Artistic license is that great big blanket that suffocates the truth. It’s why the carefully crafted history of comic book characters can be tossed to the dirt, why Commodus dies in the center of the arena in GLADIATOR, and not his bath. Artistic license allowed Salieri to live on as a villain (AMADEUS), the literal whitewash in 21, and the upside down depiction of the “Hurricane” Carter/Giardello fight.
We accept these inaccuracies in the name of story telling, in the name of entertainment, and in some sad cases we accept them as the new truth.
MONEYBALL is a great movie, a certified box office hit taking in $20.6 million on its opening weekend, and a fantastic representation of Major League Baseball in the early aughts but it is not a documentary and it is not guided by authenticity.
Shot with an eye toward physical realism but a head for lost details; MONEYBALL is an adaptation of a book that had a clear stance, an adaptation that takes that stance and tries to bolster it with a revisionist view of history that diminishes a truly fascinating story.
MONEYBALL needed a villain, someone to embody the very real, very hostile hatred of sabermetrics and the “new way” that people like Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) were eager to usher in. Grady Fuson, a long time scout and baseball executive fills that role for Director Benett Miller; but was Fuson really fired at the beginning of the 2002 season after a heated shout & shove with Billy Beane?
Fuson is not a gigantic fan of sabermetrics but he also wasn’t an ornery, insubordinate, old fogy and he was never fired by the Oakland A’s. In fact Fuson was re-hired by Beane and the A’s last year following stops with the San Diego Padres and the Texas Rangers, whom he had voluntarily left the A’s for following the 2001 season.
Billy Beane flies to Cleveland to discuss a trade for a pitcher. Once there he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who tells him all about this amazing new way of building a baseball team on a shoestring budget.
Jonah Hill is outstanding as Billy Beane’s portly and bookish co-conspirator but Brand is in actuality not a real person, standing in for Paul DePodesta who asked that his name not appear in the film (though it does in the book).
DePodesta did work for the Indians before he worked for the A’s but he actually worked under John Hart (not Mark Shapiro) and he was hired (not bought) by the A’s following the 1999 season, allowing him to work alongside Fuson, and Billy Beane as they built the 2000 and 2001 A’s. DePodesta is also a rail thin, former college baseball player, and a scout; not simply a numbers geek who figured out a secret formula that could judge talent on statistics alone.
As for the trip to Cleveland: No General Manager flies half way across the country to discuss a trade for a spare part, especially not in the era of cell phones and email. That said it is a splendid scene that sets up the rest of the film.
The Oakland A’s are a powerhouse thanks in large part to the contribution of three now departed superstars: Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen. Crippled by these losses the team goes out and shocks the world by bringing in a rag tag group of spare pieces that lead them to almost victory.
The 2001 A’s were blessed with five other key players: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Eric Chavez, and Miguel Tejada, who remained with the team in 2002 (and beyond). These young players, and their continued maturity, not Scott Hatterberg, David Justice, and Chad Bradford, were the primary cause of the A’s continued success despite the fact that they were barely mentioned in the film and the book.
What about the MONEYBALL “All Stars“? Well Justice was a washout who did just a bit better than the gallery of scouts in MONEYBALL had said he would. Bradford, whose “knuckles to the dirt” submarine delivery was captured perfectly, actually made his debut with the A’s in 2001 and was a highly effective though only moderately used relief pitcher that year. Jeremy Giambi was also already a part of the A’s roster before the 2002 season.
As for Scott Hatterberg (Chris Pratt), aka the underdog hero of the piece? Beane didn’t go to his house to personally offer him a contract and Hatterberg was a solid contributor for the entire season playing in 136 of the teams 162 games, not a bench player who turns into Roy Hobbs. Hatterberg is now a scout for the A’s (yes they do have scouts, not a super computer and various objects for Billy Beane to throw when he is angry).
The book prominently mentions many of the A’s 2002 Draft picks like Nick Swisher and Mark Teahen but they do not feature in the film (with the exception of Jeremy Brown). MONEYBALL writer Michael Lewis has said that he will likely follow up with those players for a companion book.
“I spent ‘02, ‘03, ‘04, and some of ‘05 running around the minor leagues and watching their careers start” said Lewis, “Then I put it to one side, because I realized I couldn’t write this book until their careers were done.”
“I may get back to it very soon. In the next month or two. I may re-enter all these people’s lives,” Lewis added.
Infuriated by Jeremy Giambi’s celebratory antics following another loss and Manager Art Howe’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) refusal to play Hatterberg, Billy Beane decides to trade Giambi and Pena to send a message and force Howe to play Hatterberg.
Howe, like Fuson is made into a comic book villain, standing in the way of Billy Beane’s forward thinking. As I already established, Hatterberg was a regular contributor and has said that Howe “was a huge supporter of mine. I never got the impression from him that I was not his first choice”. So how about that day or whirlwind trades where we see Beane move players like poker chips?
Giambi was traded to the Phillies for John Mabry but that move happened about a month and a half prior to Carlos Pena’s trade to the Tigers. No one had to pay to stock the A’s vending machine for 3 years as the A’s never charged their players for soda.
So did Billy Beane really trade a future All-Star to piss off Art Howe (despite the fact that most characterize Howe as a nice guy)? Not exactly. The truth is, that while Pena did turn into an All-Star with more than 250 home runs, he was hitting only .218 when the A’s traded him and it took him another 4 ½ seasons and 4 organizations to realize his full potential.
As for the trade: it was no small deal, moving Pena and 6 others between the A’s, Tigers, and Yankees and blessing the A’s with a young starting pitcher and more importantly $600,000 which Beane jokingly referred to as “My brokerage fee”.
Through flashbacks we see a young Billy Beane choosing what will become a disappointing pro baseball career over a scholarship to Stanford thanks to the assurances of a scout. The writers (Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian, and Stan Chervin) lead us to believe that Beane has a lifelong distaste for scouts and the lying lies that they tell because of this, verbalizing, or ramming that notion down our throats when Fuson says as much to Beane pre-firing.
Billy Beane was an awful major leaguer but after he retired he became a scout and still surrounds himself with many of the same people that were with the A’s a decade ago. Beane’s adoption of the MONEYBALL way was always about finding a new way to win within a tight budget, same as his move to stockpile compensation draft picks (a notable part of the book left out of the film) and draft high school pitchers. Not an assault on scouting but a new, better way to do it. A way that most teams have at least partially adopted despite the ever present detractors.
While MONEYBALL deftly displays the rift between baseball’s old school and new school it fails to accurately portray many of the events and people surrounding the fight in the name of simplification.
In the film Beane’s character says “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball” but I’d argue that it is incredibly easy when you wash away some of the hard edges of a true story.
The question is: does making MONEYBALL accessible to the masses lessen its greatness and diminish the ballad of Billy Beane‘s quixotic journey?
MONEYBALL–A New Way of Thinking (ESPN)
Sources: CSSAME (GLADIATOR), Chasing the Frog (21), Journal of Religion and Film (AMADEUS), New York Times (HURRICANE), Merced Sun Star (Grady Fuson), San Francisco Chronicle (DePodesta, Pena/Giambi trade, Hatterberg signing, misc.), MONEYBALL: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Baseball Reference, AV Club, WSJ (Lewis quote), Accumulated knowledge of a lifetime as a baseball nerd.