From Sandlot to Moneyball: Mythologizing the Suits

baseball on pitching moundLife Lessons.  We pretend organized sports offers our children fields of learning; lessons about how to live in our culture.  We can rattle them off easily enough: sportsmanship, teamwork, competition, fair play, following rules.  But our metaphors (and highlight shows) work somewhat against these “quotidian” lessons.  I mean, sports offers aspiration and inspiration to so many of us.  Try these: Being a Star, or Hero; No pain no gain; Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.  And so on.

When we play sports we likely believe in the lessons; when we watch sports we likely “feel” the metaphors.  Our somewhat obsessive focus on sports is always of necessity a reflection on the “activity.”  Sports happens NOW and it is reported after the event.  Even while you watch a game there is endless chatter regarding what “just happened.”  And normally, the chatter conforms to a narrative centered around individual players; the prowess of the few, the unique, the heroes of the game.  “Hero” must be used mighty loosely in this context as there cannot really be anything at all heroic about sports EXCEPT in the telling.  Pick up any sports page in a local paper (almost the only section offering local reporters anymore) and you’ll find a narrative spun out regarding some star athlete, or perhaps a “surprise” performer who “rose to the occasion”.  You know the templates on offer if you have any familiarity with sports reportage.

I would always and forever argue that “play” does offer valuable lessons about how to interact with others.  I would then argue that organized sports offer Institutional lessons only; in fact these lessons are sold to us by our institutions in order to manage our interactions with others.  This fact actually eliminates “play” from games leaving only “performance”.

The occasion for this exegesis on sports in society is the recent release and acclaim for Brad Pitt’s new flick Moneyball.  The title alone tells this tale, as it offers the dominant metaphor for professional and organized sports.  We’ll dig into this a bit down the page, but I’d like to first offer a contrasting story, though also simply another metaphor (“foma!” says Bakunin; “mistakes” says Bloom): baseball as “play” as it is depicted in the  1993 film, The Sandlot.  Again, the title sets the stage.

Moneyball, adapted from Michael Lewis’s 2003 book of the same name, follows the 2002 season of the Oakland A’s after they lose 3 “marquee” players to clubs with deeper pockets.  Pitt plays General Manager Billy Beane and his Sancho Panza of Statistics (sabermetrics) is Yale grad Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill.  The gist, if you will: Beane has no money ($40M) to be able to compete for players with the likes of, well all the other teams, but the primary “villain” is the New York Yankees ($115M).  How will he fill the roster after losing the players everyone thinks are the reason for the team’s wins in 2001?

Enter Peter Brand who instructs Billy that stats can show him the right skills to value in order to win games.  For example, the Star may hit 50 homers, but the “utility” player that is overlooked gets on base 40% of the time.  The more players you can find who have high “on base” stats, the more runs you’ll score.  And guess what, utility players don’t cost very much–no one values them, and they don’t value themselves.  This is the real story.  Sabermetrics becomes a tool to shave payroll costs.  There’s more, of course, and I’ll detail it below.  Don’t get me wrong, the movie is well-done and well-paced and enjoyable.  But it has a lot to say.  It’s just that’s it’s mostly about economics and management, and throughout it treats the “romance” of the game with acknowledged irony as Pitt proclaims, “You can’t not be romantic about baseball.”

The Sandlot, on the other hand, is about the romance of the game, of childhood heroes.  It is a kind of “twilight of the idols/idylls.”  It’s focus is a group of poor boys who have as their leader the best player in the neighborhood, Benny Rodriguez (The Jet).  Benny is the best athlete by far but he is also the boy with the best character.  He allows the movie’s narrator (the point-of-view), an untalented boy who is new to the neighborhood and unschooled in the mysteries of the game, to join the team and so find good friends.  The baseball they play is their “reason” for hanging out together, but the movie is showing us what it means to be a good kid with good friends who care about each other.

Still, the Jet, is “legendary” and the main scene that showcases his skill involves trying to recover a lost ball that has gone over the fence of a mysterious man with a monstrous and frightening Saint Bernard chained in the yard.  This yard is where baseballs go to die.  Benny must “pickle” the beast to get the ball (“pickle” refers to being caught between bases by the opposing team–rock and hard place).  When summer is over and the narrator offers the summing up melancholy of reflecting on the passage of time we find out that Benny went to the Bigs and had a successful career.  The narrator (the outsider made welcome) has grown up a sports reporter covering the very team for which “the Jet” plays.  And it is he who romanticizes his childhood, the team, Benny and the game.  The movie ends with the Jet stealing home while the reporter, up in the press box, yells over and over, “The Jet stole home, The Jet stole home…”

Romance and Heroes vs. Industry and Payroll.  Friends vs. Employees.

But, back to Moneyball, it wasn’t just the fact that Pitt’s Beane makes a clear point about NOT romanticizing baseball (it is a business, especially for a GM) that encouraged me to consider these two movies in contrast.  It was Arliss Howard.  Who?

Arliss Howard turns out to be a kind a fulcrum between the philosophies of these two movies (two eras?).  Have you heard of him?  No matter, he’s a “utility actor” (which might be another interesting angle to explore) who has been in many movies over many years.

It seems more than coincidence that Arliss Howard is in both Moneyball and The Sandlot (no-money ball).  In the Sandlot he is spinning out the romantic nostalgia of his youth as a writer.  It is then ironic that his small but effective role in Moneyball is as the Boston Red Sox owner, John Henry, who attempts to buy Billy Beane away from Oakland to run the Sox as a “stats” team (to cut costs AND win).  The meeting between Henry and Beane takes place in the press box.  He offers him what would have been the most money paid to a GM at the time, $12.5M.

Arliss Howard in the press box in both movies.  The romantic writer mythologizing heroes in one; the powerful owner offering the truth of baseball (and capitalism) offering to “steal” Beane from the A’s.

The Sandlot begins with Howard’s narration, introducing the deep sense of inherited tradition and a belief in role models as heroes:

There is one all-time greatest moment in the history of sports, and it happened in the 1932 World Series.  The story goes that in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, a full count and the tying run on base, Babe Ruth raised his arm and pointed to the center field bleachers. No one believed it, because nobody had ever done it before

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. But The Babe was calling his shot. On the next pitch, the Great Bambino hit a towering home run. And even although he’d been a hero before that, that’s pretty much how he became a legend. Thirty years later, a kid named Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez became a neighborhood legend.  It was in the greatest summer of my life when he taught me to play baseball, and he became my best friend.

In Moneyball, Howard’s character listens as Beane says how much “baseball” hates him and what he has done in Oakland.  So many of the “old guard” resent messing with the way they “play” the business of baseball.  Howard intones wisdom–a change threatens livelihoods but he is unconcerned as “Money allows me the flexibility to not care what ‘baseball’ likes or dislikes”.  Cue the $12.5 million.

This is all offered as preface, as preparation to find our way into thinking about Moneyball, or rather, trying to understand how and what Moneyball is thinking.

This is not a baseball movie.  It’s a business movie.  It has nothing in common with Bull Durham or Field of Dreams or Bang the Drum Slowly, or any other movie you can name about the sport with the possible exception of John Sayles’s Eight Men Out.  Sayles offers the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal of throwing the World Series in which White Sox owner, Charles Comiskey, is depicted as primarily a kind of “plantation owner” and the players (possibly the greatest ever team in baseball) slaves, to decry the capital business system.  Sayles writes against this systematic degradation of wage slavery.  Moneyball, in stark contrast, wants to simply offer a case study of Harvard Business School management lessons applied to baseball.  Baseball is not romantic; it’s a business.  Cut costs and forgo the romantic narrative.  It wants to make no social point whatsoever.

It pretends to.  No one is special.  Apply simple rules and almost any player can fulfill a “useful” role.  At cut rates too!

What sabermetrics appears to do is simply allow the wealthiest to once again use the tools at hand to buy up all the best utility players as well.  Once all the teams apply this amazing new tool to the game then we’re back to who has the deepest pockets again.  And if more players actually can fill spots with equal ability then there is no need to pay more money for any one of them.  Personnel costs go down and profits go up.  Yea, Capitalism!  Yea, America!  Yea Chief Executive Officers!  Baseball is just a market after all.

Be sure you let your 6 year old know that before you have that game of catch.

Baseball isn’t about “play”, or athleticism…it’s not the ineffable thing we call “art”; it’s about management science silly!

The conflict of Moneyball is actually “little business” vs “big business,” which can only make sense on a movie screen if Brad Pitt is the underdog.  But the filmmakers are skilled and they do succeed wonderfully at this.

The movie plays the dailiness of management in Oakland almost like a mom and pop business.  Beane has a small office on the same level as the locker rooms and Brand, his Assistant GM, an even smaller office–really about closet-size.  Conversations are always in cramped close-up quarters.  In fact it’s a movie filled with close-ups of faces.  It’s a “small” movie in it’s narrative framing.  It’s low budget Oakland “factory floor” of stadium facilities is depicted as a “dump”.  And it’s filmed that way.  Cramped and small.  Even when we see the field we get one of three perspectives: Empty stadium; we see it through a TV in the clubhouse; and we see it as if we were a player…down on it so we don’t feel the size of it.  Even the majestic shots are player level perspectives shot in wide-angle so you get more of the sense of space but don’t lose the small scale of the ordinary.

And Pitt as Beane, is a regular guy.  A failure as a former MLB player but a charming success as a GM; he is wily and cagey in negotiations.  But his soul is “blue collar”–we see him in a suit twice (I think)–once when he glad-hands with PR-staged fans on the field (he leaves and immediately puts on sweats); and then once when he meets with the Red Sox owner.  The suit is a mask.  Duh.  But it’s intentional–the viewer must see Beane as “labor” not management, as one who is “of the working man” because he IS one of them.

To exemplify this the movie tries to offer a bit of “labor history” via the idea of the “company store”.  “David Justice” having just been traded from NY to Oakland is seen being shocked by the cost of soda in the clubhouse (a buck).  He asks Brand about it.  He says, “Billy likes to keep the money in the stadium.”  Justice is disgruntled.  This is a “company store” cost and that was a “company” answer from Brand.  Later in the movie, during a scene about trading players in order to get the kind of “start-up” team he wants (no superstars) Beane requires that an aspect of the trade include the other team paying his soda costs for 3 years.  In essence he makes soda free for his players.  What a hero!  What a man of the people!  Seriously…as that detail is played in three separate scenes it has to be seen as a meaningful thing to the filmmakers.  Of course, foisting costs onto another team which may, as a matter of economic strategy, hike their own soda prices, doesn’t exactly seem heroic or even very noble.  Just cagey.  Just a game of moving money around.

There are big metaphors here.  And they are intentionally “mixed”.   Even though it’s the team that is performing so well (a all-time record 20 wins in a row at one point) it is GM Billy and Economics Pete who are the “heroes”.  This is actually made explicit as the film shows Peter coming to the stadium for his first day of work as the banners of the lost marquee players come falling down.  Out go the false gods and in walks…the real hero?  And Jonah Hill, who is fine here, was clearly chosen to embody the dichotomy: he waddles in wearing his large glasses and ill-fitting blazer.  He is no athlete.  The athlete is labor.  The Ivy League man of business, economics, and statistics, shall rule them as the brains behind the GM.

The meek shall inherit the earth after all.


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