Saturday, August 24, 2013

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003)

by Michael Lewis

One of the things that I’ve long championed in film is the necessity for screenwriters to reimagine non-fiction and make it more dramatic, keeping the basic premise, the main events, and the primary characters but not being bound by the constraints of absolute factual representation. Well, screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin did a number on Michael Lewis’s book and created something incredibly dramatic and satisfying, so much so that they were nominated for best adapted screenplay at the Oscars that year. They really should have won for Moneyball, because they changed so much in a subtle way, while still keeping the essential truth of the piece, and the results are incredibly impressive.

Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, delves into philosophical questions about professional baseball, using as its example the 2002 season of the Oakland Athletics and its general manager, former big leaguer Billy Beane. The book chronicles the way that Beane surrounded himself with people who used the mathematical underpinning of ideas by baseball writer Bill James to acquire players who were undervalued by major league baseball and provide his small-market team with a way to compete against large-market teams like the New York Yankees who had deep pockets and the ability to buy whatever players they wanted regardless of price. Much of the book goes into depth about James and where his ideas came from and how misleading he realized most baseball statistics are in terms of accurately predicting player success.

Fans of the film, like me, will recognize the names: Jeremy Giambi, Chad Bradford, Scott “Pickin’ Machine” Hatteberg, David Justice, Kevin Youkilis and Jeremy Brown. The big events are there as well, the trade to get Ricardo Rincon, The Streak, and the loss in the playoffs. But one name you won’t find in the book is Peter Brand. This character is a fiction invented by the screenwriters, a combination of Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, who were instrumental in evaluating players based on the new philosophy championed by Bill James. The book, however, is Billy Beane’s story all the way. And while he has assistance from his brain trust, he clearly knows what he wants, how to get it, and seems to need little in the way of instruction or help. The film is very different on that score, with the unknown “Peter Brand” giving Billy the answer to the question he has of how to compete in an unfair game.

The book is absolutely compelling. Lewis goes into great detail, not only about Billy Beane’s disappointing major league career but about all of the ballplayers who are featured. It certainly doesn’t have the dramatic arc of the film, but then it doesn’t need to. The book has a much different agenda of focusing on the James philosophy and how it ultimately succeeded, and the afterward by Lewis is incredibly eye opening. If you enjoyed the film I would highly recommend the book. The fact that it is very different is actually a plus. It not only goes into much more detail about the events, some of them radically changed, as well as the players but gives the reader a real appreciation for the work that went into creating a dramatic screenplay from the source material. Moneyball is a great read and a great insight into a little known episode in baseball history.

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