This is the first of series of stories that purport to be about the movie, Moneyball. They aren’t really. Michael Lewis made a collection of narratives out of the experiences of general manager Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s in the book, Moneyball. Aaron Sorkin made a much smaller collection out of the book for his movie, Moneyball. But I see so many stories in the movie that interest me. Some of them are really there. Some are just hints and allegations of narratives and that I have tied them together because they reminded me of a story.
I’m long past apologizing for all the stories I see in the material others have assembled. What story it is depends entirely on when you start it—what happened first, for instance. And who is in the foreground or the background. And how long the story is. And who it is “really” about. So with this post, I begin a series of stories I have, to some extent, “found” in the movie, Moneyball, and to some extend have “extrapolated” from the movie. My view is that they are all there and I’m just moving my flashlight around from one part of the tapestry to another.
Here’s the first one. Billy Beane is so much the hero in Moneyball that it is hard to notice how much he changes during the story. Let’s start with the two scenes that indicate how very successful he has been and we’ll work back from there. John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox offers Billy the position of general manager after the season described in the movie. He tells Billy that every team that is not rebuilding itself along the lines of Billy’s strategy in Oakland is a dinosaur and will be left behind by the teams that are following Billy’s lead. It might be that Billy doesn’t believe that or it might be that he didn’t really hear it. It is, nevertheless, the goal that Billy was pursuing by the end of that season. And what was that goal?
Let’s look at the second of the two scenes. Peter Brand, who is represented in the movie as the genius behind the new way of organizing and deploying baseball teams, is sitting down with Billy after the Red Sox interview. Peter doesn’t know whether Billy is going to accept the Red Sox offer—Billy doesn’t know either at this point—but he knows that Billy really doesn’t understand the dimensions of the triumph he has just had in Oakland.
Peter hauls an unwilling Billy off to the film room to show him a clip of Jeremy Brown, an overweight minor league catcher. Brown is so big and clumsy that he never runs to second base no matter where in the park he has hit the ball, but in this clip, he does. He rounds first, falls on his face in the dirt, and scrambles frantically back to first base. Everyone is laughing at him and it takes him a little while to realize that they are laughing because he hit the ball 60 feet over the fence and doesn’t need to scramble back to first. He needs to take a leisurely and triumphant tour of the bases. Peter wants Billy to see that clip because he thinks Billy is in the same spot as Brown and doesn’t know how else to say it. Billy hit a home run, Peter thinks, and doesn’t know it yet.
That’s what the owner of the Red Sox thought, too. And that’s what Sorkin wants us to think as we watch the story. It is hard for us, though, because that is not what Billy wanted at the beginning of the season. When we pick up the story, the A’s have just been eliminated by the Yankees. The A’s lost their best three players to teams that just outbid them for these players’ contracts. Billy’s view is that is you don’t win the “last game of the season,” you have lost. That means you have to win the World Series or you have lost. That’s a high standard, but the one he adopts as the story develops is a good deal higher. What Billy comes to want to do is to change the game of baseball.
There isn’t a scene in the movie where Billy realizes that his goals have changed, but there is no question that in the first early scene with the owner of the A’s, Billy says his goal is to win a championship. After the highlight of the season, winning 20 consecutive games, there is a scene where Billy tells Pete, “I’m not in this for a ring. I want to change baseball.”
I think that is a remarkable transformation. He had to overcome the visceral opposition of his scouts. Maybe that’s what transformed him. He had to overcome the strongly held views of manager Art Howe. Maybe that’s what transformed him. It is a fact, though, that the Billy Beane the movie gives us, wants to succeed at this game in the beginning of the movie and by the end of the movie, he wants to change the game entirely.
I’ve said that Billy demands that his scouts and his manager and his players change the way they think about the game. It looks to me like Billy changed the way he thought about the game as well.