Baseball's bargain basement 

Class warfare on the baseball diamond in Moneyball

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The real protagonist of Moneyball, however, is Beane himself, played with great charisma by Brad Pitt. (With this movie and The Tree of Life competing against each other, Pitt could wind up cheating himself out of an Oscar this year.) Beane came to the Oakland A's with a ton of baggage, though the movie only telegraphs this in a few abbreviated flashbacks. As a high school baseball star in San Diego, he was the sort of all-around athlete that scouts salivated over: he could run, throw, field, and hit (for his sophomore and junior years, his batting average was .500). During his senior year, in 1980, a scout for the New York Mets persuaded him to pass up a full scholarship to Stanford University, to his mother's disappointment, and he was named one of the team's first-round draft picks (along with Darryl Strawberry). But Beane never panned out as a professional baseball player; among other things, he psyched himself out in the batter's box. After six lackluster seasons in the majors—playing briefly for the Mets, the Minnesota Twins, the Detroit Tigers, and finally the A's—he asked Oakland for a job in the front office as a scout.

"This is all about your shit, isn't it?" demands Grady Fuson, one of the Oakland scouts, after Beane announces his new strategy for the 2002 draft. Beane promptly fires the guy, but the charge sticks. Whatever Beane's logical reasons for upending the conventional wisdom of his scouting staff, the personal one is clear: 22 years earlier, another professional wise man saw something in young Billy Beane that wasn't really there, and because of it the boy lost out on a first-class college education. Who knows what he might have made of himself with a degree from Stanford? In the movie, when Beane first meets Paul DePodesta—or rather, the fictional character based on him, named Peter Brand and played by Jonah Hill—Beane asks him whether he'd have chosen the younger Billy in the first round back in 1980. After hemming and hawing, Brand admits, "I'd have drafted you in the ninth round. No signing bonus." Beane likes this answer so much that he hires Brand as his assistant general manager.

As Michael Lewis reports in an afterword to the paperback edition, Beane was startled and not entirely pleased when Moneyball first appeared and he discovered that he'd become the book's central character. Baseball's old guard, angered by the case Lewis had made against them, singled out Beane for criticism, labeling him an egomaniac and in some cases misrepresenting Moneyball as his own memoir. If anything, the movie version only tilts the story more in Beane's direction, adding a subplot that involves his ex-wife (Robin Wright) and his warm relationship with his 12-year-old daughter (Kerris Dorsey). There's an irresistibly sweet scene in which Beane takes the girl to a music store to shop for a guitar and she shyly serenades him with the Lenka song "The Show" as he stares at her in wonder. This intimate moment doesn't have anything to do with baseball, but it's a subtle reminder of how much possibility resides in a young person's talent.

What makes the scene particularly poignant is how it echoes an earlier one, in which young Billy Beane (Reed Thompson) and his parents sit at their kitchen table with Mets scout Roger Jongewaard. When Billy's mother brings up the issue of his scholarship, the older man gently explains to her that Billy won't be able to accept it if he becomes a professional player. "We're all told at some time that we're too old to play the children's game," Jongewaard tells Billy, nudging him toward a decision. "Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40. But we're all told." In this context his words sound like an invitation to manhood, but when they come back again in a voice-over near the end of the movie, they have an entirely different meaning. By then Beane has watched his own dazzling promise come to nothing, and his success at reinventing the Oakland A's has been predicated on the grim notion that no player is likely to become much more than he already is. But as Jeremy Brown proves with his unlikely homer, seeing oneself clearly can be a victory all its own.

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