By C.J. Bunce
It’s All Star Major League Baseball week, and if you’re roaming around host city Kansas City this week, don’t bother trying to figure out those big symbols painted on the street at intersections throughout the city. You’re probably better off not looking at the pavement as you drive, anyway. They’re just ads for the event. Planning and reporting for this week’s festivities made me ask myself: How many host cities are asked to tear down dozens of houses to improve the appeal of major events? That’s right, part of the deal to get the big MLB extravaganza into town was agreeing to tear down a bunch of abandoned east side homes near baseball fields holding related games. Those supporting the action say it caused the city to get off its rear and act on something they needed to do anyway. But local elected officials have been voicing their dismay on behalf of neighborhood residents–why do we need a sporting event to clean up our city?
This same week, halfway across the country, 150,000 or so fanboys and fangirls will descend upon San Diego for the annual International Comic-Con. It makes you wonder–how many houses are getting torn down in San Diego? Both All Star Week and Comic-Con bring in money for their towns, and from a city management standpoint, that’s all that matters. For a city like Kansas City, you don’t get many bites at the apple, not many chances to bring in national events, although the city has built up major convention centers like the Sprint Center and Kauffman Performing Arts Center–facilities that rival their counterparts across the country no matter what size the city, and these venues are attracting the commensurate talent. Kauffman Stadium, where the All Star game will be played Tuesday, is without dispute one of the best venues to see baseball anywhere–its giant scoreboard video screen is one of the top of its kind in the country.
Sponsors have dumped hundred of thousands of dollars into promotions for All Star week. Nike, Chevrolet, Bank of America, even the Budweiser Clydesdales are all at the stadium, despite temperatures nearing 100 degrees (plan on buying a lot of bottled water if you’re going in person). At the Sprint Center even more promotional activities are underway at the “Fan Fest,” including members of the original women’s baseball league featured in the movie A League of their Own. Again, baseball is about money, money and money. And so is Comic-Con. If you’re a fan of either, you just ignore all the glitz and go after what you want–watching the baseball game (which seems like it may be an afterthought with all the promotions) and meeting your favorite comic book artists and writers and your favorite TV and movie stars, once you make it through the crowds at Comic-Con.
So I figured, what better way to start out All Star Baseball and Comic-Con week than revisiting the successful Brad Pitt movie Moneyball? Last October, borg.com writer Jason McClain was a bit dismayed with the film. He had read the source material, based on actual events and real people, and I think his best praise was that the film was just OK. After finally seeing it, if you’re like me–less of a diehard baseball fan and more of a baseball movie fan, you may very well love Moneyball. In fact, I’d argue inclusion of Moneyball is a must on a future borg.com Top 10 baseball movie list.
Jason identified the best part of the film, namely Pitt as protagonist Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, and young Yale economics grad Pete Brand (name changed from the original person in the story) played by Jonah Hill (Superbad) in a much deserved Academy Award-nominated role for best supporting actor. In an attempt to encourage Beane to push everything aside and do the right thing for himself, Pete shows Beane footage of a classic baseball moment–Jeremy Brown rarely takes the chance to round first and break for second base. This one time he does he screws up and tries to make it back to first, getting tagged by the first baseman in the process. What Brown didn’t realize was that his hit made it over the wall. He’d hit a home run and didn’t know it. Pete’s point? Beane was a success and just didn’t know enough to stop and soak it up.
Moneyball is obviously about money in baseball–not just how baseball has changed from its origins into this established, maybe bloated system that resists any effort to change with the times. It applies to movie stars in NYC and Hollywood, too, but you have to ask: Does anyone deserve $7 million for whatever they do? I once made it to a day game to see the Yankees play in the Bronx. Strawberry struck out at bat. Twice. Pretty underwhelming game. But what was memorable was all the local kids at the game. Each one had a well-marked season’s scorecard with plenty of margin notes. These were the diehard fans. And when you think about increasing prices everywhere, including tickets for baseball games or movies, you wonder at what point fans will just stop going. Or for a change, when prices actually drop. But that would require thinking differently. That would require real change.
More than money, Moneyball is simply a great sports story. Brad Pitt offers one of his less difficult but most subtle and smartly played roles. For the first time since Twelve Monkeys I saw Pitt in the big leagues as an equal to the likes of Robert Redford in The Natural. (One humorous bit is every scene he is stuffing his face with some kind of food or having a dip). The fact that he is willing to stop and change when no one else wants to is inspiring. As strange and unlikely as it seems, Pitt mirrors Gregory Peck’s role in the Hollywood classic Twelve O’Clock High. In that film, the Allies keep fighting but keep losing at the same time. It’s a war of attrition, and hard decisions must be made that affect lives of airmen but actually the fate of the world is at stake. Peck’s role is clean-up man. He’s the fixer. In Moneyball, the stakes are different, but for Pitt, this could be the end of his world if he is not successful. Can he change the very nature of baseball so his ball club can survive? Years ago a CEO who was about to get the axe asked me for advice. “Where did I go wrong?” he asked. Set in his own ways, he resisted change. I recommended he watch Twelve O’Clock High for some inspiration. But it was advice asked and given too late. Resisting change is natural, and it is powerfully hard to do. That’s why those people who are successful at moving forward in the face of huge resistance make great stories.
As for criticisms, I will leave those to Jason–he noted (probably justifiably so) that the filmmakers (and underlying source work) may have been harsh in its portrayals of real-life coach Art Howe and scout Grady Fuson. In brief, these guys are used to the old rules and resist change. As the story of Moneyball is about change, and as those resisting it, they become the villains. Whenever you portray real-life people in movies or non-fiction works, someone isn’t going to like the portrayal (particularly the public figures themselves). Yet you always have to ask whether there is at least a grain of truth in these portrayals. In what is one of the best pieces of storytelling of all time, Jon Krakauer’s account of a failed attempt of several climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest was met with much opposition, by nearly every other guy who climbed the mountain with Krakauer. But that does not detract from the fact that the story told by Krakauer is gut-churning, nail-biting, and exciting. Ultimately accounts of real life can seemingly take on their own lives. The events of May 1996 on Everest are separate and apart from Krakauer’s bestselling memoire Into Thin Air. So, I think, may be the film Moneyball versus its source material, the Michael Lewis book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, or even the real events that summer where the Oakland A’s broke baseball’s winning streak records. We don’t really know what Beane and the man Pete was based on were like then, but we know the characterization of these guys in the film was superb. And we can love the film whether it got everything real life right or not.
Whether you’re in it for the fandom or the money, this is bound to be a great week from Kansas City to San Diego. Bring on the fans!