Thursday, November 18, 2010

Moneyball: A Loser

A movie version of Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, about the Oakland Athletics of the early 2000s and their general manager, Billy Beane, is currently being filmed.

Beane is being played by Brad Pitt -- who I once saw at the old Yankee Stadium, sitting in the Field Boxes with his adopted son Maddox Jolie-Pitt, but not with Angelina Jolie, a "significant other" who is far more significant than he is.

Paul DePodesta, Beane's assistant GM at the time, has been renamed Peter Brand, and is played by Jonah Hill, best known for appearing in Judd Apatow's gross-out sex-comedy films, especially Superbad. (These were recently "Airplaned" into a parody film titled The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It.)

Art Howe, the A's manager at the time, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Two real-life major league players are confirmed as being in the film, albeit playing other big-leaguers: Royce Clayton, a former All-Star shortstop who has acted before but did not play himself when his character was struck out by Dennis Quaid's Jim Morris in The Rookie, plays A's shorstop/steroid cheat Miguel Tejada; and Jason Windsor, who really did play for the A's, but as a pitcher, plays outfielder and first baseman John Mabry.

Michael Lewis is currently riding a wave of success from the film version of his book The Blind Side, about football player Michael Oher and his adopted family, which won Sandra Bullock the Oscar for Best Actress. Aaron Sorkin, the genius behind A Few Good Men, The West Wing, and the brief but wonderful Sports Night (I still miss you, Sabrina Lloyd), assisted Lewis and others on the screenplay.

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I've never understood why everyone made a fuss over, and why someone's now making a movie about, Moneyball and Beane. (Sounds like a bad 1970s cop (or private eye) show: Moneyball and Beane. Freebie and the Bean. Tenspeed and Brownshoe. B.J. and the Bear. (Okay, that one was about a trucker and his chimp.)

But why make a fuss over Billy Beane, and the theories that inspired Moneyball?

A, The A’s have never won a Pennant with Beane as general manager. He's been there since 1998, 12 seasons, and they haven't even won so much as an ALCS game since 1992. No Pennants since 1990. No World Series since 1989. Observe:

* 2000: Won the AL West. Won Game 1 of the ALDS against the Yankees, and forced a Game 5 at home at the Oakland Coliseum (or whatever corporate name it had at the time). Yankees won.

* 2001: Won the AL Wild Card. Won Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Only needed to win 1 of the last 3, the first 2 of which would be at the Coliseum. Yankees won.

* 2002: Rode a 20-game winning streak, longest in AL history, to a Western Division title, and didn't have to face the Yankees in the ALDS. Faced the Minnesota Twins. Had the home-field advantage. Lost the series.

* 2003: Won the AL West. Won Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox. Only needed to win 1 of the last 3, and if it went to a Game 5, it would be in Oakland. Lost the series.

* 2004: Just missed the Wild Card, losing it out to the Red Sox. Who knows what would have happened if they, rather than the Sox, had been the Wild Card.

* 2005: Again, did not make the Playoffs.

* 2006: Won the AL West again, and this time, won a postseason series for the first (and still only) time since 1990, beating the Twins. Went into the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, knowing that Games 1 and 2, and, if necessary, 6 and 7, would be in Oakland. Got swept.

* 2007-10: Haven't appeared in the postseason since.

Granted, winning 4 Playoff berths in 7 years is impressive, no matter how much money your team spends. After all, there are 6 teams that don't have 4 postseason appearances in their entire history: The Colorado Rockies, the Florida Marlins, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Seattle Mariners, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals franchise. The Washington Senators/Texas Rangers franchise only got its 4th just this season.

And there are 5 teams that haven't reached the postseason at all since the 21st Century dawned (11 seasons now) and the A's "Moneyball Era" began: The Baltimore Orioles, the Kansas City Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Blue Jays and the Expos/Nationals. (And the Rangers and Cincinnati Reds just did it this season.)

B, In spite of the A's "success" from 2000 to 2006, no franchise in baseball -- perhaps none in all of North American major league sports -- is in more danger of moving to a new metropolitan area. This is largely due to the fact that they don’t have a suitable ballpark, while across San Francisco Bay, the San Francisco Giants do, and that was true before the Giants won this year’s World Series.

Plans to build new ballparks next door to the Oakland Coliseum, and in nearby Fremont and Hayward, have fallen through. An effort is being made to have them move down the coast of San Francisco Bay to San Jose, but that's traditionally been Giants territory (the Giants have their Triple-A team there in the Pacific Coast League, and once had a Single-A, California League team there), so that wouldn't be a good place for the A's.

The A's may not be as close to moving as Charlie Finley nearly made them to Denver in 1978 and New Orleans in 1979, or as close as the Giants came to heading to Toronto in 1976 or Tampa Bay in 1992 (for the 1993 season), but, as they say in medical dramas, I'm not going to lie to you: It doesn't look good.

Translation: This team is dying, and none of Beane's "achievements" has been able to save it, and there's no reason to believe the publicity generated by Moneyball: The Movie is going to help. After all, the Minnesota Twins were nearly contracted just 8 years after they were the focus of Little Big League.

(The Chicago Cubs didn't exactly need the help provided by Taking Care of Business and Rookie of the Year. Nor were the Red Sox hurting when Fever Pitch came out -- and a lot of Red Sox fans actually hate that movie. The Rookie didn't help the Rays at all. Nor did life immediately imitate art after the 1994 version of Angels In the Outfield, any more than the Pirates were helped by the original 1951 version. And The Scout did the Yankees no favors. Of course, having Major League may have helped the Cleveland Indians get new owners who were willing to build a new ballpark, but, so far, that's not a good track record.)

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Now, Sandy Alderson and J.P. Ricciardi, they HAVE won Pennants and World Series. Not together, though: Alderson was the architect of the A’s team that won 4 AL West titles in 5 years from 1988 to 1992, including 3 straight Pennants and the 1989 World Series; Ricciardi was involved in building the team that replaced them as the next great AL team, the 1992 & ’93 World Champion Blue Jays. Neither franchise has won a Pennant since those guys left. Gibbs Rule Number 39: There is no such thing as coincidence.

At least in theory, the Mets hiring the proven Alderson and Ricciardi is not all that different from their 1980 hiring of Frank Cashen, the man who built the Baltimore Orioles into a team that won 8 Division Titles in 18 years, including 6 Pennants and 3 World Series. Hiring Alderson and Ricciardi appears to be the right move, although that largely depends on who Alderson hires as field manager.

Billy Beane has always refused to go to his team's owners and say, "Give me more money so I can sign the players to put us over the top." And don't tell me they didn't have the money: If you can afford to buy the team's entire organization, you can afford to buy 3 impact players that can make the difference between contending for a championship and winning one.

If the A's move, if Major League Baseball in the East Bay dies, Beane will be the man who sold the killer the gun. It's time to stop treating him like a genius and a hero. He is, in fact, a coward, content to be a big fish in a small pond -- and the pond may soon be drained.

George Steinbrenner would have fired his sorry ass around 2004 or so.

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