from his experience with The Blind Side that once they start making the movie, the author of the book on which the movie is based is of no particular relevance to anyone. "Nobody really gives a s--- what I think," he says. "And I don't either!"
The problem, he says, is that the movie people become uncomfortable "with the writer of the book being that detached. So there's this phony social interaction that goes on where they pretend to be interested in what I have to say." He was invited to read the drafts of the scripts and visit the set and talk to the director, "all the while knowing that nothing I said made one whit of difference.
"And you know what? They shouldn't care. I'm glad they don't care. It suggests a certain level of initiative on their part."
"Having said all that," he goes on, "I'd say they got my book on the screen about as well as you can get my book on the screen."
It is done without pathos and sentimentality, which is not to say Moneyball won't awaken in A's fans—whose team will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season—an acute nostalgia. Lewis recently watched a final cut of the movie with Beane, who leaned over at one point and whispered: "Damn, we were good."