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Bright Wall/Dark Room June 2021: When Plans Run Counter to People by Cody Benjamin

We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the latest issue of the online magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room. The theme for their June issue is '"Best Laid Plans" and, in addition to this piece by Cody Benjamin on "Moneyball," features new essays on "The Empire Strikes Back," "My Own Private Idaho," "Southland Tales," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Unfaithfully Yours," "Girlfriends" (1978), "A Life on Our Planet," "The Year Earth Changed," and a profile of Toshiro Mifune

You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here. The above art is by Tony Stella. 

Baseball is best when it’s a communal affair. A father and son building a bond one throw at a time. A family sharing overpriced hot dogs at the stadium. Players reemerging each spring, like fresh rainfall or flower buds, in order to spend literally half a year competing as one. The entire experience is something of a picnic: Slow and steadily paced, a designedly pleasant pastime for the masses. It doesn’t demand your company; it invites it.

When we first meet Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) in Moneyball, he’s in the company of no one but himself. He oversees one of only 30 Major League Baseball teams on the planet. He’s surrounded by thousands of seats at a multi-million-dollar field. But the lights are off. He’s alone. Not even the handheld radio he carries, flickering with a broadcast of his franchise’s latest run to the playoffs, offers companionship. Because he can’t stand to listen to it.

At this moment in Beane’s journey, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics has not enacted his grand plan for remaking a team stuck in neutral. In fact, he hasn’t even concocted one. His willful isolation, however, signifies what’s to come. Beane’s eventual solution to the Athletics’ problem—plenty of wins, but never meaningful ones—isn’t to flee his lonely ponderings for the affirming light of peers. It’s to dig even deeper into the darkness. To wade further into uncharted territory, and against the consensus. To build a baseball team by tearing it down.

This, as you may have guessed, is not wholly embraced. Not by his superiors, not by his employees, and not by the fans who open their wallets in the name of pleasant, hopeful, communal days at the ballpark.

“This is the kind of decision that gets you fired.”

Beane’s handpicked assistant GM, a 25-year-old whizkid named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), offers this warning as Billy unpacks his unorthodox strategy: To forgo age-old scouting in the name of analytics-based projections. To scrap traditional evaluation tools (How old is this player? What about his injury history? And his off-field reputation?), and replace them with rigorous statistical studies. Can a player get on base? Then it doesn’t matter if he’s nearing 40. Whatever it takes to milk a bottom-of-the-barrel payroll, make up for lost financial ground against privileged powerhouses like the Yankees and Red Sox, and maybe, just maybe, win a meaningful game or two.

“Yes, you’re right,” Beane replies to Brand. “I may lose my job…[but] I don’t think we’re asking the right question. I think the question we should be asking is, Do you believe in this thing or not?

When Brand gives the affirmative, one of the few Beane ever gets within the Athletics’ facilities, Billy insists neither he nor Brand needs to explain themselves to anyone. And then he says this:

“I’m gonna see this thing through, for better or worse.”

Moneyball, see, is not a baseball movie as much as it is a treatment on convictions, traditions, decisions and how each of them have relational ramifications. (In less Moneyball-speak: Even the grandest plans have consequences. Even the best-laid plans can—no, will—come face to face with reality.) And that’s where Moneyball separates itself, even from movies about hard decisions and unconventional strategies. It refuses to ignore reality.

Brad Pitt is remarkable in mostly unremarkable ways as Billy Beane, emitting an internal fire with the briefest of outbursts, meeting-room quips, silent stares, and watery eyes. But it’s his journey that brings this one home. Rather than rewriting history with a sentimental championship run befitting of a Hollywood underdog story, Moneyball is mostly content to lay out the facts, just like its mathematically inclined protagonists.

There are highs that stem from Beane’s numbers-over-gut-feelings approach, no doubt: The Athletics’ real-life march to a record 20 straight wins in 2002 plays almost like a Rocky finale, right out of that underdog script. Chris Pratt, playing injured castoff Scott Hatteberg, helps sell it as an accidental, somewhat bumbling but likable hero (sound familiar, Marvel fans?). So does the sound and cinematography, blurring every sight and sound except the improbable crack of a miraculous ninth-inning bat. For a moment, Beane’s convictions prompt real celebration.

But he never wins. Eventually, the streak ends. Even before it does, the GM immediately laments to Peter Brand that 20 straight victories mean nothing if the Athletics can’t also win the last game of the year. Oh, and change the entire sport. The title cards that close Moneyball promise Beane’s radical approach—forget the naysayers; trust the numbers—did have a felt impact on Major League Baseball. They point specifically to another team as proof: Just a few years after Billy’s bold moves, the Boston Red Sox won a World Series—their first in 86 years—by leaning on Oakland’s market-efficiency strategies.

And yet Beane never intended to uproot and rebuild the Athletics so that the Red Sox could win it all. Some of his final words and actions in Moneyball confirm as much. Given a ludicrous opportunity to run the Red Sox after his plans fail to deliver playoff glory but pique the interest of wealthier peers, he calls his own team’s facilities “a dump,” then proceeds to turn down the chance to leave them. His plans were always to transform the game through Oakland: the city he’d called his own for years, the franchise he’d been tasked with fixing.

Real life tells us that Beane’s plans, however transcendent, never translated to long-term success for the Athletics, either. A year after the inspired flashes of 2002, Oakland lost its opening playoff series for the fourth straight season, then missed the postseason altogether in seven of its next eight years. The Athletics returned to the playoffs in 2012, a year after Moneyball hit theaters, but they’ve now gone 30 years since reaching a World Series. Baseball may very well have adopted Beane’s strategies, fulfilling his dream of “meaning something,” but they’ve yet to mean much for the communities who file into Athletics games every spring and summer.

This is, again, precisely why Moneyball is victorious in its depiction of big plans and their disjointed results. No matter which side of the fence you fall on, favoring either Beane’s commitment to change or the more traditional trends he bucked, it’s impossible to declare anyone cleanly correct. His plans are to build a better team, but he alienates staffers, players, and even his own manager, Art Howe (a defiantly subdued Philip Seymour Hoffman), in the process. In one sense, he destroys teamwork by way of emphasizing the Team, as one longtime scout so eloquently suggests: “Fuck you, Billy.”

In the analytics approach, see, there’s no longer value in sitting around a table, sharing “gut feelings” and drawing on firsthand experience as “baseball guys.” There’s just the numbers. They are what they are, and they tell you, with mathematical rigidity, the most accurate, efficient way to win ball games. What they don’t account for is the people affected by them. Billy may be right, that age-old intuition is no more a crystal ball than his computers, but implementing that belief requires staring those “baseball guys” squarely in the face, and telling them their entire life’s work has been a miscalculation. In an effort to apply his truth so vastly and so quickly, Billy overrides his manager’s lineup card—the one thing Art demands he retain control over. He shrugs off coaching staff suggestions like pitches in the dirt. He sidelines collaboration, except with his lone adherent in Brand, in the name of better results. Everyone in the office and clubhouse becomes more of a pawn than a teammate.

Beane may be destined for the narrow path as soon as we meet him alone in the stands, but even his bent toward cold calculations—a commitment to low-cost, high-upside gambles rather than expensive big-name additions—can’t stop him from acknowledging his plans have gone awry. How else do we explain him throwing chairs through windows, flinging bats haphazardly through locker rooms and ripping his truck around the parking lot when the losses pile up? The ends may or may not eventually justify the means in his franchise-changing plans, but they most certainly make the means bristling and uncomfortable. Even (and especially) for the man behind them.

There’s a kind of cool, almost enviable confidence that comes with Beane’s ascent (or descent) into total conviction, like when he excitedly trades away two of his manager’s best players just to finally get his handpicked prospects on the field. Or when he stuffs his face with snacks while snookering rival GMs into those trades. Or when he teaches Brand how to bluntly inform a player he’s been shipped elsewhere. But again, every celebration is countered with reality: The trades deepen the fracture between coach and executive. The team’s big acquisitions prompt Beane to demote other players. Each and every step up the ladder of his own scheme brings with it a splinter.

This is perhaps best displayed in the scenes that involve no baseball whatsoever. Aside from serving as an MLB GM, Billy Beane is also a father, and there’s one person in Moneyball whose anxiety about Beane’s plans—and his subsequently shaky job security—actually means something to him: his 12-year-old daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey). The glimpses of Beane’s home life are far outnumbered by shots of him powering through his workplace hallways, but that just emphasizes the point: Family, even at a distance, is also a victim here. Billy is left to pick up the scraps of parenting decisions from which he’s been omitted, like Casey getting a cell phone from her mom and stepdad, whose painfully obvious lack of sports knowledge is a symbol for how far Beane’s ex-wife has run from his own pursuits.

Casey clearly has the most sway over Beane. In an exchange over ice cream sundaes, father is practically begging daughter not to worry about his future. It’s as if he knows, but can’t yet accept, that his undying beliefs just might have a cost, that someone he actually loves might be hurt by them. In the end, Billy is brought to tears as he ponders his biggest decision yet: Whether or not to take the Red Sox offer and, as Brand puts it, allow Boston’s bursting checkbook to validate their journey into the wilderness. We can surmise, after the credits reveal his fate, that Billy stays in Oakland primarily because of Casey.

It’s Casey, after all, who speaks to Beane during this final moment of decision-making. The tired GM is driving, the California skylines visible from his window, and he’s alone. Just as we first found him. Casey’s voice comes through his stereo, much like the recorded voices of his handheld radio back in the Athletics’ stadium. She sings from a CD she’s made just for him:

“I’m just a little bit caught in the middle, Life is a maze, and love is a riddle, I don’t know where to go, can’t do it alone … I’m just a little girl lost in the moment … I’ve got to let it go, and just enjoy the show …”

And then, playfully, for good measure:

“You’re such a loser, Dad. You’re such a loser, Dad. You’re such a loser, Dad. Just enjoy the show …”

In a story filled with and built upon the idea of hard truths and passionate plans, Casey’s final lyrics present probably the hardest and most passionate truth of Beane’s journey: Sometimes it’s okay to stop, be still, accept you’ve lost and, most of all, see what’s in front of you.

Billy’s preceding mission is revelatory and smart, in many ways. By refusing to comply with the status quo, he fields a team far more competitive than expected, far earlier than expected. He gifts the city what it wants, even if just for 20 or so games: That pleasant, hopeful, communal picnic at the ballpark.

In the process, Billy even accidentally gives his team—an “island of misfit toys,” as Brand says—a spotlight it likely never would have otherwise enjoyed. Think of Chris Pratt’s ailing slugger, who goes from semi-dejected dad to deer-in-the-headlights bench player to big-game star. Think of Art Howe, who goes from hapless manager of a team that’s basically been sapped of his influence, to sudden media darling of sports’ best underdog story. Even as he sees or labels so many of those around him as numbers—emotionless pieces of a bigger game—Beane can’t help but give some of these same people the purpose and meaning and fulfillment they may have lost or been looking for. Their own, unique presence—with all their messiness and baggage and lives outside the stadium—gets validated as part of the process.

What if people are just as, if not more, important than plans? Beane’s job is to construct a winning team. Many of his earliest conflicts stem from the complacency or ignorance of coworkers tasked with that same job. And yet where do we see him at his most satisfied? Quietly observing his daughter play guitar. Gratefully crowning Brand a “good egg” for his quirky friendship amid the chaos. Personally interacting with players all through the locker room during the win streak. For all his dependence on economics, equations and cold hard facts, Beane is awfully and ultimately allured by relationship. By people. By the things often, and sometimes willfully, absent from his life.

It’s no wonder baseball can so adeptly serve as a backdrop for this kind of story. It’s a sport built for community. Will our strongest convictions take us to uncomfortable places? Real life says so. Should our convictions be so strong as to make us, or others, uncomfortable? There’s a case for that, too. But Moneyball makes clear, sometimes in the slightest of margins, that the best path back from plans gone wrong and convictions gone too far is a recentering on people—their time, their worth, their humanity.

There’s a brief moment, during one of Billy’s first strolls through his remade Athletics locker room, when one of his project players approaches him. The veteran, called up to pitch on Opening Day, is clearly touched by the opportunity. Beane acknowledges this quickly—almost dismissively—because he has low expectations for the player. To Billy, at the time, this player’s big day is just part of his grand equation. Another cog in the machine. But on his way out of the locker room, and just before he leaves the stadium to be alone for yet another game, Billy gets some surprising parting words from the pitcher, who unsolicitedly says he’ll be praying for Beane and his family.

Billy basically shrugs off the promise, eager to move on to whatever comes next. The starstruck pitcher, meanwhile, can be seen, for a split-second later in the movie, reading from a Bible in the locker room. Moneyball doesn’t go out of its way to highlight this, nor does it care much to associate Billy’s journey with some kind of higher power, save for a throwaway line during scouting meetings. (“Seriously guys, I think we have to remember this is the man,” one exec reminds the staff regarding Billy’s direction. “He answers to no one except ownership and God.”) And yet, upon deeper inspection, this locker-room exchange is a fitting inclusion.

There’s a passage in 1 Corinthians, 13:1-2, that reads: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.” The ancient nugget of wisdom—perhaps one the Athletics pitcher is trying to live out in his encounter with Billy—is addressed to Christians seeking to properly imitate Jesus Christ.

What on earth does it have to do with Billy Beane? Well, it reminds us we can hold every perceived ounce of knowledge, truth and expertise there is, but our plans often eventually demand, as they do with Billy, that we see and maybe even sacrifice for others along the way. Beane finds his “truth” (the Moneyball approach) and applies it with conviction, but in the end, he’s faced with just as great a responsibility: To love. To remember that life, though messy and mercurial, is often best as a communal affair, not so unlike a day at the ballpark or a toss in the backyard.

It’s reality. All of us wake up, knowingly or not, hunting for truth. Purpose. Meaning. We sip our coffee and go to work, but deep down, in those rare quiet moments—those visits to an empty stadium, with nothing but our own thoughts and worries and dreams stirring inside—we long for a meaningful path forward. We forge plans in search of one. But if and when those plans—however noble—run counter to people, we must decide whether we’re going to stay the course or adjust it. Whether we’re going to cruise past those around us or involve them in the journey.

Is Moneyball a success story? Do Billy Beane’s plans triumph? If you’re judging using Billy’s own original standards, the answer isn’t resoundingly clear. Much like a typical baseball season—a long, winding, 162-game road, with dozens and dozens of both wins and losses—he is at once a victor and victim. We’re left to decide for ourselves whether he was more revolutionary than trendy in his efforts. But what if we define his success differently? What if we define it not by the reception of his ideas or the on-field results of his efforts, but rather by a realization that there’s more to life than either of those?

Not a single loose end is overtly tied before the end credits roll. Beane’s emerging acceptance of interpersonal responsibility is most visible in the closing scene. We never see him return to the office and confirm he’s become less rigid in his strategies. We never see him work to make his relationship with Casey’s mom and stepdad any less awkward. We never learn if he finds more Peter Brands to lean on and build up.

But at least the compass has been shaken and the arrow appears to be pointing up. At least, for once in a long slog of best-laid plans, Billy Beane is prepared to accommodate someone, not just his convictions to be something.

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