Thursday, April 5, 2012

Moneyball v. Moneyball

I've been meaning to write something about Moneyball the book v. Moneyball the movie, but every time I start to do so I realize that I'm going to be doing more (non-work/school-related) writing than I really have time for.  So I've got a few intros to a few Moneyball v. Moneyball essays saved on my computer that aren't ever going to realize their full brilliance.

But that's okay.  I'm off the hook thanks to Christopher Heron's great video essay on the movie, "Moneyball and Ways of Seeing," which was initially published in a pretty cool looking video magazine called The Seventh Art and which I found at one of my favorite movie/TV blogs Press Play.  Heron focuses on the movie, and makes a really strong argument that the movie wants to (and makes it quite clear that it wants to) present a new way of seeing and appreciating baseball, but it falls short of its goal by resorting to romantic baseball-movie cliches.

This was my big problem with the movie, too.  Mixed messages.  The book succeeds at presenting a new way of appreciating baseball because it works hard to establish and promote this new baseball-weltanschauung by delving deep into its epistemological foundations: namely, Bill James' sabermetrics.  This passage from David Grabiner's The Sabermetrics Manifesto (thank you Wikipedia) pretty well sums up the sabermetric baseball reality:
Bill James defined sabermetrics as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball." Thus, sabermetrics attempts to answer objective questions about baseball, such as "which player on the Red Sox contributed the most to the team's offense?" or "How many home runs will Ken Griffey hit next year?" It cannot deal with the subjective judgments which are also important to the game, such as "Who is your favorite player?" or "That was a great game."
My interest in subjectivity and objectivity as terms of art is well-documented elsewhere in this blog, so I'll leave those quibbles alone to address the more important, foundational issue implicit in a sabermetrics baseball epistemology:  The answers to the questions sabermetricians ask require an understanding of the networks of actors that comprise clubs, teams, and institutions (such as MLB and the NCAA).  Put simply, ballplayers, general managers, owners, scouts, and anyone else who ostensibly serves a designated purpose on a team or for a club matter very little as individuals to the sabermetrician.

Take David Freese's walk-off home run in that AMAZING game six last October.  That home run matters little by itself.  It's just another center field home run.  But put in context, with the whole game culminating in this one at bat--with the whole season culminating in this one at bat!--the home run is imbued with significance.  The romantic in me wants to call Freese a hero.  But the truth is that "heroism" is an oversimplification and is a less interesting way of understanding the vast networks that went into the Cardinals winning game six and the World Series.

Obviously Moneyball the movie can't go into all that without expanding to Godfather-like proportions.  That's understandable.  And I don't want to claim that a movie adapted from a book needs to be a one-to-one sort of adaptation.  But what irked me about the movie is that it clearly wants to advance this sabermetric epistemology but frequently falls back on the romantic tropes that oversimplify things.  Brad Pitt's Billy Beane is a hero, working, with Jonah Hill's Peter Brand (also a hero), against an establishment that refuses to see things their way.  The Billy Beane and Peter Brand of the Moneyball book work with people to align them with their goals and interests.  A lot.  And that is so much more interesting than a couple isolated geniuses setting out on their own, armed only with their kooky theories, looking to shake things up.

At one point in the movie, Brad Pitt's Billy Beane says, "It's hard not to be romantic about baseball."  This line doesn't show up in the book.  Is this just the writers letting themselves off the hook because it's hard to make a baseball movie that's not romantic about baseball?  Maybe they only realized it when they tried.  Maybe that's why the movie took so long to make.  I would imagine that it is hard.  But I don't think it's impossible.

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