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"Moneyball" Behind the Scenes

By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek

September 22, 2011

Whether “Moneyball” succeeds at the box office or even appeals to Oscar voters obviously remains to be seen.  But the roller coaster ride leading up to its rollout is its own Academy Award-worthy drama.  As Brad Pitt, in “Moneyball’s” lead role as Oakland GM Billy Beane remarked during a recent press junket, “I think the making of the movie is just as interesting as the movie itself.”

For filmmakers, Hollywood is notoriously more difficult to conquer than the Yankee-led AL East, and the “Moneyball” back story is a prime example.  “Moneyball” went through three distinct rings of Hollywood development hell, as over a seven-year period it was tackled by no fewer than three different directors (David Frankel, Steven Soderbergh, and Bennett Miller) and their corresponding screenwriters (Steven Zaillian, Stan Chervin, and Aaron Sorkin).  Their challenge?  Translating the book’s sophisticated concepts – sabermetrics, baseball franchise budgets and payroll limitations, player contract minutiae, and traditional vs. progressive business models (also known as “the scouts vs. the stats”) – into a story that was appealing even to moviegoers who knew nothing about baseball. 

To ad lib the film’s trailer (and in case you haven’t read it, summarize the book), after not cutting it as a ballplayer, Billy Beane joined the Oakland A’s, the last team for which he’d played, as an advance scout in 1990, and worked his way up to general manager in eight years.  With nearly the lowest payroll in baseball at the time, Beane persuaded the rest of the franchise to implement sabermetrics – or, on-base percentage-driven statistics championed by influential baseball analyst Bill James, Harvard-educated baseball guru Paul DePodesta (portrayed in the movie by Jonah Hill under the pseudonym Peter Brand after DePodesta refused to allow his name to be used) and by members of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. As Beane realized, players who excelled at just getting on base were often overlooked by scouts and managers, and thus could be acquired at bargain prices.

After implementing sabermetrics, in 2002, the A’s won 103 games, despite having lost all their major stars to free agency. They were eliminated in the first round of the 2002 playoffs, but changed baseball in the process.

During the time covered by Moneyball, the A’s pitching coach was Rick Peterson, who subsequently was the pitching coach for the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers, and now works as an advisor to Bloomberg Sports on their analytic programs for teams, players, and fans.  Peterson was involved with “Moneyball” during the Soderburgh iteration, and recently shared his feelings about the film with Big Lead Sports.

“The great thing is that fans who may not remember will see a story that was truly amazing, as much for those players buying into a system and thriving as for what the front office and the coaches did,” Peterson says.  “It is a game played by athletes and people, and that team had guys with big hearts who believed in the system Bill and his staff created and Art Howe [portrayed in the film by Phillip Seymour Hoffman] managed, and the results were really historic as we know.”

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Beyond the Scoreboard
Rick Horrow, America’s leading expert in sport business, and coauthor Karla Swatek give fans an inside look at the multibillion-dollar world of professional sport.
Beyond the Scoreboard eBook
Rick Horrow, America’s leading expert in sport business, and coauthor Karla Swatek give fans an inside look at the multibillion-dollar world of professional sport.

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