Moneyball a Great way to Welcome Spring Training

Moneyball (2011)

Directed by Bennett Miller

Sony Pictures, 133 mins. PG-13

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It shouldn’t be rare but it is: a film about sports in which the activity in question actually resembles the way real athletes play it. Moneyball is one of the best baseball movies of recent memory; it adds to its cachet by being a five-tools film: good acting, solid direction, an engaging story, a crisp script, and a surprising amount of tension for a story whose ending we already know.

Five tools is what Moneyball’s principal, Billy Beane, was supposed to possess when the New York Mets threw a $125,000 bonus contract at him in 1980. As it turned out, Beane couldn’t hit for average or power, wasn’t much of a fielder, had a mediocre throwing arm, and didn’t get aboard enough for anyone to assess his base-running prowess. He was, in short, a bust. He kicked around Major League Baseball from 1984 to 1989 and compiled this line: 301 at-bats, an anemic .219 average, and .246 OBP. He struck out 80 times and had just 29 RBIs and three homeruns. (One wonders which stiffs surrendered those!)

Moneyball shows Beane’s futility in flashbacks, but the film really centers on 2002, by which time Beane–played by Brad Pitt–had been a successful general manager of the Oakland As for five years. Each year from 1999 on, Beane built a winning team and each year it was gutted by parsimonious owners claiming that as a “small-market” team the A’s simply couldn’t afford to keep players poised to make big bucks on the free agent market. We meet GM Beane after the 2001 season has just ended with Oakland’s loss in the opening round of the playoffs. More disappointment looms; the team is about to lose its biggest stars: slugger Jason Giambi, slick outfielder Jermaine Dye, and closer Jason Isringhausen. No easy help is on the way; owner Steve Schott has told Beane that payroll must be trimmed.

What transpired was one of MLB’s weirdest stories. Beane hired a sabermetrics whiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) and the two of them built a roster based on statistical probability rather than scouting reports. It was a team of retreads and non-stars that every expert in the game said would lose 100 games; it won 103 and set an American League record by winning 20 games in a row. We see the season unfold in dramatic and convincing fashion, the action made real by the strategic use of archival footage and the fact that the actors look as if they have actually used a bat for something other than breaking and entering. When Stephen Bishop as David Justice takes rips in the batting cage, his swing actually looks like that Justice. Baseball fans know how the 2002 season ended, but it’s a lot of fun watching Beane’s misfits get there.

Brad Pitt continues to demonstrate his transformation from a pretty face into a competent actor. A Best Actor Oscar nomination would be deserved and a victory would not be upsetting. He portrays Beane as a man torn between duty, desperation, and disappointment, the latter in the form of a broken marriage and infrequent contact with a daughter whom he loves deeply. He’s fed good lines from a script cowritten by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and delivers them with charm and just the right touch of smarm, edginess, and baseball superstition.

The film is about baseball, but it’s also about the American obsession with winning, its emphasis on work over personal satisfaction, and the cult of experts. We revel in seeing Beane defy expectations in the same way we’d root for John Henry to best the steam-powered drilling machine.

Should we trust the message? Well… the jury’s out on that one. Manager Art Howe (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) was furious about the film and claims credit for the remarkable 2002 season. (And what’s he done since 2002--oh yeah, led the Mets to ruin.) The film does leave us with a bit of baseball BS, though. A different John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox, offered Billy Beane a job after the 2002 season, the Sox team owner. Beane turned it down and we’re left with a coda that says the 2004 Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in over eight decades after using roster-building methods developed by Beane and Brand. Nonsense and poppycock! The Red Sox had the second highest payroll in MLB that year--double that of Oakland and 5.5 times higher than that of the cheapest team, Milwaukee. In truth, MLB continues to debate sabermetrics and Beane’s alleged genius. From 2007 on Oakland has not finished above .500 and whether one likes it or not, cheap teams seldom win the Big Enchilada. Stats tell me a different story–that Oakland’s 2002 season was a fluke. In the long run, the law of averages smiles on the deep pocketed.


Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer Make the Ukulele Sizzle


Rockin’ the Uke

Community Music 205

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Who says Americans don’t like to recycle? There have been periodic outbreaks of ukulele madness ever since the first haole hit the Hawaiian beaches in the 19th century. It seems like every twenty years or so we rediscover the ukulele. It was a staple of Tin Pan Alley composers in the openings of the 20th century and beloved of string bands before going out of fashion. Then it resurfaced after World War II for a few years and made its way onto early TV. Tiny Tim used one to find his way through the tulips.

One again the humble uke is hotter than a Phoenix sidewalk on July Fourth. Everyone (including me!) is messing around with them, but mastery is a different matter. Enter folk vets (and past Grammy winners) Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, who really know how to make those four strings sing. Rockin’ the Uke is a delightful mix of swing standards, country, surf music, public domain chestnuts, and originals that are, in turn, bubbly, bluesy, whimsical, and torchy. Django Reinhardt inspired their arrangement of “Dark Eyes,” and when you print such a claim and proceed to do justice, you know you’ve got serious chops. Call this one Django jams with the Delmore Brothers, Ernest Ka’ai, and Arthur Godfrey.

Check them out on the old banjo tune “Snowdrop.

Rob Weir


It Behooves the NBA to Listen to Iceman's Critique

Kwame Brown--the sort of NBA 'body' that teams like Charlotte don't need.

The National Basketball Association was in trouble even before the strike sliced a quarter of the games from the schedule. The league puts on its game face and pretends that everything is kiss-kiss make-up, but it can’t do much to disguise the fact that the product on the court simply isn’t very good. (How about the defense in that 152-149 All-Star game?) But don’t take my word for it; listen to Hall-of-Famer George “Iceman” Gervin, who graced the courts from 1972-1986 and dumped in 25,595 points. (That’s an astounding 25.1 ppg.)

Hurray for the Iceman; he has the court cred to make a point I’ve been making for years: that today’s NBA players have athleticism, but very little basketball IQ. He faults NBA management and marketers for being enamored of highlight reels. Says Gervin, “The game went away from the fundamentals and skills aspect and more (players who are) just athletes dominate the game. Dunking doesn’t necessarily show a skill. If you are athletic enough and strong enough, you can dunk. But can you make a left-hand layup or a right-hand layup or shoot an in-between jumper?” His assessment of most of today’s players is a resounding “no.” TV, he notes, reinforces the emphasis on alley-oops and dunks, and this has watered down the game.

Amen to that. The Iceman also shot over 84% from the free-throw line–another lost art. Yes, I know that some Hall of Fame players were bad at the stripe–Wilt Chamberlain comes to mind–but last year’s league average was a gentleman’s C: just 73%. Or, to put into different perspective, it’s just a tad higher than what one sees in the WNBA. The WNBA’s average height is 5’11”; in the NBA it’s 6’7’’ so why aren’t the men pouring it in at a much higher percentage than the women? Could it be exactly what Gervin said? Too much flash and not enough fundamentals? Yep. What does it tell you when only four current players rank among the league’s top 50 in assists per game?

The emphasis on drafting players with an “NBA body” over those with game savvy gives one pause. Would Larry Bird have been a top pick in today’s NBA? John Havlicek? Nate Archibald? Lenny Wilkins? Bob Cousy? Hal Greer? They are among the players in the Hall of Fame who didn’t have NBA bodies, but knew enough about the game to blow guys with better physiques out of their high-tech sneakers. I wonder what would happen if a NBA bottom-feeder such as Charlotte decided to revamp its lineup with smart players instead of athletic ones. Think it could do better than 4-28? So do I.