For Love or Moneyball: Lessons Learned From Baseball

Friends keep asking me if Moneyball is good, but I have no idea. How can you evaluate the quality of your own home movies?

The first man to break my heart was a burly meathead with bad facial hair and an occasional drug habit. His name was Jeremy Giambi, and he was the designated hitter for the Oakland Athletics.

It was 2001, I was 17 years old, and the A’s were on the verge of sweeping the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. But with the A’s clinging to a 1-0 lead in the 7th inning of Game 3, Giambi inexplicably decided not to slide into home plate and was tagged out. My beloved team went on to lose the game and the series, and I learned what betrayal felt like.

It wasn’t my first year as an A’s fan, but 2001 was the season I’d moved into die-hard territory. So when Giambi’s dumb move triggered the momentum shift that would end the A’s season, it only increased my zeal. Like any spurned lover, I licked my wounds for a while, then started obsessing over all the things that would be different if we just got one more chance.

If you’re a baseball fan or an Aaron Sorkin aficionado, you know what came next. In Sorkin’s new movie, that historic playoff loss serves as prologue for what’s come to be known as the “Moneyball season.” The cash-poor A’s lost their two biggest stars to the behemoth Yankees and Red Sox, so general manager Billy Beane (portrayed in the movie by the surprisingly convincing Brad Pitt) subbed in a bunch of nobodies and won a league-best 103 games in 2002.

Like any good sports movie, Moneyball is a classic rags-to-riches story. And in the tradition of Rocky and Field of Dreams, it’s earned the ultimate compliment from critics: “It’s not really a sports movie.” But though I’ve used that line on my mother a hundred times, it feels strangely hollow in Moneyball’s case. It’s true that the film is suffused with universal themes, but for those of us used to having our hearts broken by the Oakland A’s, Moneyball (which was adapted from the fine Michael Lewis book of the same name) is very much a sports movie.

Watching the film this weekend—dressed, of course, in the A’s t-shirt I wore regularly in 2002— I felt spooked and vaguely uncomfortable, like watching awkward family videos I thought had been lost to time. Sorkin weaves original footage with archived tapes from real games, so my flashbacks were projected on the screen at the same time they rushed through my mind. I could almost see my younger self in the movie, standing in the cheap seats, screaming until I'm hoarse. Friends keep asking me if Moneyball is good, but I have no idea. How can you evaluate the quality of your own home movies?

What I do know is that Moneyball gave me a visceral sensation of being 18 again, of “Dollar Wednesdays” spent with my best friends in the brutalist cement box that is The Coliseum (A’s fans long ago gave up trying to remember which tech firm owns the naming rights to our stadium this month), and then rushing home to watch the SportsCenter highlights from another A’s victory, of the pride I felt in hanging a huge green-and-gold banner on my dorm room wall during my first week at college. It reminded me how much fun it was to support a winning team, an experience we A’s fans haven’t had in several years. Walking out of the theater, it took me a moment to process that I was in Los Angeles in 2011, not Berkeley in 2002.

My favorite moment at the Coliseum that season came on a Friday night just before the All-Star break, when the A’s were starting to heat up after a slow start to the year. Unlike in previous seasons (and more recent ones, for that matter), we couldn’t buy cheap tickets and walk down to the first row—the stadium was sold out. So my friends and I watched from the far reaches of the upper deck as John Mabry (a Moneyball player if there ever was one, the guy who is shown in the movie getting traded to the A’s as Beane angrily looks to dump Giambi’s contract) stroked a walk-off two-run double to left. For once that summer, anxiety about moving 3,000 miles away was the furthest thing from my mind.

The night before I left for school, I watched an away game, the 10th win of what would become a 20-game streak, on TV with my best friend. Afterward, we sat outside his house talking for hours, like we had most nights that year. I confessed that I wasn’t sure what I was going to do without our circle of friends or all those nights at the ballpark. He told me we would stay close and the A’s would win the World Series. The first prediction came true; anybody who’s seen Moneyball knows we’re still waiting on the second.

At the end of the movie, Beane is overcome with emotion after he sees videotape of a fat minor league catcher realizing he’s hit a home run. “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball,” he says. Since the 2001 playoffs, the A’s have broken my heart a few more times. But what’s true in the Coliseum’s upper deck is just as true everywhere: The certainty of occasional heartache doesn’t diminish the thrill of being in love.

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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