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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Inside Baseball

One of the reasons movie reviewers raved about Moneyball—and baseball fans may not enjoy it nearly as much—is that most film critics had no idea that Major League Baseball (MLB) is another form of show business.

Baseball aficionados already know MLB is a lot like Hollywood—millions of young people aspire to play in The Show, and the barriers to entry are very high. Moreover, only a handful of athletes have the ability and drive to even make it in the door and, when your star fades, your contract is not renewed.

Moneyball, the movie, is worth seeing. I just feel the need to manage the media’s sky-high expectations. To call Moneyball “a triumph” is to oversell it; a “nice diversion” is a better description. The film’s saving grace is that it has sparked renewed interest in Michael Lewis’ 2003 Moneyball, the magnificent book upon which the motion picture is based. The title has been climbing the bestseller lists and I’ll return in a moment to why that tome has stood the test of time.

Both the film and the book share the same premise. Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) must develop a roster for the 2002 baseball season while on a shoestring budget as compared to much wealthier teams, such as the New York Yankees. The way Beane goes about replacing the A’s playoff team stars of 2001—outfielder Johnny Damon, first baseman Jason Giambi, and relief pitcher Jason Isringhausen—all of whom signed lucrative free agent contracts with teams who could pay them much more than the A’s, constitutes the film’s first 50 (!) minutes. Yes, I did look at my watch at that point to see if 2002’s Opening Day would ever arrive. It does, and the film does a fair job of capturing how the A’s won even more games in 2002 than they did in 2001. Alas, they were again knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, giving Beane’s many MLB critics a chance to gloat.

What’s “Moneyball?” At its heart is the belief that innovative statistical analysis of a baseball player’s talents enables a team to find undervalued assets, giving them a competitive advantage. This concept is informed by Beane’s own personal story, and that is briefly shared with the film’s viewers through flashbacks. Foregoing a full scholarship to Stanford University, Beane chose to sign a professional contract with the Mets after they made him their second pick in the first round of 1980’s MLB amateur draft. The Mets’ first pick in the first round that year was Darryl Strawberry. Beane made it to the major leagues but bounced around to numerous teams besides the Mets, leaving the playing field for a scouting position with the Oakland A’s in the late 1980s.

The great thing about Moneyball, the book, is that it offers life lessons for businesses other than baseball teams, and that is a difficult narrative to convey in a movie. The idea is this: there’s lots of hidden talent out there, no matter what line of work you’re in. Companies that can identify those people, and harness their energy, are going to succeed.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net