December 3, 2011 [LINK / comment]
Moneyball, the A's, and Billy Beane
I finally saw the movie Moneyball last month, and not only enjoyed it, I learned a lot about baseball. As most fans know, it's all about the fiercely iconoclastic general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane. Brad Pitt plays the starring role, supported by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as manager Art Howe, and Jonah Hill, as the Ivy-League number cruncher Peter Brand, who was supposedly behind the "sabermetric" approach to filling baseball rosters. Hill is better known as a chubby nerd in such teenage flicks as Superbad. For all the details, see the Moneyball movie Web site and/or imdb.com. The movie is based on the acclaimed book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, which I am going to try to read over Christmas break.
I really liked how the movie emphasizes the personal experiences that fueled Beane's burning ambition to win. I was unaware that he was once a minor league player trying to crack into the big leagues, but had a run of dirty rotten luck. With four different teams from 1984 through 1989, he had 66 hits in 301 at bats, a measly .219 average. He was hired by the A's (with whom he had played in 1989) as a scout and became their general manager after the 1997 season. (See the biography page at MLB.com.)
There's a somber scene where Brad Pitt arrives at Oakland Coliseum, in back of the new "Mount Davis" section, and sees workers taking down banners of Jason Giambi and other stars who got signed by richer teams. I learned from the movie that the players reach the respective dugouts by walking alongside the "cut out" behind home plate, rather than going downstairs and through a tunnel, as is the case at nearly all other major league stadiums. That reflects how the Coliseum was built into a (bulldozed) hill side.
One of the best scenes in the movie is when Brad Pitt tries to convince a guy that he could switch from catcher to first base: "It's not that hard." Whereupon the guy who plays Ron Washington (who is now the manager of the Texas Rangers!) says in a laconic tone, "It's incredibly hard." Beane repeatedly clashes with the cynical, hard-bitten scouts and team executives, who go with the tried and true methods of the past, and scoff at the fancy-schmancy computerized analyses that Beane throws at them. Those must have been genuine, real-life baseball scouts in the movie. I was really impressed with the way they talked in those closed-door meetings.
It's interesting to compare and contrast this movie with the inspirational Jerry Maguire (starring Tom Cruise), as far as the earnest good guys who triumph over the jaded, greedy bastards who usually win in pro sports. For anyone (like me) who grew up in a small town, the movie's main theme of getting over the inherent disadvantages of lesser size, making do with what you've got, and finding ingenious ways to overcome the "big boys" really hits home. I wonder what Charlie Finley would have thought about that? Or for that matter, Peter Angelos? Quit'cher complainin' and hustle, for Pete's sake!
I was curious about one of the dramatic scenes in the movie, where Scott Hatteburg hits a game-winng home run to help the A's win their record-setting 20th consecutive game, so I went to baseball-reference.com and verified from the historical box score that that is exactly how it happened in real life: September 4, 2002.
For a more in-depth analysis of Beane's role as Athletics GM, read Darrell Horowitz at bleacherreport.com. Horowitz downplays Beane's vaunted success, noting that the A's won only one postseason series while Beane was in charge, and that the main reason the A's kept making it into the playoffs was their pitching rotation, which was not really Beane's doing.
Personally, I'm a little skeptical of taking quantitative analysis that far in the sporting world, which is dominated by innumerable contingencies and personality issues. Be that as it may, I have added Moneyball to the Baseball Movies page.
Oakland (?) Coliseum update
Inspired by all those movie scenes, I updated the Oakland Coliseum diagram. (Call it "o.co Coliseum" if you like.) Having had good cinematic looks both inside and outside the stadium, the profile is more accurate than before, and a few details in the grandstand and peripheral structures are enhanced as well. For example, the lower portion of the outfield bleachers (pre-1996) were rectangular in shape, or else they could not have been removed. The positions of the "cut-out" seating sections which were moved back and forth between baseball and football games, as well as the light towers, exterior scoreboards, access ramps, etc. have all been corrected.
Finally, I went with a single proposed future renovated football-only version of Oakland Coliseum, taking my idea of replicating "Mount Davis" (the huge, towering grandstand built in 1997 for the Raiders) and incorporating T.J. Zmina's suggestion of retaining the original curved portions of the grandstand next to the end zones, for the sake of economy. Previously, I had shown both my own idea and T.J.'s modification of it, but I think the his suggestion is better.
And one more thing...
(That's how Steve Jobs used to end his dramatic presentation at Apple conventions. ) Lately I have been doing a number of "behind-the-scenes" Web site upgrades, including the Baseball introduction / navigation page. I recently realized that it did not render properly when viewed with Microsot Internet Explorer. (Any of you who know about CSS issues can relate to that.) I hope it is fixed now, but if anyone encounters difficulties in using that page, please let me know.