We speak to legend about Moneyball, his labour of love
In 2003, former Salomon Brothers bond trader-turned-author Michael Lewis, at the time best known for business and politics bestsellers Liar’s Poker and The New New Thing, published a non-fiction book about baseball. Only it wasn’t just about baseball. On the surface, it was about how an under-funded, underrated team, California’s Oakland A’ s, took on a system of big-money and powerhouse teams. But it was really about the mix of men behind a major cultural shift, and how [adopt a deep movie-trailer voice] a risky vision born from necessity became a reality when a ragtag team of cast-offs, previously rejected by society, get the chance to prove their potential.
Now, Lewis’s book has been adapted into a feature film, Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the A’s General Manager – the man who would have to think differently and reinvent the rules if his team was going to compete.
‘Moneyball is a classic underdog story,’ says Pitt, who also serves as a producer of the project. ‘They go up against the system. How are they going to survive, how are they going to compete? Even if they do groom good talent, that talent gets poached by the big-market, big-money teams. And what these guys decided was that they couldn’t fight the other guy’s fight, or they were going to lose. They had to re-examine everything, to look for new knowledge, to find some kind of justice.’
At first glimpse, Lewis’s best-selling book doesn’t lend itself to a film adaptation – it is seemingly a study of inefficiencies and oversights within the markets of the game of baseball using analyses of statistics and theories. But at the centre is Billy Beane on a single-minded quest and, as his story unfolds, something unexpected happens. His pursuit of a championship leads to something larger and more meaningful.
‘In many ways, Billy is going up against an institution – one that many smart individuals have dedicated their lives to,’ says Pitt of the power of moneyed circles. ‘The minute you start questioning any of those norms, you can be labelled a heretic or dismissed as foolish. These guys had to step back and ask, “If we were going to start this game today, is this how we’d do it?” A system that has worked for 150 years doesn’t work for us – I think that’s applicable to the moments of flux we’re experiencing today.’
Pitt had an instant attraction to the Oakland A’s general manager, to his shrewd, outsized personality, to his mix of obsessive focus and gritty resourcefulness and to his relationship with the fine line between failure and success. Beane himself, now 49 and still general manager of the A’s today, admits that having Pitt play him felt strange, but he liked the actor’s down-to-business approach. ‘When I found out that Brad Pitt wanted to play me, at first I didn’t believe it. I work in a place where a lot of rumours fly around, and I thought when all was said and done, it was a bit of a joke,’ he confesses.
Pitt explored Beane’s origins as a naval officer’s child who excelled at an early age on two different fields: baseball and football. Dubbed a true athletic ‘natural’, he was always told he would be destined for the elite echelons of pro sports. But after Beane declined a Stanford scholarship for the chance to join baseball team the New York Mets, he faltered, then struggled to revive a career that never truly got out of the starting gate. After playing six seasons as a reserve outfielder for several major-league teams, he changed tack. Beane turned in his glove and walked from the field to the front office to try his hand at management.
‘Billy really did something crazy by today’s standards,’ says Pitt. ‘He quit. I think in a way he felt that he was caught up in other people’s views of what he was supposed to be. Even though he had what every boy dreams of, it wasn’t working for him. So he embarked on this new career, but he came in knowing there was a need to tear down that bias that he felt he himself was entrapped by at an early age.’ Moneyball is in UAE cinemas now.