“It’s not about the winning; it’s the taking part that counts.”
A dickhead (some time after a defeat)
Jimmy Grimble got to play; the kid in Air Bud scored the winning basket; Scott Hatteberg, taking to the plate in the top of the ninth, against a Royals team that had rallied from 11-0 down to 11-11, hit a home run that won the Oakland A’s a 20th game in a row. That night they tied a record. The film in my head ended. They’d done it; they’d achieved something, not necessarily what they’d set out to, but a remarkable feat nonetheless. This 20 game streak – the players hugged it between themselves, high fived it back and forth to one another, jumped up and down at home plate to the sound of it. Every hallmark of a sports film came into one. I almost picked up my coat and made for the exit. The film carried on.
They’d won, what else is there to know, to want to know? But Moneyball isn’t one of those Sport films, nor is it about wanting to play Sport; it’s about how Sport is always trying to rip your heart out, about how Sport needs you as much as you need it. There’s a scene early in the film, where Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), with the game he’s listening to not going his team’s way, throws a transistor radio out the window of his car, and then, when it still continues to emit the play-by-play, he gets out the car and stamps on it. He stamps it more than once. That’s what Sport wants to do to your heart: throw it out your ribcage into the street somewhere and pound it, more than once, ’til it stops.
And Billy is more than aware of that. He knows it more than most. Exposed in the Major League’s as a player, not hitting, not catching, not running, not being able to do what he was taught, he became lost and angry and frustrated. What made not being able to do what he was taught worse was the fact that he could’ve been taught more things, different things at Stanford1. It’s because of this that he needs Sport. What can he do outside of the clubhouse, or, later, the front office? He’s a forty year old with a high-school diploma. He’s shit-scared about being that person out in the beyond baseball world. At some point, Sport probably did rip his heart out and probably did pound on it, ’til Sport realised Billy’s heart wasn’t going to stop. His ability to hit the ball into play might’ve failed, but his spirit wasn’t about to extinguish on him.
But the mark of Sport has not been left solely on Billy. Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is upset about his contract, annoyed about the way the A’s treat him like shit, sad that his methods of how to field a team count for shit. David Justice (Stephen Bishop) is old – enough to make any athlete despair. He’s sad because he can’t see himself as he is now; he prefers the star he was at teams before the Oakland A’s, teams that played different baseball to the A’s. Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) is sad about his arm being fucked, about not being able to throw the ball any more. Scott Hatteberg is, like Billy, shit-scared, but of first base (first base! Catcher’s don’t play first base!2) rather than beyond baseball. The scouts are mad. Who the fuck is this kid, they ask, with his computer and his numbers and his “Bill James bullshit?” They’re old too, but not David Justice old. The season prior to joining the A’s, Justice wore stripes; the stripes the scouts have run horizontally across their foreheads. Grady speaks for all of them when he fuck you’s Billy. But Grady is less fuck you-ing Billy, more Sport, really. Fuck you, Sport. Fuck you, and fuck becoming obsolete/old/injured/ignored.
Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) isn’t sad, at least not that in the sense that he’s upset over something. He’s sad in the sense that he hunches himself over his computer, where he pours over his numbers, where he finds the players that will lead Oakland to their historic 20 game streak. He’s new, he’s young, he went to Yale, what is there to be unhappy about? Peter’s fuck you-ing Sport, too – just in a different, less traditional way. The scouts screw up their faces, chew on tobacco and stick their two fingers up; Peter, with a smug look on his face, uses a laconic middle finger.
Part of why, in fact, most of why Sport’s overbearingly sad moments are so overbearingly sad is because the brilliant moments are so beautiful. Sport itself is a microcosm of life: life is about enjoying yourself, about pleasing other people, about, by and large, playing by the rules. Life in this way will produce beautiful moments. At the same time, life is as much about sacrificing opportunities, letting people down and disregarding rules. Life in this way will produce messy, unattractive moments. Sport produced the time Manchester United came from a goal down to beat Bayern Munich in the closing minutes of the Champions League final. More personally, Sport produced the time West Bromwich Albion were promoted to the Premier League for the first time after catching their bitter rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers, who at one stage were an almost nailed-on ten points ahead. In the film, the A’s win their twentieth game, Hatteberg plucking a home run from nowhere. Sport also produced the time Manchester United lost to a rampant Barcelona in the final of the same competition; the time WBA were promptly relegated the following season ; the Minnesota Twins clinching the Division series from the A’s. After the beautiful moments have been and gone, the ugly moments seem to matter more. An awful team or individual can go on being awful , so long as they’ve always been awful. Success doesn’t afford teams that taste it that opportunity. “I remember that time when we were good,” the fans’ll say. “When I played, we won something,” the ex-player’ll say. “I told you about Geronimo. Now look at him,” the scout’ll say. Sport, more often than not, has history on it’s side, and history is where these moments get assigned.
Without making it its overriding theme, Moneyball makes, or shows, subtle references to history. The Cleveland Indians have a black and white photo in their waiting room. The Cleveland Indians haven’t won a World Series since before technicolor. Towards the end of the film, Billy tells John Henry he can destroy the Boston Red Sox’s Curse of the Bambino with the stats-potion he’s been brewing at Oakland. The Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series in technicolor. A stats-potion brewed in Oakland got them within reach of two. Peter Brand would “amen” that; Scouts would squirm at it.
And then there is, as Michael Lewis put it, The Human Element. Committed and dedicated individuals make Sport their lives. Most of us get found out young, fall by the wayside and realise we were never good enough. But there are a few who got there, or got near, but were not quite good enough. Players leave, players have to be cut, traded, or sent on assignment (cutting someone the nice way). Peter Brand doesn’t amen this; he most definitely squirms. People find it much harder to let go of Sport, than Sport does of them. Yet sadder than being cut, or traded, or cut the nice way, is what happens after: the struggles, the slumps, the adjustments. Bye Mags. Bye Pena. Bye Giambi. Close the door on your way out. Sports are much harder to replace than people. The entrance door opens and the future of the kid who used to be out in right field is forgotten. Hey Ricardo. We’re sure happy to have you on board. Take a seat. It’s a sort of fuck you/thank you thing.
With it’s use of televised game footage, the film plays like a documentary. The slightly saturated look of the print suggests we’re already watching a fond, if painful, memory. “Do you remember that time Billy Beane nearly overhauled the entire world of baseball with no money, with maimed players, and nearly did it?” the cinema-goers’ll say. And then at some point they’ll go to a game, see their team, and feel sport attacking at their heart, leaving enough of itself inside to not be forgotten. “I remember,” they’ll start, telling a story to cope with the sadness. And someone who hasn’t had their heart ripped out, hasn’t been infected by the Sport disease will say, “It’s only a game.” Or they’ll huff out, “ah well.” Or, worse still, they’ll say, “it’s not about the winning; it’s the taking part that counts.” To which the reply will be –
An overbearingly sad person (after agitation).
1This reminds me of the story of Oliver Gill, son of Manchester United Chief Executive David Gill, who chose attending University over a professional football contract. The story of Billy Beane makes this look like a wise decision.