At the end of the 2001 season, the Oakland Athletics are one of the least wealthy teams in the entire American League, the highest professional baseball league in the United States. After being defeated by the New York Yankees and losing their chance to qualify for the World Series, they also face the loss of three key players in the squad who have ended their contracts: John Damon, Jason Giambi and Jason Isringhausen. The general manager of the company Billy Bean, together with his collaborators, must replace them, an operation complicated by the negative situation that the company is experiencing at an economic level compared to other powers in the league. During a meeting with the Cleveland Indians, in which all his market proposals are rejected, Bean meets Peter Brand, a young business graduate from Yale who tells him that he is being ostracized daily by the most experienced members of society for his radical ideas on player evaluation.
This is the beginning of The art of winning (Moneyball), a film by Bennett Miller released in 2011 and starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. Based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, the film is the fruit of the non-original screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian and tells one of the most memorable sports feats in recent history. A company that was born from the collaboration relationship started between Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Right after that first meeting, the Oakland Athletics will experience one of the most exciting seasons in their history reaching 20 consecutive victories, a record still unbeaten in the American League.
His theories, based on a precise statistical model that, according to him, would give the possibility of building a winning team thanks to the study of data and not to the skills of individual players, are striking Bean since his first meeting with Brand. Bean, at that point, decides to refound the entire team following the instructions of his new assistant, hiring unknown players or players discarded by almost all other clubs. The team’s observer team is initially very skeptical of the new approach sabermetric of Bean and Brand, who instead of relying on the experience of the former decide to select the players based only on the so-called Obp, or the percentage that indicates the number of times they conquer the base without the help of the penalty. Furthermore, all these players have slight physical defects or characteristics considered negative by most of the league’s scouts, which however the same Brand identifies as real added values in their final evaluation.
The great distrust towards the two protagonists comes above all from the coach Art Howe (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who for some time has already had a negative relationship with Billy Bean for contractual reasons. At the beginning of the new season, meanwhile, the Athletics are not convincing and the strategy introduced by Bean and assistant does not seem to bear the hoped-for results. Even journalists and reporters, off the pitch, begin to reject the new system, branding it as a sad failure. Critics wonder, first of all, how a mathematical model (called “Moneyball”) first conceived by Billy James, an author who wrote a book on baseball statistics but never played, can solve problems. nor managed a team. A curious and innovative tactic which, however, according to the media, will only lead to the ruin of the company and a failed season for Oakland.
Despite the negative assumptions and the 14 defeats out of a total of 17 games, Bean manages to convince the owner of the company to continue on this path. In the long run, time proves him right and the plan seems to be working, with the team starting to grind wins after wins by amazing everyone and becoming the revelation of the championship. The positive streak culminates with the match played against the Kansas City Royals, against which the Athletics manage to win thanks to a home run that arrived at the end of the ninth inning and beaten by one of the players selected by Brand and his assistant Scott Hatteberg. The game is worth the twentieth consecutive victory, certifying the reliability of the new system and thus contradicting its detractors.
The art of winning is a political fresco of sport, but above all a cynical and extremely realistic film that tells how the strength of numbers should not only be at the service of economic dominance within a system defined by Bean himself as deranged and unfair. , where the richest teams win and slowly “kill” the poorer ones. In this context, the film is above all the representation of the path of two outsiders: on the one hand Billy Bean, a former professional player who lived a career of failure, on the other Peter Brand, a brilliant but underestimated young man with whom he shares that spirit of revenge. against a system that has defeated the former and marginalized the latter. Two characters well told by the pens of Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian but above all interpreted with transport by the two actors, in particular Jonah Hill: a methodical and pragmatic boy, but also for this innovator and progressive, entered on tiptoe into a fossilized system in the own traditional schemes to change it from within. An intention that brings with it Billy Bean himself, defeated by his past and eager to change the present of baseball as soon as he has the opportunity.
And it is precisely the end of the film that testifies to the true message of the whole story, a manifesto of a change that must come first of all from our personal conception of the sport: after the long series of victories, in fact, the Oakland Athletics lose in the first post-season round against the Minnesota Twins, failing to qualify for the Finals and breaking that dream born of underestimated ideas but of factual value. A value that transpires first in the objective of the two characters, then in the model introduced by Brand, and finally in the very idea of the work: in a correctly managed system, in which re-distribution is the real starting point, the interaction profitable that occurs in a group of individuals is always stronger and more effective than the individual who excels. A model that led director Bennett Miller to talk about sport without celebrating it, but representing it in a raw way for what it should be: a system in which collective effort rewards more than that of individuals, without compromising the romantic nature of the discipline but rather placing the human factor at the center as opposed to the imperative of victory.
This dramatic engine is mainly driven by the feeling of the protagonists, who live within themselves a different anger in the origins but very similar in its evolution within the context in which the story takes place: a system monopolized by the great economic powers, in which however the outsiders still have the concrete possibility of building something winning even without the large investments of the companies. They can do this based on a union that goes beyond the very concept of victory and defeat, but above all that focuses on cooperation and the redemption of the individual at the service of the group. A vision that even without winning trophies has the great merit of showing the existence of an alternative.
Likewise, The art of winning manages to show itself to viewers as a concrete alternative to traditional sports films, with which it should not be confused precisely on the basis of the issues it introduces in a frank, politically influential, critical of the status quo way. A story that enhances the life of those who, while remaining behind the scenes of the sports world, manage to impress in their daily work an ethical sense of deep attachment to the community; feelings that show us the true spirit of team sports: pursuing the good of a group through a path of personal growth of individuals.