‘Moneyball’ succeeds, both on and off the screen

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger
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Wanting to avoid the opening night crowd, I slipped into a late Saturday night showing of “Moneyball,” the screen adaptation of the Michael Lewis book that’s been irritating baseball professionals, including a Baseball Hall of Famer like Joe Morgan, for close to a decade. But while I did get to see the movie, one I enjoyed immensely, I wasn’t able to avoid the crowds. In the end, I was barely able to find a seat near the rafters for a 10:45 p.m. show at Tysons Corner.

For the uninitiated, “Moneyball” is the story of how the small-market Oakland A’s, at the behest of General Manager Billy Beane, were forced to embrace a new way of thinking about baseball in order to compete with teams that had far more money to spend on players. For Beane and the A’s, the crisis point came after the 2001 baseball season. After winning 102 games and the American League’s Western Division, the departure of three key free agents  (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen) blew a hole in the roster that the A’s couldn’t afford to paper over with cash.

Instead, using principles pioneered by baseball outsider Bill James, the A’s reconstructed their lineup using inexpensive players that the baseball marketplace had undervalued. Replacing first baseman Giambi was Scott Hatteberg, a former catcher with nerve damage so severe he could no longer throw a baseball back to the pitcher. But a closer look at hitting statistics revealed that while Hatteberg would never be the home run hitter that Giambi was, he had a batting eye that helped him draw plenty of walks.

Also rescued off the scrap heap was outfielder David Justice, a former superstar who had lost much of his pop but like Hatteberg could still find a way to get on base even if he didn’t put a bat on the ball.

Finally, there was Chad Bradford, a middle reliever who was able to get hitters out, even though scouts were turned off by his quirky submarine delivery.

Mix it all together, and the A’s were able to win 103 games in 2002 in a season that also included a 20-game winning streak that tied the American League record for consecutive victories.

At least that’s the story that Michael Lewis told. But as you might have heard, a number of critics have pointed out that there were a few details that he left out of the story. Even after the departures via free agency of Giambi, Damon and Isringhausen after the 2001 season, it wasn’t as if the cupboard in Oakland was completely bare. The middle of the lineup was anchored by Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada, two hitters more than capable of hitting 30 home runs and driving in better than 100 runs per season.

Even better, the A’s boasted what could reasonably be described as the best starting rotation in baseball with Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. Even the A’s fourth starter, the unheralded Cory Lidle, posted a sub-4.00 ERA while pitching almost 200 innings, the sort of numbers that would get him a job pitching in the middle of the rotation just about anywhere else in the majors. As Lewis’s critics have pointed out, having a rotation stacked like that had very little to do with the principles Beane was embracing and far more to do with incredible good fortune in the amateur draft.

And of course, those same critics can’t help but point out that in eight seasons since the time chronicled in “Moneyball,” the A’s have only made the playoffs once. What’s worse, the team, which was forced to rebuild its roster yet again, hasn’t finished above .500 in the last five seasons.

Putting the merits of each argument aside, and to make it clear I come down on Beane’s side in this fight, there was one thing plenty of people seemed to agree on: making an entertaining movie out of an unconventional book about baseball would be one heck of a challenge. But the fact is that Bennett Miller, directing a script by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, manages to do that and a whole lot more.

If you’re looking for a detailed deconstruction of the sea change in the way baseball teams were put together, then “Moneyball” is going to be a disappointment. You’d be better off waiting for HBO Sports or ESPN Films to produce the definitive documentary, one that gives both sides a chance to have their say about Beane and the methods he adopted and championed in Oakland.

The movie is more of a CliffNotes version of the book, one that takes enough dramatic license with the material for the sake of a memorable storyline. So what we have here is a former baseball player in Beane (Brad Pitt), one who wasn’t nearly good enough to stick in the major leagues, wanting to make sure that the team he runs now doesn’t make the same mistakes evaluating players that the New York Mets did when it selected him in baseball’s 1980 amateur draft.

As the A’s falter out of the gate, it’s impossible not to start rooting for Beane and his young assistant and statistical whiz kid, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). With it looking like the A’s were going to fall out of the pennant race early on, there was a real possibility that Beane, a divorced father struggling to stay a part of his daughter’s life, was going to lose his job. And if he had, there would be little chance that Major League Baseball, a fraternity allergic to new ideas and with long memories (represented in the movie by A’s manager Art Howe played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), would be willing to cut Beane another break.

You can guess how it all comes out in the end, but suffice to say “Moneyball” combines enough laughs with the drama to keep you interested for more than two hours. That’s quite an achievement for any movie these days, never mind for a movie based on a book that primarily appeals to millions of seamheads like yours truly.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.