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Sports Saturday

‘Moneyball’ was on the money: Hollywood did everything right

Distant Replay: The film replicated the 2002 A’s team with maestro GM Billy Beane.

Brad Pitt in ‘‘Moneyball’’
Brad Pitt (center) was the perfect choice to play the charismatic and almost frighteningly focused Billy Beane, the Athletics’ general manager, in the movie “Moneyball,” which was based on Michael Lewis’ 2003 book.
AP

“It’s a process, it’s a process, it’s a process.”

— Brad Pitt, as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in the 2011 film “Moneyball”

As inspirational sports-movie quotes go, that’s not exactly up there with Knute Rockne’s “Let’s win just one for the Gipper!” or even Mickey Goldmill telling Rocky, “You’re going to eat lightning and crap thunder!” But it does encapsulate Billy Beane’s philosophy when he jump-started a baseball revolution in the early 2000s as the numbers-crunching, feathers-ruffling, trust-the-analytics general manager of the Oakland A’s.

In 2003, the brilliant journalist/author Michael Lewis served up a slice of baseball geek heaven with “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” an entertaining and eye-opening deep dive into the sabermetric-based approach to building a competitive team in an unbalanced financial market.

Lewis aimed the spotlight directly at the 2002 Athletics and Billy Beane, a first-round draft choice (and major-league bust) who turned to scouting, rose through the ranks of the A’s front office and went all-in on the “Moneyball” approach. It trash-canned “intangibles,” disregarded many traditional statistical measuring sticks and relied heavily on finding undervalued, overlooked and unconventional players who could become cogs in the machine.

It was a great read but hardly traditional sports-movie fodder, given the fact the hero was a front-office wonk and (retro spoiler alert!) the A’s didn’t actually win the World Series that year. How do you turn such relatively bloodless material into a rousing, warm-hearted and engrossing adventure?

This is one of the times when Hollywood did everything right.

  • Start with the casting of bona fide megastar Brad Pitt. He was the perfect choice to play the handsome, mercurial, charismatic, almost frighteningly focused Beane (who also had just a little bit of the man-child playfulness we see in many if not most athletes and former jocks). Pitt turned in a layered, quietly powerful performance.
  • As Beane embarks on his Don Quixote-esque quest, give him an enormously likeable, comic-relief, Sancho Panza-type sidekick in Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand, a young Yale economics graduate who becomes Billy’s right-hand man. (Brand is a composite character but is clearly influenced by Paul DePodesta, Beane’s real-life top assistant at the time.)
  • Draft screenwriting greats Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “Awakenings”) and Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men,” “The Social Network”) to adapt Lewis’ book to the big screen, nab the gifted Bennett Miller (“Capote”) to direct — and off we go.

“Moneyball” kicks off after the 2001 season, in which the A’s won 102 games and took the Yankees to the limit in the American League Division Series, despite having a payroll less than a third the size of New York’s.

But with former MVP Jason Giambi and other stalwarts departing for greener financial pastures, the frustrated Beane was looking at a bleak future and growing increasingly impatient with the old war horses on the scouting staff. (The casting of the scouts is perfect. They look like and act like a bunch of aging cowboys sitting on a porch at the turn of the 20th century, scoffing at even the suggestion any mode of transportation could ever replace the horse.)

The A’s can’t afford big-name stars, so Beane and Brand turn their efforts to signing bargain-basement castoffs: a relief pitcher (Chad Bradford) with a crazy delivery; a catcher (Scott Hatteberg) who has high on-base-percentage potential but literally can’t throw after a devastating injury; a former star (David Justice) in the twilight of his career.

“Like an island of misfit toys,” Brand says.

Chris Pratt is terrific as Hatteberg, who has been converted to a first baseman and is terrified by the thought of a ground ball coming his way, much to the chagrin of the A’s old-school manager Art Howe (played to perfection by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman).

“First base is like the moon to him,” Howe says to Beane.

“Moneyball” is filled with pitch-perfect little touches reminding us of the romance of baseball, even as Beane says there’s no place for emotion in the game. In certain scenes, we catch glimpses of framed photos of pro ballplayers when they were kids in oversized Little League uniforms, grinning from ear to ear. When Pratt’s Hatteberg, who has resigned himself to never playing the game again, is presented with one last shot at the bigs, his eyes light up like he’s a kid on Christmas morning.

Director Miller does a magnificent job of chronicling the A’s astonishing and historic 20-game winning streak. (In real life, as in the movie, the A’s blew an 11-0 lead against the Royals in that 20th game, but our guy Hatteberg hit a walk-off homer in the ninth to win it.)

“Moneyball” conveniently ignores the fact that for all the “misfit toys” on the club, the A’s roster included American League MVP Miguel Tejada (who hit .354 with 34 homers and 131 RBI), power-hitting third baseman Eric Chavez (34 homers, 109 RBI), AL Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito (23-5) and two other ace pitchers in Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson.

But, hey, it’s a movie, not a Ken Burns documentary. “Moneyball” deserved its six Academy Award nominations and deserves its standing as one of the best baseball movies of this decade.

As the film notes in its closing moments, after the 2002 season, Beane turned down a $12.5 million offer to join the Red Sox, who then hired a 28-year-old maverick named Theo Epstein.

Not a bad second choice.