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Beyond the Box Office: Moneyball

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A continuing series designed to look a little closer at the intersections of baseball and film history. You can read last week's entry here.

Before we head into this baseball season (FINALLY), we've got just two more entries for this little Beyond the Box Office experiment. I've had fun, and I hope you have as well. We looked at some old Edison shorts from the turn of the century, and we saw that Babe Ruth's celebrity was as much due to his bat as a then-burgeoning star system. My two favorite entries to write were on Masaki Kobayashi's bleak I Will Buy You, as well as that time I tried to show that we can read The Natural as a postmodern nostalgia film, peppered with anxieties about an idyllic America that perhaps, never existed. More of that next week, because I write about the Seattle Mariners and love to be sad.

I really struggled on picking what to cover for this, the penultimate piece of the series. I thought about A League of Their Own, because baseball may seem to some to be mostly about dudes, but that doesn't mean it always has, should, or always will be that way. I've read incredible things about Sugar, but I haven't had a chance to find it or watch it yet. There are so many countless baseball films but they all have, for the most part, tried to say something grandiose about the essence of the game, the meaning of America, time, memory, blah blah blah. I thought about that for a minute and then realized the choice was simple. Bennett Miller's 2011 adaptation of Michael Lewis' Moneyball. A film covering not only the already limited field of sports within the Hollywood imaginary, but about a very specific, tiny little thing that happened within one of them.

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It's the first film in this series, I think, that says something very specific about baseball rather than using baseball mainly as a vehicle for a metanarrative about something bigger. Oh sure, it's couched in the typical Hollywood narrativization that pits a protagonist against seemingly insurmountable odds at first external (how to compete with richer teams) but eventually psychological (get over your failure as a player and watch a game, chill about your daughter's growing freedom, make the damned clubhouse soda machine free ya doofus). But it's also beautiful. I mean, look at this:

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This is a different kind of thing than the aestheticization of American history found in The Natural or Field of Dreams amongst other baseball films. That isn't exactly fair--only nine years separate the events and their cinematic depiction. But I really do think the film's austere feel--from that repeating This Will Destroy You motif to those blinking-cursor montages of computer screens visualizing the data the narrative dramatizes--is breaking from the norms the genre has outlined for itself over the years.

Gone are reds and browns and hazy Days of Heaven-esque cinematography. There's no dirt coloring flannel uniforms in small-town American fields, seas of corn, or hell, even the mythical narrative woven through archetypes dripping in subtlety. Moneyball here exposes something else about baseball: It's cold, it's dark, it happens inside walls of concrete. It not only has more to do with finance than Iowa, it's a complicated, corrupt, and complete economic matrix understood only at the points in which it fails: the arrival of a market inefficiency, and the moment that inefficiency is subsumed by those at the top of the food chain.

At the level of narrative, I think Moneyball tells us something interesting about the arrival of analytics in the first decade of the 21st century. And that is that analytics, to Brad Pitt's Billy Beane, are nothing more than a means. The reality of the book is that Michael Lewis got access to that franchise during a timely season, and saw the end result of years of thinking, equating, and countering the market. In what the film poses as a sudden and miraculous answer to one problem--the loss of the A's 2002 playoff core--reality shows us different: the A's were only in the playoffs then because they were already building analytically.

Now we all know what happened in the years since: sabermetrics have ballooned through popularized discourses on the internet, and the resulting characters are just absurd exaggerations: Beer-gutted goodolboys chewin' tobaccy and talkin' bout grit and hustle versus Very Smart Internet Men (always men) who have divined the future before its arrival. That's silly, and we know that, but really what's so interesting to me is that I think the film is telling us something different altogether.

This is, by all accounts, the same homerun from The Natural. It's articulated in a slightly different manner, however; the victory is not for the championship but rather for the win streak. It's also about proving an idea works. But you know, really, it's a much more conservative victory than all that: it's about a demand to be recognized by existing structures through playing on their own terms.

Moneyball's discourse about sabermetrics are a market discourse. They attest to efficiency, streamlining, getting rid of excess baggage weighing down outdated thought. That may sound real nice and progressive, but the truth is that the film isn't even saying they are revolutionary. The Red Sox take them from Beane--the film cunningly suggests--and effectively solve their 86-year old problem. Mark Shapiro "has" them over in Cleveland, and where he got them from appears to be Yale. In this sense, sabermetrics (which are reduced to 1. being poor and 2. getting on base) are the vanguard not for a new era in baseball, but rather a tightening of the screws, a flushing out of clogged pipes.

In short: what is posed as a threat to the old order, in the end, becomes one of its very own tools.

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(It helps that O.co is a brutalist abomination, but compare this even similar lighting style to the final scene from the Natural, it's lived-in dirt, messy, hyper-tangible aesthetic. Here are just shadows and objects.)

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When you see the cold, stage-like lighting of the baseball scenes, then, I think we see not a game brimming with nostalgia but a game without a center, in an identity crisis. With all the quibbles about what numbers mean--and please, remember the point here is not what they actually mean but what we say they mean--the game enters a new representational problem of how to picture itself.

From the expanse of lived experience in magic-hour Iowa cornfields to a shallow, black and white image projected on a screen, from a cathode-ray 4:3 box in the corner of your living room to a 16:9 window frame capable of one-to-four thousand pixels of clarity: the way baseball is aesthetically imagined within various media forms is not just due to the limitations or possibilities inherent in the technology. It is also filtered through fundamental questions about what the game thinks about itself, about discourse, about ideas.

That's what I've been trying to get at with this series, and I hope it has shone through a bit in these entries. Next week we'll close with a look at two of the most canonical baseball films of all time--Field of Dreams and Eight Men Out, so if you'd like to watch them in preparation, until then.