Film Review: Moneyball (Or: “How can you not be romantic about baseball?””

Yes, a film about baseball. Actually, a film about baseball and statistics. For those of you about to click away, it has Brad Pitt in it. (Statistically, there’s a fair chance approx. 95% of women and anywhere between 2 and 10% of men may have perked up at that idea. Factor in linking a film aimed at a mostly US audience with one of the country’s national sports and making a mostly accurate record of a true story, and you possibly have a recipe for a hit film. Reuters certainly agreed:

According to research firm NRG, 45 percent of men say they have definite interest in seeing “Moneyball,” while 15 percent describe it as their “first choice” to see next time they’re in a theater — pretty solid tracking.

If the figures at IMDB are accurate, the film was also profitable within about 6 weeks of release (as well as clocking up 6 OSCAR nominations, 19 film awards and 42 nominations). And you may, at this point, have noticed that I’m not actually talking about baseball much … And all those stats and figures might be a clue?

Despite this being a true story about a baseball team, the baseball felt – at least to this viewer (who never got the hang of the scoring system) – as much a vehicle as it did the film’s heart. This has, of course, been done before. We’ve had baseball-as-social-bonding (although Broken Hearts Club was probably too niche for many people, despite appearances from Superman and Frasier’s Dad), and we’ve also of course had Field of Dreams, the acme of the romanticisation of the game with its strapline:

If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true.”

I confess that, with regard to Costner’s film, I’m in the ‘bleugh’ camp, agreeing with TIME’s critic:

Despite a lovely cameo turn by Burt Lancaster, Field of Dreams is the male weepie at its wussiest.”

Film review meta-accumulator site Rotten Tomatoes liked Field of Dreams (88%), but Moneyball outscored it (95%). Strike one to Pitt. For me, Moneyball’s home run is that it does not ignore the romance of the game, but is forced to challenge it by its central story – the impact of an approach to team recruitment and selection and to performance management and measurement that is rooted in statistical analysis. This is the story of the Spreadsheet of Dreams.

For those who haven’t yet seen the film, I will attempt to avoid too many spoilers in what follows, but there are running themes throughout that should have resonance for anyone concerned with organisational change and the resistance that it can meet. The first clash of cultures comes from the talent scouts, whose egos are badly bruised when a long-established culture is threatened by a combination of hard statistical data on actual performance and a lack of budget to pursue their own requirements. (It is perhaps telling that one of the manager’s first remarks to the economist he hires to supply the analysis is “Your first job? Whose nephew are you?”)

The coaches are operating out of a tradition based around buying players – preferably dashing, charismatic players – rather than around buying those who can score runs (and thereby accumulate wins). Baseball’s traditional approach to talent recruitment and selection is directly challenged, as a lack of financial clout obliges the team to acquire the players that have been overlooked for various (mostly irrelevant) reasons – such as the relief pitcher ‘who throws funny’. The coaches would rather veto an ugly player as ‘ugly equals no confidence’. Statistics, not being a discipline that allows itself to be blindsided by cheekbones, ‘cuts right through that’.

It also reveals an old boys’ network to be just that – elderly, stuck in traditions, and boy-ishly immature in its application to the problems it is seeking to solve. For the manager and statistician-economist, baseball has become a game where a failure of focus (the point should be winning) means that most managers are misjudging and mismanaging their teams. As Quasimodo might have told them, hunches are not a proven route to success.

As with any paradigm shift, there will be those who are at risk of being left rooted in the harbour mud when the metaphorical tide recedes. When the first part of the season shows only a dismal performance, the disgruntlement mounts along with the calls for the manager’s head. The new approach that so many have a vested interest in discrediting is not providing any evidence of working, and we see and hear those who should be (and in some cases are paid to) do their utmost for the team bordering on gloating. Discovering that the approach is based on a book about baseball statistics written by a non-player, one character says – deadpan but with an undertone of glee – of the manager that ‘He bought a ticket on the Titanic’. Hooked on the traditional approaches, there are comments about baseball not being a game about statistics but about people.

And yet … the tide turns in the manager’s favour. The team score the longest streak of winning games in the sport’s history. To avoid spoilers, the manager’s claim that his real goal is to change the game is vindicated – although most effectively by a rival team that subsequently adopts the approach.

But – in the context at least of this blog – what are we to make of the film. Its message that quantitative trumps qualitative is not one we should be entirely comfortable with: the implication is that ‘the human element’ does not have a role to play. There is a talk of coaching in the film, but little evidence of it. If we believe in the power of a manager to inspire and enthuse his ‘players’, this isn’t the movie that you would hold up as a shining model. There are more cursory firings here than in Up In The Air.

And that title line quote about romance? It comes from the manager’s lips. The film isn’t devoid of moments of sentiment, although they are focused mostly on his partial regret at playing professional over taking up an offer from Stanford University, and on his relationship with his young daughter from his failed marriage. Perhaps intended to humanise and round out the character, they don’t prevent from pointing out that a bullet to the head is a kinder firing technique than five to the chest and a subsequent slow bleeding to death.

I reached the end of the film seeing it as both essentially an American story (baseball, success vs failure, etc.) and an essentially atypical American story (challenging dreams with hard data, and maintaining faith but in something empirical rather than spiritual or religious). It’s certainly not Field of Dreams revisited: Kevin Costner’s character was never going to fire up Excel.

It’s also a film about innovation and cultural change – interventions that can result in ostricisation – and the obstacles to their fulfilment that their proponents are likely to face. (I may be over-reading the film, but I certainly felt as if a very male-dominated sport was an element in this. I was reminded of the story of Gittler Guitars – see our earlier posting – and about the relationship between creativity and structure raised in that post.)

The film’s intended points seemed mostly to be voiced by a rival team manager in the closing minutes of the film: the success buys the opportunity to ignore naysayers, that change ‘threatens livelihoods because it’s how they do things’, and that innovation is inevitable in the long-run. (On behalf of another male sub-species – guitar players and buyers – the present glut of re-issued and retro-flavoured designs seems to challenge that idea, although the relationship between economic challenge and nostalgia is one for us all to ponder.)

The closing credits also show us that the spoils of innovation don’t necessarily fall to the innovator (although there are interesting parallels with Tim Berners-Lee that I’ll leave you to draw for yourselves). Indeed, beyond the time-span of the film, the real-life manager is still managing the real-life team, and his approach – while widely adopted – has not catapulted the team into the upper echelons of the sport, despite its validation of cost-effectiveness.

Taking a data-based approach to preparing this review (aka Google), I couldn’t help but notice that different business writers came to very different conclusions about the lessons that we can draw from the film. Brainzooming saw a film about innovation strategy; Fast Company saw a film about recruitment and management; BusinessWeek saw a film about maximising market efficiencies; UC Davis Graduate School of Management saw a film about performance measurement and cost control systems.

I think I saw a film where our ability to draw lessons on it is as much dependant on our desire to learn and our willingness (intentional or otherwise) to project our own concerns and preconceptions onto the available raw material. I dare say you can imagine what thought it was about, even if the team turned professional in 1875. You could equally make the case for it being about emotional intelligence, the limitations of machismo and many other things. But even if you don’t like baseball, it’s definitely worth a watch.


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