Even if you already saw and loved Moneyball this weekend, it’s still worth your time to read the book by author and financial journalist Michael Lewis. The movie does a great job constructing a narrative from what appears, on first glance, to be a somewhat un-cinematic story, but the source material drives home some of the thematic points in ways that the movie can’t. Reading the book after the movie doesn’t feel like a retread, but rather a closer look at Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) and his Oakland A’s.
People who, like myself, hate baseball will be surprised by how much there is to enjoy in this book (see also: The Art of Fielding). Moneyball isn’t just about baseball; it’s about baseball statistics. On the surface, there’s no worse hell imaginable than having to stare at a page of player facts and figures (I just had to remind myself via Google what “RBI” stands for), but it’s a testament to Lewis’ reporting and writing that the chapter I found most riveting, even inspiring, was about Bill James, the Baseball Abstract author and statistician who inspired Beane’s seemingly counter-intuitive player recruiting philosophy.
The filmmakers wisely opted not to include the full James story in the movie – the story of a man self-publishing an initially poorly read pamphlet wouldn’t translate well to screen – but the idea of accurate assessment of data as a moral imperative, as it applies to baseball and beyond, proves relevant and compelling the way Lewis presents it:
… if gross miscalculations of a person’s value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of thirty thousand, and a television audience of millions more, what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over- or undervalued, who couldn’t? Bad as they may have been, the statistics used to evaluate baseball players were probably far more accurate than anything used to measure the value of people who didn’t play baseball for a living.
The question brings to mind the evaluation of highly paid CEOs, public school teachers who are given tenure, politicians, and basically any profession. Further, it’s surprising how both the movie and the book pack such an emotional punch into a story about money and baseball. While the A’s were a poor team who could normally “afford only the maimed and inept” players, according to the book, this is no Bad News Bears story, necessarily. The moments on the field take a backseat; the real drama takes place in drab, cinder-blocked offices. In the movie, a series of phone calls can feel like an action sequence. In the book, a meeting among baseball scouts can feel like the beginnings of a revolution.
The story of Beane’s great promise and the baffling, mysterious reasons for his failure, in my opinion, works a little bit better in the book. Brad Pitt gives a great performance as Beane, but reading the Lewis book, without Pitt as a visual, it’s a bit easier to see Beane as more of a regular guy – a once fresh, young baseball hero a bit stooped and jaded by age and disappointment, yet still proud and strong-headed. The mishandling of his early career as a motivation for his unconventional recruiting approach – you can’t make that up. Both the movie and the book manage to make a story about going by the numbers rousing and fresh.
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