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September 22, 2011

On the Beat

Moneyball at the Movies

by John Perrotto

Scott Hatteberg was like so many other people in baseball, as well as fans, when word started coming from Hollywood in 2008 that Moneyball was going to be turned into a movie.

"I really wondered how it was going to be done," Hatteberg said. "It was a great book, but the subject matter was very dense. I just didn't see how a screenplay could be adapted from the book."

Michael Lewis' bestseller about how Athletics general manager Billy Beane used advanced statistical analysis to find market inefficiencies and build a playoff team on a low budget has become one of baseball's seminal books. However, from a movie standpoint, it seemed to have all the making of a documentary instead of a cinematic production.

There was neither sex nor violence in Moneyball, and there was no romantic interest or a particularly happy or sad ending. The conflict was between Beane's new age thinking and the old school thinking of manager Art Howe, his coaching staff, and the Athletics' scouting department. That is not exactly the recipe for a compelling script.

Hatteberg lived the events of Moneyball as the Athletics' primarily first baseman in 2002, the season Lewis spent with Beane and his staff. Lewis chronicled how the Athletics tried to make the playoffs for a third straight season after losing first baseman and AL Most Valuable Player Jason Giambi, center fielder Johnny Damon, and closer Jason Isringhausen to free agency while not having the financial wherewithal to replace them with anyone reasonably close in ability. Lewis also wrote in detail about how the Athletics went about attacking the draft in a year in which they had seven of the first 39 picks thanks to free agent compensation but lacked the money to select players who would command large signing bonuses.

Hatteberg was also one of the central characters, with Lewis detailing how assistant general manager Paul DePodesta convinced Beane that the best way to replace Giambi and Damon were by finding players with high on-base percentages and low salaries. Thus, the Athletics made the unconventional move of signing Hatteberg, a catcher who had never played first base and seemed to be at the end of his career because of a nerve problem in his throwing arm.

The movie version of Moneyball debuts in theatres nationwide on Friday. So who better to ask for a Siskel and Ebert-style thumbs or thumbs down than Hatteberg?

Hatteberg says thumbs up.

"I really liked it," he said.

Screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian decided to concentrate less on sabermetrics and more on the human element of how Beane and DePodesta built the team and then watched it go 20-26 and fall 10 games out of first place in the AL West on May 23 before rallying to finish at 103-59 with the best record in the major leagues. Beane's detractors will gleefully point out that the Athletics' subsequent loss to the Twins in the American League Division Series is barely mentioned.

"Obviously, if the script would have strictly followed the book then it would be tough to make the movie entertaining, but I feel it tells the story in a way in which the casual fan, or even someone who doesn't follow baseball, can enjoy why staying true to the story," Hatteberg said. "That being said, I think they did a good job of recreating that season, conveying the story of the unconventional way the team was built and all the emotions we went through that season. It's a great underdog story and it's told well."

Brad Pitt stars as the iconoclastic Beane and plays a compelling part as someone whose goal was to prove that a winning baseball team could be assembled on a shoestring budget with smart thinking and analysis. Pitt also gave a realistic portrayal of how a GM lives and dies with the fortunes of his team over a six-month season.

At DePodesta's request, his name is not used in the film, but Jonah Hill does a great job playing "Peter Brand," the young and impressionable economics major from Harvard who is lured away from the Indians and brings sabermetric religion to Beane. This was one instance where the script veered away from the book quite a bit, as DePodesta is not nearly as naïve or socially awkward as Peter Brand.

"Billy was obviously the primary focus of the movie like he was the book, and I felt Brad Pitt did a great job of showing the intensity Billy has," Hatteberg said. "Billy is a really complex guy, and that wouldn't be an easy part to play, but Brad pulled it off."

Hatteberg didn't have the type of career that leads to being featured in a movie. He had a .273/.361/.410 slash line with 106 home runs in 14 seasons and 4,876 plate appearances with the Red Sox (1995-2001), Athletics (2002-05), and Reds (2006-08). However, Hatteberg did finish with 562 walks and 503 strikeouts, which made him the type of player Beane and DePodesta wanted to acquire at a time when OBP was an undervalued commodity. Hatteberg's transition is an integral part of the movie.

"It was just surreal watching someone playing me in a movie," said Hatteberg, who was portrayed by Chris Pratt. "You wonder what you're going to look like once the movie is finished, but Chris was great. He's a right-handed hitter and I hit left-handed, but he worked at it and wound up having a pretty good lefty swing. He was able to mimic my bow-legged walk and he did a great job of playing an unsure, slew-footed guy trying to learn how to play first base, which is exactly what I was when I came to the A's. It was pretty ugly at first, and scenes in the movie where I keep misplaying balls are not exaggerated."

Sports movies often struggle to properly recreate game action, but that is certainly not true of Moneyball. The game scenes are authentic, and it helps that a number of former professional players were cast as extras, most notably Royce Clayton as shortstop Miguel Tejada. Clayton spent 17 years playing the position in the major leagues from 1991-2007.

Most of the action revolves around the September 4, 2002 game in which the Athletics set the AL record with their 20th consecutive victory. It was one of most memorable games of this millennium, as the Athletics blew an 11-0 lead before winning 12-11 on Hatteberg's home run in the bottom of the ninth before a rare capacity crowd at the Oakland Coliseum.

"Watching it made me feel like I was there all over again," Hatteberg said. "I thought they did a great job of capturing that moment. It caused the hair to rise on the back of my neck."

Whether or not the movie captures the essence of Moneyball can be debated and it truly depends on your perspective.

The hard-core sabermetrician will likely be disappointed that the actual number-crunching, for the most part, is glossed over. Those inside the game who don't like Beane—and there are many—won't like how  manager Art Howe (a wonderfully nice man in real life), scouting director Grady Fuson, and the scouts are made to look almost like caricatures.

I am neither a movie critic nor a movie buff, but I would pay to see Moneyball again. Like Hatteberg, I'll give it a thumbs up with the caveat that viewers should walk into the theater with the expectation of watching two hours and 15 minutes of drama interspersed with a few laughs rather than a SABR seminar.

---

Scouts' views:

Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez: "I'm not ready to call him a bust yet, but he's just looked awful all year, and I don't see him getting any better. He looks lost at the plate, and he gets caught in between on so many pitches. He doesn't play with a whole lot of life, either."

Athletics right-hander Rich Harden: "He's really struggled late in the year, and you wonder how much longer he can pitch as a starter in the big leagues with all the injuries he has suffered over the years. You'll always look back on him and wonder what might have been."

Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer: "The more I see him, the more I believe he is going to be an above-average player. He's going to be the type of guy who hits 30 homers and drives in 100 runs every year while playing good defense. He is definitely a cornerstone for that franchise."

Blue Jays right-hander Casey Janssen: "It seems like he's found a home in the bullpen. If I were the Blue Jays, I'd make him my closer next year. He might not blow you away, but he's fearless."

Astros left fielder J.D. Martinez: "The pitchers have caught up to him after he got off to that great start in August. He's a good hitter, though, and I think he'll adjust. That franchise is a mess, but this is one guy they can feel good about moving forward."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Billy Beane,  The Who

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