Can't take the art out of baseball
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As baseball's typically dramatic postseason rattles toward a midpoint, many of its narrative arcs intersect the conversation generated by the new Brad Pitt movie "Moneyball," which I actually got around to seeing this week.
The matinee had free popcorn, for which I'd probably see "Big Momma's House IV."
Based on the Michael Lewis book, "Moneyball" is approximately the story of how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Pitt) patched up his roster well enough by torturing data to win 103 games in 2002 despite the departure of slugging first baseman Jason "I'm sorry for doing steroids without saying I did" Giambi, The film is thriving as both art and enterprise (it's already made $50 million) if not so much as baseball history.
Pitt, interviewed recently on NPR, said he thought the filmmakers did an outstanding job of letting the most interesting aspects of the characters drive the story rather than trying to hang it on the dreary issue that birthed it, the role of sophisticated metrics in not only the way teams are built, but also in the way the game is played.
As another insane free agency period looms and a number of franchises face critical personnel decisions that run all the way to the general manager's office (thank God the Pirates are set in that regard), the issues laid bare by the characters in "Moneyball" are roiling the philosophical passions of baseball's serious students.
Still, for me, the question I can't get around is, "What in the name of Blue Moon Odom is Philip Seymour Hoffman doing in this film?"
Hoffman plays Art Howe, a Pittsburgh native who was then the manager of the A's. Howe has made it plain he doesn't appreciate the way he's depicted, that being as a somewhat vain obstructionist to Beane's burgeoning genius.
Howe has a gripe, I might agree, but not to the point of yelping about "character assassination." The manager in this film could have been any manager, as Hoffman reacts just about the way any manager would have reacted given Beane's prescription for suddenly unorthodox methodology.
For that you don't need Philip Seymour Hoffman, who matched acting chops with no less than Meryl Streep in "Doubt," their indelible scenes being little short of one-on-one cinematic history. Hoffman's multilayered delivery of Truman Capote, a daunting, viscously complex role within the professional range of only the craft's truly expert, brought him the best actor Oscar in 2005.
Is this the caliber of actor necessary to insist to Billy Beane that Carlos Pena play first base instead of Scott Hatteberg?
On top of which, Hoffman bears no resemblance to Howe, who looks more like Ed Harris in "Apollo 13." Across 14 years of managing the Astros, A's and Mets, Howe was tall, trim, stoic and just pleasant enough. Hoffman, in "Moneyball," is, uh, maybe stoic.
Beane has since fired back at Howe, claiming he had no input on the project, and it appears Howe will just have to be content with the fact that the A's have never approached the 103 victories they piled up in 2002, after which his contract was not renewed, nor the 102 he managed them to in '01.
For what it's worth to Howe, Mark Shapiro of the Cleveland Indians tweeted Wednesday that "Scenes w[ith] me and us [Indians front office] are fictional for all those asking."
From a baseball standpoint, the conflict of the film, and the entire modern game for that matter, comes out in a single sentence from Jonah Hill, who plays the Yale economics major Beane brings to his dilemma of the small market team competing against big market payrolls.
In a staff meeting in which Beane tries to explain the importance of on-base percentage, Pitt says he doesn't care whether a particular player gets a walk or a hit and then looks to Hill for confirmation.
"Do I care if it's a walk or a hit?" Pitt asks.
"You do not," Hill deadpans, and quite effectively.
Perhaps the Ivy League kid is right, but I've never seen anyone stretch a walk into a double, nor have I ever seen a walk go through an outfielder's legs for a triple. Baseball is thick with Jonah Hill types today, and even teams who don't have to play moneyball have been persuaded to employ them.
That's why the Red Sox and Yankees can't seem to play a game that doesn't run to four hours as they work the count and try to wear out the opposing starter without actually using the bat.
If you successfully prove that baseball is science rather than art (I say the opposite) this is what you'll get. But this is another postseason where images of the Yankees and Red Sox are rather fleeting, are they not? Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals come to bat in the first inning against $20 million starter Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the National League division series, lash a triple, rip a double before everyone is even seated, win a classic postseason ballgame, 1-0.
It'll be a shame when the game is better in the movie houses than it is on the field. That's what will happen if art's only vengeance comes on the screen.
First Published October 13, 2011 12:00 am