I’ve been looking at the movie, Moneyball, as a movie about changing the way you think. I was first attracted to this notion by looking at the scouts, who were entirely unwilling to change the way they thought about baseball. Grady, the head scout, concludes his pitch for their approach to drafting and developing new players by saying “…and we’re going to show them how to play Oakland A baseball.”
The conversation really shouldn’t have lasted that long. Billy Beane, the general manager should have watched the conversation peter out after he asked whether there were any more first basemen like Jason Giambi (No) and whether, if there were, the A’s could afford them (No, again). There really should have been nothing for the scouts to say after that, but they kept on talking anyway.
Then I was attracted to the way Peter Brand blinked; he drew back from Billy’s wholehearted embrace of Peter’s theories about baseball. When Peter describes the misunderstandings that lead general managers to use their personnel badly, he says “Bill James and mathematics cuts through all that.” That’s Peter’s real position. The guy who gets on base 20% more than his competition should be playing first base.
But when Peter sees Billy risking his own job to put this theory into practice, he has second thoughts. If you bet on my theory, says Peter, and “things don’t work out the way we want…” The way we want? What happened to “Bill James and mathematics?” He says, hesitantly, that the A’s will win more games with Hatteberg at first base than with Peña there. Theoretically. Theoretically? Theory is all Peter has to go on; theory is why Billy hired him. Billy puts the question to Peter in the most direct way, “Do you believe in this or not?” When Peter says he does, Billy puts the rest of the plan into effect. Peter didn’t change his way of thinking. He did lapse, momentarily, but Billy brought him back.
So you know who really changed the way he thought about things? Billy Beane. It’s the most obvious point in the movie, but I overlooked it for a long time, as we tend to overlook obvious things. One of the opening scenes shows Billy with team owner, Steve Schott. Billy is emphasizing how vital “the goal” is and how much he needs more money to achieve it. With just a little more money, says Billy, “…I will get you that championship team. This is why I’m here. This is why you hired me. And I gotta ask you…what are we doing here, if it’s not to win a championship?”
That’s Billy I. Here’s Billy II. He’s talking to Peter just after the A’s broke the American League record for most consecutive games. “This kind of thing (the 20 game win streak), it’s fun for the fans. It sells tickets and hot dogs. It doesn’t mean anything.” Peter interrupts, “Billy, we just won 20 games in a row!”
Billy says, “And what’s the point? Listen, man, I’ve been in this game a long time. I’m not in it for a record, I’ll tell you that. I’m not in it for a ring.”
Hello? The “ring” is the most demeaning way Billy can think of to refer to what you get when you win the World Series. This is the “championship team” he referred to when he was talking to the owner. This is what he meant in talking to manager Art Howe when he said, “If you don’t win the last game of the season, nobody gives a shit.” This ring symbolizes everything Billy has ever wanted in his years as a general manager. Until now.
“If we don’t win the last game of the series,” he continues, “they’ll dismiss us. I know these guys. I know the way they think and they’ll erase us. And everything we’ve done here, none of it will matter. Any other team wins, good for them. They’re drinking champagne. They get a ring. But if we win…with this budget…with this team…we’ll have changed the game. And that’s what I want.”
The word I have been using in thinking about this movie is the Greek verb metanoein, “to change the way you think.” I have noted that if metanoia, the fact of having changed, is the goal, the scouts fall short (See Beane Soup 1). Peter does not fall short, but he does have a moment of failure as a result of his concern for Billy (See Beane Soup 2). Billy does achieve metanoia—he does fundamentally and permanently changes the way he thinks about baseball and that means he has changed the way he understands what his life is about.
It turns out that Billy is right on both counts. The scouts do, in fact, try to erase what Billy has done. We hear them on the radio saying that the failure of the Oakland A’s in the postseason shows that the whole approach was a bad idea.
But the ultimate confirmation of Billy’s new vision comes when John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, offers Billy the job of general manager. Here’s his summary. After all the on the air yammering by the scouts, the word that jumps out from Henry’s assessment is dinosaur.
“You won the exact same number of games that the Yankees won, but the Yankees spent $1.4 mission per win and you paid $260,000…Anybody who’s not tearing their team down right now and rebuilding it using your model—they’re dinosaurs. They’ll be sitting on their ass on the sofa in October watching the Boston Red Sox win the World Series.”
How did Billy do that? It isn’t easy to say, partly because the movie has no interest in the question at all. The first step is that Steve Schott’s unwillingness to give Billy more money closed off a line of thought that would have allowed Billy to keep on listening to his scouts. Absent the money, Billy concluded very early that what the scouts were pushing wasn’t going to work. He didn’t have an alternative, however, until he met Peter Brand in Cleveland and was introduced to Bill James’s mathematical approach to baseball. Now he has a new approach and his commitment to it is enough for him to tell his scouts, “This is the new approach of the Oakland Athletics.”
But I think Billy really doesn’t commit his career to this new way until he realizes it will require all-out war against the manager and putting his job on the line. It is at that point that he realizes he is in an all or nothing situation. “All in, Pete,” he tells Peter Brand, casually, and no one knows just what he means. It means that he is going to trade every player that Art Howe is playing instead of the players Billy wants him to play. It means getting up close to the players to explain the new system to them. According to the movie, getting personally involved with the players is something Billy has never done before. Billy has put his job on the line, he has made the decisions Peter’s “theory” requires, he has made close personal contact with the players, he has bet everything on the commitment he made when he hired Peter. He has risked, in the graphic image of the chief scout, finishing his career as a salesman at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
It is what Billy has risked, I think, that brings him to “I’m not in it for a ring” and finally, to “…we’ll have changed the game and that’s what I want.”
 The movie shows the streak starting at seven straight. The streak features fans holding up some really nifty signs. There’s “Sweet Sixteen” and “Sweeter Seventeen.” Then, my favorite, “We May Never Lose Again.”
I had a similar take on Moneyball at http://wp.me/p16vK0-80.