Simile Tuesday: Moneyball Edition

Wait. Didn’t we just do a Moneyball-based Monday Metaphors yesterday?

Well, yes, sort of. TCM had one metaphor (albeit a good one) for the whole film, and basically manipulated the medium to give him an excuse to write a review of the movie, not a true similes/metaphors post. I’m not going to say he cheated, but I’ll say this: he didn’t not cheat.

I saw Moneyball this weekend, too, as TCM did (separately; we had a nice long conversation about it that you can see here), and as I’m guessing a bunch of you did. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to try to give you an actual review of it — I’ll leave that to professional reviewers and pseudonymous bloggers masquerading as personifications of archetypal ideals — but I do think I can bring you a more traditional Simile Tuesday post revolving around things in or relating to the film.

Jonah Hill/Peter Brand is like Rickey Henderson and John Olerud.

You know this story by now. 41 year old Rickey Henderson, famously aloof and self-absorbed, is released by the Mets after just a little over one season and signs as a free agent with the Mariners, joining the squad just a few months after twice-former-teammate (including the previous season with the Mets) John Olerud does.

Rickey asks him why he’s wearing a batting helmet; “I always do,” Olerud says.

“You know, I used to have a teammate who would do that.”

“That was me, Rickey,” an embarrassed Olerud replies.

It’s a great story. It’s entirely fabricated, just a joke invented by (depending on who you ask) some Mets employees or a visiting player. But it rings true, because it does a better job of telling you who Rickey was than any of the real stories seem to (and there are a ton of great ones). Rickey didn’t say that, but even he, if I recall correctly, has admitted that he could imagine himself saying it. One of those stories that’s false in fact, but 100% true in essence.

I’ll admit it: when I first heard this guy was going to be playing the character based on this guy, I was livid, and basically gave up hope for the movie as a whole. It screamed that the filmmakers were going to play up the stereotype that sabermetrics types are unathletic, awkward dorks who never played the game, who live in their moms’ basements and like math, not baseball. Paul DePodesta, who in real life is slender, personable, and played both baseball and football at Harvard, would be something of a round peg jammed into that square stereotypical hole. Hill taking his place as “Peter Brand” seemed to open the movie up to a lot of cheap shots and simplifications. The character was the biggest reason that, when a long Moneyball trailer was set loose on the unsuspecting internets back in June, I ripped it apart.

Having seen the film, though, I have to say: he works. First, because he’s not nearly as lazily one-dimensional as he first appeared. Brand is chubby and antisocial and really into economics, yes, but he’s also clever in ways unrelated to spreadsheets, and really loves the game — Beane, the jock, is the one who doesn’t actually watch the games, not Brand. He’s a very likable, pretty well-wounded character.

Second, and even more important, I hesitate to say this, but I think he drives the essential point home better than the real DePo would. The idea is that intelligence and careful study beats old values like game experience and being a “baseball guy”; if your two protagonists are both tall, clean-cut, good-looking athletic guys who played the game at some level, that point could easily get lost. Brand just fits the role of “outsider” much better than DePo did, at least when you’ve only got about two hours to tell a story. So, much like the story about Henderson and Olerud, virtually nothing about Peter Brand is true, but virtually all of it rings true, and gives us more insight into the essence of the story than a more accurate factual depiction ever could have.

The scene in Mark Shapiro’s office is like these amazing Yankees hats.

Open all four of those links in new tabs, right now, and take some time and really study them. Better yet, scroll down through the Twitter feed of Richard, who brought them to my attention, until you get to late Monday afternoon, and you can see even more of them.

They’re functional (that is, they keep the sun and/or rain out of your eyes), they’re probably made well. But they’re just about the ugliest things I’ve ever seen, and not because they’re Yankee hats. They’re abominations. There’s no excuse for anyone, ever, to wear any of these hats. If you want to support the Yankees, wear a Yankees hat; if you want to walk around looking like you’ve got a puke-stained ca. 1972 couch on your head, by all means, go find a hat with patterns like these. As distasteful as either of those things is by itself, though, the combination is unholy. I can’t imagine anyone actually wearing any of those caps, and if anyone did, I think you could go ahead and remove it by any means necessary, and there’s not a court on this continent that would convict you.

Just like I’m sure the stitching and construction and whatnot of those caps is just great, the scene in Moneyball during which Beane travels to Cleveland to meet with Mark Shapiro in person to discuss a potential trade for Ricardo Rincon is, technically, just fine. The acting and direction are very good. And it’s not that the scene was just completely unnecessary — it’s where Beane meets Brand, so in that sense it’s pretty crucial to the picture. So functionally, it’s just fine.

And yet, everything about it is wrong. As many others have pointed out before me, it’s completely implausible that one GM would just hop in a plane and fly out to see another GM in person to discuss a potential trade. (We learn later that Beane never travels with the team, so it’s not like he was just passing through.) The setting is just awkward through-and-through, Beane all on his own surrounded (literally) by Cleveland guys. On top of that, its taking place in Cleveland’s offices means we’re subjected to a very large, unmissable image of baseball’s greatest embarrassment, Chief Wahoo (MLB tried to remove tobacco from the movie, but was OK with Wahoo? Backwards). Just like one of those caps would if it were ever worn by an actual fan to an actual baseball game (which, of course, has never happened and will never happen), the scene sticks out as being very, very wrong, in a film in which they got so much right.

Adrian Bellani/Carlos Pena is like Joel Hanrahan.

There’s wrong, and then there’s just unnecessary. Hanrahan has quietly had a brilliant year as Pirates closer, trading his formerly gaudy strikeout numbers for vastly improved control and an ability to induce a lot more grounders, and it’s resulted in (entering Monday) a 1.89 ERA and 2.19 FIP. He might pick up his 40th save, if you care about those. It’s been a great year, as relievers go. And it’s been completely wasted on a team that could lose 90 games.

It’s often repeated (because it’s true) that the last thing a rebuilding team needs is a good, veteran closer, and it’s meant chronologically; until the very moment you’re ready to compete, there’s just no reason at all to employ a shutdown closer like Hanrahan. It’s not that he’s costing the Pirates a lot of money or anything either–just that his contributions seem kind of wasteful.

In the real world of 2002, Carlos Pena is a highly touted rookie who Beane acquires in a shrewd deal with Texas right before the season. After a poor 40 games with the team, though, Beane flips him in a complex three-team deal that ends up getting the A’s Ted Lilly and some cash. He’s not a big part of the season. It’s been a long time since I read the book, and I don’t have it nearby to check, but I have no memory of Pena making any appearance in the book at all.

Well, he’s huge in the movie, a budding star who becomes a bone of contention between Beane and Howe. Pena is the one player on the team who is performing through the team’s early-season struggles; Beane nevertheless continues to insist that he be benched for Scott Hatteberg, and Howe keeps refusing. So Beane sends Pena packing in exchange for a no-name reliever, basically to flex his muscles over his patsy of a manager.

It was strange to me that they decided to completely change this part of the story, toward the relatively minor purpose of developing more conflict between Beane and Howe. There was plenty of that as it was, and they could’ve chosen any number of legitimate angles to play up. They just didn’t need Pena, at all, let alone to invent an alternate-universe Pena. There was nothing wrong with the way that part of the story was handled, on its own; to me, though, it was totally unnecessary and just got in the way.

Statler and WaldorfKen Harrelson and Steve Stone are like Statler and Waldorf.

Statler and Waldorf are my favorite Muppet characters, though there are so many great ones that I’ll probably say that about someone else a week from now. But they’re great–the two crotchety old critics who never leave their theatre box, and whose only purpose is to criticize the rest of the Muppet Show. But they’re not really critics, of course, as their lines are written by the same people who wrote the lines they’re making fun of. So the purpose they serve, in fact, is to enhance the experience of the same thing they’re ostensibly criticizing.

I would never seriously suggest that Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone are in on the joke — as a recently transplanted Chicagoan of four years, I can tell you that that’s giving them way, way too much credit — but this double-barreled rant in which the two White Sox TV broadcasters rip into Moneyball, Billy Beane, and the entire statistical revolution, and then admit that neither one has read the book or seen the movie (and nor has their interviewer!) comes off as so forced, desperate and completely out of touch with reality that the practical effect of the article can only be to make the film look even better than it did before. If Sony had paid these two to come out against the movie, it would actually have been a pretty brilliant publicity move.

Hawk and Stone Pony are really (and, I’ll continue to assume, unwittingly) working for the film, through the device of making comments that are ostensibly trying to tear it down. All you have to do is, after every quote in that article, mentally insert the distinctive Statler laugh. “DORRRRR- huh huh huh huh! ”

Moneyball is like Derek Jeter.

I liked the film more than TCM did, so while I thought his “Moneyball = Johnny Damon” metaphor was clever, and while I mean it when I say I don’t have any interest in actually reviewing the film on its merits, I had to come up with one that better summed up my opinion of it.

Derek Jeter, obviously, is a really, really good player. Great, even. But he’s also easy to misunderstand. He’s arguably never been the best in the league (rarely, at least), often not the best on his own team. His defense at shortstop, for most of his career, has been atrocious. Yet he’s been called the greatest Yankee in history, he’s been (and probably still is) the most recognizable and widely-known player in the sport, one of the most famous athletes in the world. He’s even managed to win five Gold Gloves, an award meant to go to the player who is the best at the thing at which, for most of those years, Jeter was the very worst. This might have changed as he’s aged, but the misunderstandings and overvaluations of Jeter, for a long time, made him a very hard guy for those of us in the stat-loving crowd to like.

My overall, unsophisticated, as-objective-as-possible valuation of the Moneyballmovie would put it among movies roughly where Jeter is among baseball players: very, very good, close to great, but nonetheless flawed and quite a ways down from the top.Even more, though, the movie’s own oversimplifications and distortions made it hard for me to enjoy the film as much as I think its merits as a film deserved, and I doubt that will be an uncommon reaction among the baseball-obsessed and (especially) sabermetrics-friendly. The film minimizes or skips over the contributions of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada, probably in some order the 2002 Athletics’ five best players. It embraces as truth certain ideas (like the minimal importance of defense) that Beane and the rest of us really believed in then, but that we know now were terribly misguided. The chronology is all off, the scouts are way too dumb, everything is oversimplified.

The thing is, though, that none of those things has any impact at all on the quality of the film as a film, just as the way that more casual fans tend to overrate Jeter has nothing to do with his actual worth as a player and shouldn’t have anything to do with his likability as a public figure. Moneyball didn’t set out to chronicle the 2002 A’s season: there are official team films and stuff for that. It’s a movie about one guy, or two, and how his ingenuity and his willingness to take risks ultimately changed the whole game of baseball. None of those things I mentioned is essential to telling that story; in fact, many of them could only have impeded it. So, knowing what I know about the real story made it harder for me to enjoy the film, just as knowing what I know about advanced statistics makes it harder for me to appreciate Jeter’s outstanding career. But that doesn’t make either of those things actually any less outstanding.