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A Revolution by the Numbers: Billy Beane Rewrites the Baseball Rules in 'Moneyball'

Brad Pitt stars in Moneyball, opening Friday at the Sundance Kabuki.

The following is a transcript of a phone call that may or may not have taken place between Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton and Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, the subject of Bennett Miller’s new sports drama Moneyball. It could have taken place in July 2009, not long after the movie’s original director, Steven Soderbergh, was given the hook in favor of ace relievers Miller and script specialist Aaron Sorkin.
 
BB: “Michael, it’s Billy, calling to talk Moneyball. I know the movie’s in trouble. There’s speculation that the distribution deal is falling apart.”
 
ML: “Billy, don’t believe everything you read. Moneyball is hardly on life support. Michael Lewis’ book sold enough copies that you shouldn’t have to worry about that.”
 
BB: “Well I’m glad to hear you say that. I don’t have any real stake in the movie, but having a matinee idol play me on the big screen is something I think my daughter would love to see. And I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but you’d have to go all the way back to Spy Game in 2001 to find a live-action Brad Pitt movie, opening on a minimum of 2,000 screens, that grossed less than $100 million.”



ML: “Actually, it’s sort of my business to know that…”
 
BB: “You know, when I first heard that Pitt was going to play me, I was naturally flattered. This is my life up there, ‘based on a true story’ and all. But I was concerned. Pitt’s a pricey guy – in fact, I bet we could get three Rupert Grints for the cost of a single Brad Pitt. I know Hollywood is just as bottom-line driven as Major League Baseball.”



ML: “Rupert Grint? From Harry Potter?”
 
BB: “Think about it. Eight of his last 12 movies have earned in excess of $200 million. He’s younger. He’s cheaper. And his box-office win shares – BOWS, for short – are through the roof.”
 
ML: “Billy, there’s a reason we cast big stars in big movies. I read Moneyball. I know you’ve helped revolutionize the art of statistical analysis in baseball, recognizing the true value of underappreciated journeymen like Scott Hatteberg. But here’s the thing – I’ve seen the dailies. This is arguably Brad’s best performance. It has Oscar written all over it. So let’s just be thankful he stuck with us through the Soderbergh fiasco.”



BB: “Really? You’re thinking Oscar?”



ML: “I think he has a strong chance of getting nominated. I don’t think he’ll win because it’s not a showy performance – it’s too nuanced, too self-contained. You play things too close to the vest, Billy. As a character, your emotional range relies more on quick glances and pensive stares than dramatic outbursts.”
 
BB: “Well, I’m not in a position to lay my cards on the table, and even if I was, that’s not my style. But you’ve seen the dailies – what did you think?”

ML: “I’ll be honest. I’m still wondering how people indifferent to baseball will respond to the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics and their smartest-kid-in-the-sandbox general manager. But I will say this – the casting is strong, and the human drama has universal appeal. This is slick, smart, easily accessible entertainment.”
 
BB: “Well, it is my story…”

ML: “To a point, sure. We both know the A’s were never going to fire you if the team slumped, as the movie suggests. Your job security was assured. Your scouts weren't quite the incompetent boobs we made them out to be. And we also know that your former assistant, Paul DePodesta, is a far cry from Peter Brand, the stammering schlub Jonah Hill plays in the movie.”
 
BB: “I think they cast Jonah because he’s short, round and awkward. It lets the viewers know he’s a nerd, that it’s OK to laugh at him every once in a while. Hell, the real-life Paul is awkward. And he even called the movie a work of fiction – that's why his name isn't attached. But the Psych 101 stuff about me fighting my demons, compensating for my forgettable playing career by turning Oakland into a winner, striking back at the know-nothing scouts who promised me I’d be a five-tool superstar – there’s some truth to that. And Sorkin sells it.”
 
ML: “Some truth is what we do best. We take stories like yours and turn them into fairy tales. In that sense, Moneyball actually plays better to audiences that don’t pay close attention to baseball. I mean, we weren’t about to remind them that the A’s haven’t had a winning season since ’06.”
 
BB: “Entirely beside the point. The most important thing is that we managed to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, the big spenders of the world. The blue-collar guys gave the superstars a run for their money, proved the system could be beaten, and redefined how the game is played, not just on the field but in the front office. That means something, doesn’t it – how you play the game?”

ML: “That’s the point of the story, yes. But as you say in the movie, if you don’t win the last game of the series, nobody gives a shit. You stayed true to yourself, backed up your convictions with action, and turned conventional baseball wisdom on its ear. That’s a hell of an accomplishment, Billy. Now if you could just win that damn game…”