If you do not know the story of Billy Beane, here is a preface: played in the 2011 movie Moneyball by Brad Pitt, Beane was the General Manager (and is now the executive vice president) of the Oakland Athletics major league baseball team.
Back in 2002, he changed the methodology of the game by adapting some far-out, newfangled strategy called “sabermetrics,” which took a mathematics approach to a perceived game of instincts and savvy. Sabermetrics was ahead of its time; where scouts believed a hitter’s potential came down to force of character and pure athleticism, sabermetrics proposed that the key to a good hitter was, in fact, in his ability to get on base, be it a walk or a hit.
As Beane’s Assistant GM Paul DePodesta (known as “Peter Brand” in the film and played by Jonah Hill) stated, “your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins.” Taunted, dismissed, at times blatantly threatened, the Beane-Brand partnership prevailed in applying this controversial approach to the A’s 2002-2003 season’s lineup.
What does this cinematic tale mean? Specifically, how does Moneyball add up as a great “parable of masculinity”? Well, many reasons, but first, it helps to have context: Moneyball was directed by Bennett Miller, who crafted the masterful 2014 wrestling film, Foxcatcher. Both films, respectively, wrestle (Foxcatcher literally) with masculine ideals and centre on male characters who are naturally competitive and have a strong will for greatness.
Where Foxcatcher resembles a Greek tragedy, Moneyball is, mostly, a success story. “Mostly” because, like real life, stories should not be relayed as black-and-white and sweet-or-sour. True, the A’s lose in the AL Elimination Game. True, Beane declined the general manager job for a team that won the World Series two years later (and broke its perennial Bambino’s Curse). And true, by the film’s end, Billy “is still trying to win that last game of the season.”
But throughout the course of the film, in spite of all his opponents and obstacles, Beane never loses track of his individuality and integrity. He stands by his decisions, even in the absence of light, and stays true to them until they hold true to all of baseball.
One of the greatest obstacles for all men is overcoming those pangs of self-doubt. That often unshakeable insecurity of questioning your thoughts, convictions, and actions, and wondering if you should cave at the behest of a brash majority or vocal minority. When it comes to principles–something this decadent modern era seems to lack–one should look to what Thomas Jefferson said and “stand like a rock.” Billy Beane, indeed, stands like a rock—his unwavering flag of audacity planted firmly in the ground.
As GM, Beane was already regarded with a certain amount of respect by his colleagues. He had experience as a pro baseball player (played for the Mets, Twins, Tigers, and A’s), where most managers did not. But when Beane presents the eccentric idea of sabermetrics (pioneered by pork-and-beans worker, Bill James), his credibility is put at stake. Still, Billy keeps his cool, spits tobacco into his paper cup, and deduces to a table full of fogey scouts: “If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.”
Firstly, that is one of Billy’s great (and manly) strengths: he is an expert purveyor of logic. Sitting at the end of the boardroom table, Beane reminds his scouts if the Athletics try to “play like the Yankees in here, [they] will lose to the Yankees out there.” As harebrained as sabermetrics first sounds, Beane explains himself calmly, but not without some sardonic wit to boot (“there are rich teams and there are poor teams… then there’s fifty feet of crap… and then there’s us”).
Repeatedly, Beane experiences confrontations that, if dealt incorrectly (that is, with irrational emotions), could damage his integrity or reputation as GM. But Beane handles it like a champ, never conceding points or cowering to low-blow character attacks. While Beane does come off a little carefree, that is more of a defence mechanism against the swaths of in-house skepticism. In reality, he is firm, strong-minded, and respectful of his associates’ views. He listens, so he can properly deal with objections from the coaching staff.
For instance, Beane’s initial conversation with head coach Art Howe (played by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) about his shaky one-year contract is dealt with supremely. Billy explains that he can’t look at Art’s short-term contract until he puts the players on the field. Until then, Beane affirms, everything is “on” him. Beane is essentially warding off a nagging kvetch using sound logic, while being fair—he puts all the onus on himself, giving Art no further course of argument.
This is what makes Beane not only a true man, but a true leader (should they not be one and the same?). He is always willing to assume responsibility – i.e. when the responsibility is truly his. At first, he makes some excuses. He whines to A’s co-owner Steve Schott about the team’s low budget, but gets up off his butt and owns the reality of his predicament.
He acquires Peter Brand, a Yale economics graduate who has an uncanny way with numbers and codifying player performance. Together, they dump expensive players for cheap underdogs. Originally in a tough fix, Beane pulls through by making personal, calculated decisions that ultimately alter the landscape of baseball.
An important subplot of Moneyball shows Beane as a divorced father. There’s an interesting scene where Beane waits for his daughter at his ex-wife’s home. Her new husband (played effetely by Spike Jonze) sits across from Beane, asking him inane, uninformed questions about baseball. We can’t help but wonder: “did Billy’s ex-wife hedge her bets or something with this beta?”
As the conversation sputters, Beane learns that his ex and her boytoy gave his daughter a cell phone. When the boyfriend sheepishly says Billy can be part of that decision (even though it’s obviously too late), Beane dominantly replies “her mother and I will discuss it, but thank you.”
That’s another one of Beane’s masculine virtues in this film. He handles bullshit, fakery, and macho hostility with a Stoic’s acuity. Consider the scene below where head scout Grady Fuson criticizes Billy’s new crusade with “Google boy” Brand. When Grady asks to have “a word,” Beane knows the scout has a major gripe and immediately decides he won’t succumb to the tension.
Before Grady can say anything, Billy slaps his hands (a good, though kind of theatrical, way of commanding an opponent’s attention) and inquires, “you’re not happy, Grady… why.” Immediately, Beane has called out Grady’s agenda, disarming him. Beane is direct with his opponent and pulls no punches (literally): “adapt or die,” he asserts. Frustrated, Grady aggressively puts a hand on Billy’s shoulder, which he immediately shucks off. Notice how Beane doesn’t physically escalate and buy into Grady’s macho theatrics. Instead, he calmly fires the incensed Grady–not simply because he can but, with this physical threat, Beane now has every right to.
Following this code of conduct will help you win in life and overcome the many, many conflicts you will face as a man in a system that wants you to fail. It is what separates the alphas from the betas. You should face these conflicts head-on, because if you don’t that means you have not been a challenge to the powers that be and you are just another pawn in the game of life.
Billy Beane is the opposite: he represents the struggles of a man in a powerful position, who uses his authority to challenge the system from the top-down. He accepts that “it’s a process” to stand out from the crowd and separate yourself from the status quo, all while staying true to his principles. That is the basic parable of Moneyball: it is not about the joys of playing America’s greatest game and staying in “the show,” but about changing the way it should be played. Billy Beane’s achievements should be a guide for every man who challenges an existing flawed system.
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