Truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of nonfiction. One repeated exception, though, is when it comes to sports . As an avid fan, I love reading books and watching documentaries and movies about real-life sports events and trends. Among my favorites to both read and watch in the past few years is “Moneyball.”
Baseball fans out there are familiar with the concept of Moneyball. Bolstered by the writings of Bill James and made a necessity by a minimal payroll, the Oakland A’s of the late ’90s and early 2000s took to a different style of assembling talent through free agency and especially the amateur draft. Whereas big-money teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox were throwing money at every player they wanted, Oakland, led by general manager and former baseball player Billy Beane, did the opposite, searching through advanced computer metrics and a revolutionary style of scouting reports to find players that no other team wanted, but who had all the overlooked tools that made a winning team.
Michael Lewis, who also wrote the popular football book-turned-movie “The Blind Side,” wrote “Moneyball” in 2003, and after years of delays, the movie version made its debut in 2011. Brad Pitt stars as Beane, with Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman in supporting roles. The movie did well, getting six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Lead Actor (Pitt) and Best Supporting Actor (Hill).
The book and movie are two very different works. The film focuses on how the A’s put their team together for the 2002 season, whereas the book looks at the entire organization from the free-agent signings for that 2002 team to how it handled the amateur player draft and built for its future. The book is also far more technical, devoting an entire 30-odd-page chapter to the history of Jamesean baseball theory, known as “sabermetrics.” This is touched on briefly in the movie, as James’ writing helped serve as the backbone for the Moneyball movement, but Lewis chronicles more than just the statistical aspect of this train of thought. The book makes James an actual character as opposed to some mythical genius, and this insight into the history of sabermetrics before Beane really help put the story in context.
The rest of the characters also tend to act differently. The best characters that carry over from page to projector in this case are Beane himself and catcher-turned-first baseman Scott Hatteberg, who served as one of the shining examples of the A’s philosophy that season. Pitcher Chad Bradford, who was turned down by the other big league teams because of his strange throwing style, also carried over well, but his character was rarely utilized in the film, whereas Lewis devotes a full chapter to him.
The rest of the main cast is notably changed. A’s manager Art Howe (Hoffman) is shown as stubborn and somewhat selfish in the film, whereas he was mostly supportive of the system in the book. Beane’s daughter is much more prevalent in the movie; through her, we see what Beane is like when he’s not throwing chairs through windows in frustration. The biggest change of all might be Hill’s character, Peter Brand, who was created for the movie. Brand is based on assistant GM Paul DePodesta, whose computer programs and player evaluations helped shape the A’s into perennial winners. Whereas Brand is more of a stereotypical geek figure, DePodesta is more of a true ace in the hole. Brand constantly relies on Beane’s guidance and advice; DePodesta’s level of knowledge is on par with, and probably higher than, Beane’s, something that makes his importance feel more believable.
Yet unlike some adaptations, the ones in the “Moneyball” movie, for the most part, work quite well. Hill brings a lot to his character’s role, and it adds a good movie-specific quality to the story. The relationship between Beane and his daughter really help to humanize the character, as we barely get a glimpse of his life outside of baseball in the book. The movie also, naturally, adds some moments of comedy, which Lewis features at times, as well. But while the book’s funny moments are funny because they’re kind of depressing (namely all the things said from the world outside of the A’s front office and Beane’s and DePodesta’s reactions to them), whereas the movie offers some brevity.
Ultimately, both versions hit home well. The movie does a fine job at getting all of its sports moments almost 100 percent correct (the actual game sequences are all historically accurate, even the seemingly made-for-movie climax of Oakland’s run at baseball’s longest winning streak). The movie plays out like a typical sports movie, so if you’re a fan of the classics, you’ll enjoy this one, too. I’d actually suggest reading the book if you’re not a big sports fan, as it gives a lot more background and lays out exactly why this story is important much better than the movie does. And for that reason, I must once again side with the book.