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Moneyball hits it out of the park

Sports meets stats in entertaining underdog story

Moneyball

Now playing at Dunbar, Fifth Avenue, Scotiabank

My favourite parts of a live baseball game are singing during the seventh-inning stretch, and when the kids race the dogs around the bases. And watch it on TV? Never.

Therefore, director Bennett Miller (Capote) has pulled off a coup: getting me to wholeheartedly enjoy a film that isnt just about baseball (yawn), its about the business of baseball (snore).

Moneyball has all the trappings of a great sports moviean underdog team, a hero past his primebut its told from the fresh perspective of a guy who thinks hes jinxed, and cant even leave his office when the game is on.

The film starts with a Mickey Mantle quote and real footage from the 2001 season, where Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is losing, again. The Yankees, with their seemingly endless pockets, keep pilfering players from Beanes team. Were like their farm team, Beane rails: Organ donors for the rich. He begs for more money, but is told point blank, Were a small market team, and youre a small market GM.

Beane is faced with replacing two of his star players on a shoestring budget, while his scouts come up with the same old band-aid solutions. Then, during a meeting with the Cleveland Indians, Beane notices that management keeps whispering to a chubby guy wearing a bad tie. Its clear that Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) was picked last every gym class, but he knows a thing or two about baseball.

Beane hires him. Peter, fresh from Yale, is a fan of the methodology of Bill James, whose theory suggested that major league teams shouldnt be looking for high priced big hitters, but guys who could simply get on base.

So start the flow charts, grid and code. Beane is putting all his balls in one basket, so to speak, but Peter assures him, Well find value in players that no one else can see. In some cases that logic means converting catchers into first basemen, or signing guys who can barely run to first base, putting together a team like an Island of Misfit Toys.

Baseball isnt just numbers, protests the head scout (Ken Medlock, who has made a career out of playing umpires and coaches). Beanes eagerness to bypass scouting methodology stems from his own sad history, when he was persuaded to turn down a scholarship to Stanford to pursue professional baseball. In flashbacks we watch as a younger Beane endures strikeout after strikeout, a quick dissemination of his self-confidence, a slow ride back to the minors, then out of the game altogether, until he accepts a scouting job.

The villain in this story is head coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who may have to deal with the players he is given, but runs his own roster contrary to Beane and Peters system. Howe feels neutered by the stats-based system; plus hes in a huff because his contract hasnt been renewed.

Adapted from a non-fiction best-seller by Michael Lewis, screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Stephen Zaillian (American Gangster, Schindlers List) craft a screenplay thats full of witty patter as Beanes story unfolds. This is Beanes story first, a story about a revolutionary system second, with the fate of the Oakland Athletics pulling up the rear. A little more shots on the field, watching the philosophy at work, would be welcome. As is, the success or failure of the Oakland Asyou deciderests squarely on Beanes shoulders.

Pitt follows up The Tree of Life with another stellar performance. He doesnt hide his handsomeness, though a cheek full of chew doesnt flatter him, but plays it (somewhat autobiographically?) as a guy whose great genes are failing him, and who needs to find another way to get his point across. Pitt excels, whether hes throwing things around the locker room, or spending single-dad time with his 12-year-old daughter. A great film about the business of baseball.