Moneyball’s sequel: a better story this time

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At baseball’s All-Star hiatus the club with the best record has the 26th largest payroll and 30th-best-smelling stadium.  Yes, Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, the old Moneyballers dwelling in their decrepit Coliseum, are more dominant than they’ve ever been.  In movies or in real life.

In the 2011 Hollywood enactment of the 2002 American League season, Beane, played by Brad Pitt, uses high-tech stat-crunching  to acquire low-cost players who win a division title, despite the annoyance of a dumpy churl of a manager, Art Howe, played all too convincingly by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

In the real 2002 season, Beane, played by Brad Pitt, did a fine job of low-cost management on the margins.   But while you wouldn’t know it from the movie, he had elite talent that slipped up on nobody:  MVP-to-be Miguel Tejada at shortstop behind three aces on the mound:  Barry Zito (23-5), Tim Hudson (19-7), Mark Mulder (15-9).

The current A’s are closer than the ’02 ones to the way Hollywood would have it.  This is more an underdog story.  There’s no MVP here, no Tejada.  And no Zitos on the mound.

The 2014 A’s are even more than in ’02 a study in Sabermetrics.   They lead the majors in walks and runs; they’re second in home runs.  Classic Beane-ball.  They also lead the league in ERA and batting average against.  Shades of ’02.  They’re one of the 10 top teams in big-league history in run differential.

We see, in these A’s, life imitating art imitating life.  At 52, Beane is painting his masterpiece.  It’s an unlikely creation, considering how well the opposition knows his methods and copies them.  Moneyball teams have been to the World Series, but Beane hasn’t.  This could be his year. 

Somehow Beane still finds inefficiencies in the marketplace that he can exploit with an $80 million payroll that’s about half that of the cross-bay San Francisco Giants, who are dueling the much heavier payrolled Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League West.

On July 15 in Minneapolis, Oakland has but one starter (third baseman Josh Donaldson) in the one all-star game that presents a sport at its very best.  Baseball requires only the most basic teamwork, and defense is played at the optimal level since it requires no great sacrifice of body.  Count on it:  the All-Stars will play like All-Stars.   The fact that World Series home-field advantage rides on it is the guarantee of its honesty.  Thank you, Commissioner Selig.

The A’s, however, are not a star vehicle but an ensemble of role players, and manager Bob Melvin knows roles as well as Brad Pitt knows his.  The A’s have five left-handed pitchers, so they create turmoil in every opponent’s lineup.

But before endorsing another Moneyball, let’s do some editing on the original script that Hollywood failed to do.  Eric Chavez, who played on the 2002 team, said, “I saw the movie and it wasn’t a realistic view of what happened there.”

What offended him, perhaps more than anything else, was the suggestion that one corner infielder, Scott Hatteberg, who hit 15 homers, was more significant than another, Eric Chavez, who hit 34.

Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, the basis for the popular if gratuitously fictionalized movie, touted the genius of Beane stretching a budget like it’s taffy. 

Beane procures underpriced, sometimes broken-down, players who stretch the count, wear out the pitcher, draw walks and set up a big inning for Oakland.  He did that in 2002 and has been doing it ever since.

But here’s where the movie splits from the truth:  Art Howe fumes about Beane’s unorthodox thinking when he’s not whining about his contract.   To those of us who knew Howe in Houston when he was a player and a manager, such behavior is implausible for this tall, slender, placid man who was anything but a whiner.

Though Chavez found Pitt’s replication of Beane “dead-on,” he thought Hoffman missed wildly on Howe: “physically, not even close, demeanor not even close.”   Chavez, who at 36 is trying to hang on with the most desperate of big-league teams, Arizona, said he “never heard one thing about a contract dispute at that time” involving Howe.

In Howe’s view the main reason the A’s won 103 games in ’02 was a smartly drafted pitching staff.  He accused Beane of feeding Lewis data that elevated Beane, cooked the books in his favor and lowered credit – and credibility – for Howe.

“You work all those years to build a reputation,” Howe said, “and in two hours this movie breaks it down.”

Beane, who had a tense relationship with Howe and his other field managers prior to Melvin, has done little to correct the distortions of Moneyball.   Beane does not tell the Howe and the why but points out only the obvious, that he didn’t write it or direct it.  And everyone knows Hollywood fudges the truth.

It’s not his fault Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Art Howe.  Some are lucky.  Some are SOL. 

When Hoffman heard that his takedown of Howe was massively untrue, he tried to arrange a meeting with his subject to apologize in person and do what he could to correct a false public image.   Alas, before the meeting could take place, Hoffman died in February of this year, of a drug overdose that included heroin.

Hopefully the 2014 Moneyballers will be more accurately portrayed than their predecessors, whether in print media, social media or movie lots.   Certainly there are narratives to work with, compelling true stories that require no embellishment.

Consider the feel-good comeback of Scott Kazmir, one of six A’s chosen for the Midsummer Classic.  A Texas high school legend with his three no-hitters in a row, he became a feared power pitcher in the majors, a 97-mph strikeout leader and an All-Star.

Then, hard luck and hard-headedness combined to wreck his career.  He had a procession of injuries, his velocity dipped to  low 80s, and he wasn’t interested in being a junk-dealer.  So in 2012 he was out of baseball, fishing in a boat on Lake Conroe, north of Houston. 

A year removed from The Show, he wanted back in it.  For the first time in his life he devoted himself to conditioning and intelligent pitching.   Beane noticed that last season, with Cleveland, Kazmir’s fastball steadily regained its zip   — up to 95 by the end, when he was a free agent again.

The A’s paid a healthy price for a 30-year-old lefty whose health was still in question:  $9 million salary.  It turns out the Beane-counting was on the money.  Kazmir’s arm speed has held up, and with his improved control and pitch selection he’s having his best year.

“He lost his way a little bit,” said Melvin.  “But that might have been the best thing that could have happened.  It’s a rare story.”

Indeed.  Hollywood should love it.   If there must be a Hangover 3, there has to be at least a Moneyball 2, right?

Moneyball 2 would have other factors going for it.  Such as bathroom humor, with the ongoing sewage issues at the Coliseum.

There also could be a power outage (let’s make an explosion out of it) as those are known to happen there.

Good news for A’s fans:  agreement on a 10-year lease extension on this rare baseball/football relic of the 1960s.

Congrats.

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