Yes, this is a review of the new movie Moneyball, and if that is all you want, feel free to forward to it at the end of this blog. However, Moneyball was much, much more for me. This may sound pretentious, but it is possible my family and I are as intertwined with the Oakland Athletics, on as many different levels and over as long a period of time, as anybody. I exaggerate not. The movie premiere was somehow a culmination of everything the A’s meant to my family, then and now.
My father grew up in San Francisco, attending Galileo High School with the DiMaggio brothers. That made him a Yankees fan, and therefore an American League fan long before the Giants moved to the West Coast. To the extent that he liked anybody in the senior circuit, it was the Brooklyn Dodgers, not the New York Giants. He admired Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio’s teammate in Boston, but Dad also played football and baseball at the University of California with an All-American named Sam Chapman. When Chapman became a mainstay outfielder for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s, Dad became an A’s fan following his old pal.
When the Giants came out west, Dad was a high school track coach, soon to be an attorney and professor at City College of San Francisco. Everybody was wild about the Giants, but Dad could not quite bring himself around. His loyalties were still with DiMaggio’s Yankees, or the American League of Dom, Ted Williams and Sam Chapman.
When the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968, that was all it took. I was a budding little league star in Marin County, a fanatic for Our National Pastime. We immediately became fans of the A’s, Sam Chapman’s old team. I was never a Giants fan, constantly struggling in arguments with my classmates and teammates, almost all of whom favored the Giants.
But a funny thing happened. The Giants got old, they became mediocre, their stadium was a joke, their attendance sucked, and the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds dominated them. The A’s, on the other hand, were the most exciting team in baseball. They had their quirks, but Charlie O. Finley’s team was a dynasty that conquered both the Reds and the Dodgers, not to mention the Mets, Orioles, Tigers, Royals, White Sox, Rangers, or anybody else in baseball.
Dad and I attended 35 games per season, plus every single post-season game between 1971 and 1975. Dad just went to the old Bank of California, wrote a check for a few bucks, and walked out with tickets. Man, it was great. If we were not at the game or involved in my own youth league heroics, we listened on the radio or watched on TV. It was a religion in our household. I had total bragging rights over friends trying to find something good to say about the Giants and Candlestick Park. I had the ultimate scoreboard in my favor; three straight World Championships. My mother was in on the act, too, although not quite as fanatical as Dad and I. We did not merely show up for the games. Dad parked in the same place every time. We had a total routine that included the same vendor (a former student of my father’s), close study of batting practice (home and road teams), infield practice (a lost art), and scoring the game in a Wilson scorebook maintained with great order. We timed bathroom breaks based upon our three inning stints on scorebook duty.
Eventually, I moved on to college and travels. I saw the A’s when back in the Bay Area or when they traveled to Anaheim to play the Angels. Dad kept going. He found friends who went with him to the Coliseum or Cal’s college baseball games. Eventually, Dad retired from teaching and was able to move to Northstar, near Lake Tahoe. He was the world’s greatest fisherman, a transistor radio always playing A’s games from the shore. Year after year after year, my father could be counted on like clockwork by the A’s schedule. He never missed a TV game. The man did not merely “watch” the games. He turned it on during the pre-game show and watched every single inning, every single pitch – win, lose, the outcome not in question, in contention or not – all his life. Right to the last pitch of a three hour, 45-minute 11-5 loss. The Oakland A’s and Don Travers, one and the same. He was the biggest fan the team ever had.
Being a huge A’s fan whose father was a fanatic of the team made my own story even more amazing. I played on coach Al Endriss’s dynasty at Redwood High School, where one of our rare losses came when Mike Davis of Hoover High in San Diego hit a game-winning triple to beat us, 6-5. Davis was the man who drew a walk off Dennis Eckersley, setting up Kirk Gibson’s homer in the 1988 World Series.
I earned a baseball scholarship to college; was all-conference and set some school records; and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, where my teammate was a future Oakland Athletic, Stanley Javier. But I injured my shoulder (probably a torn rotator cuff) and was released. In 1981-82 I worked my butt off lifting weights and rehabilitating my shoulder. Dad and I drove from the Bay Area to Phoenix, Arizona, checked into a Motel 6, and planned to drive each day to various Spring Training camps in the hopes of getting signed. One last desperate try.
Our first day, our first try, our first hope, was the Oakland Athletics. They were the defending division champions, under relatively new ownership (the Haas family), managed by the tempestuous Billy Martin.
We showed up at Phoenix Municipal Stadium early in the morning. On the field, the A’s spring roster was stretching. I was nervous, not sure how to go about this. I spotted a trailer above the third base line and knocked on the door. Entering, I asked to see Dick Wiencek, recently brought on board as the A’s director of minor league operations after a stint with the Detroit Tigers. A secretary told me he was out and about; I was sure to find him if I wandered around. Off I went until I saw a man with “scout” written all over him. I asked if he was Dick Wiencek. He said yes and I introduced myself, stumbling around in an effort to get to the point. I was sure I would hear the familiar words “We’re all stocked up,” or some such way of fending me off.
Instead, Wiencek asked about my background. College star, led the Appalachian League in ERA for seven weeks until I . . . I did not say “hurt my arm” because that was not an advantage to me.
“Did Bill Sayles sign you with St. Louis?” he asked me.
“Well, that’s good enough for me.”
I was not sure I heard the man correctly, but I did. Wiencek told me he would give me a Spring Training try-out; a room at the team hotel; per diem for meals; a uniform and spot in the minor league camp, which was centralized on a practice field over at Arizona State.
I was floating five feet off the ground when Dad spotted me. From the grin on my face he knew I had gotten my chance, a beachhead on the Normandy of professional baseball. That night we celebrated at a great Tempe steak house called Montis. The next day Dad flew back to San Francisco and left me with the car. I checked into the hotel, where I met a catcher from Pepperdine named Chuck Fick who immediately became one of my best friends. He invited me that evening to go to The Devil House, an ASU hangout with girls so fine as to be almost beyond imagination. That night I drank beer and was one of the boys, a minor leaguer with the Oakland A’s, a big shot in my little world. It was unreal.
Of course, I had to perform on the field. If I failed just a little I would be gone so fast I would breath fumes of the gas that drove me to Arizona in the first place. I pitched three minor league exhibition games played at various places in the Phoenix area, compiling nine innings with no runs. I was beginning to develop confidence.
Towards the end of camp I showed up at the ASU fields on a Saturday morning. It was my day to pitch. On a table were the rosters, line-ups and pitching schedules of the various minor leagues. The class A “Modesto club,” for lack of a better designation, was playing the Cubs’ “Quad Cities” team at Mesa. But my name was not on the pitching schedule. The Madison team, who I usually pitched for, was playing somebody else. No Travers. Double-A Huntsville . . . no Travers. Triple-A Tacoma . . . no Travers.
Now I’m worried. I’m waiting to hear Jim Perry (the ex-big league pitcher, a minor league instructor) or somebody like him call out, “Jones, Johnson, Travers . . . skip wants to see you.” “Skip wants to see you,” or “Mr. Wiencek wants to see you in his office” meant you were history, a non-person. You would be gone in the blink of a young girl’s eye, a forgotten figure. That night the guys would gather at The Devil House looking for chicks and nary a toast would be raised in your memory.
I thought about asking somebody if an omission had occurred, but figured I would let sleeping dogs lie. Then I checked out the Oakland A’s big league roster for that day. Surely I would not be on that sheet of paper, but I was desperate. I went over and looked at. Familiar names – Henderson, Rudi, Keogh, Norris – Major Leaguers, all-stars, big time. Then I saw it: inning four through six, Travers. Was I dreaming, hallucinating? I read that paper closely, like it was the stolen German battle plans at Bastogne.
1 P.M. game, Oakland A’s vs. San Francisco Giants, Phoenix Muni. A Major League exhibition game played on a Saturday afternoon, which meant it would be broadcast back to the Bay Area by both teams. I sought out my pal Dennis Gonsalves and showed him the roster with my name on it.
“Hey bro, yer in the Show,” he said, “Go get ‘em.”
I was in the Show, at least the Spring Training version of it. I found a phone and made some calls – Dad and friends – telling people to listen to the radio because I was pitching. Then I drove over to Phoenix Municipal Stadium, where a highly bizarre sight met me.
The stands were empty hours before the game. It was before batting practice. A couple players were stretching and doing sprints. A coach hit grounders to a solitary infielder. The crack of the bat from a batting cage down the line. Otherwise I was way early.
There, sitting on top of the dugout in the lotus position, was a girl in her early 30s I would estimate, dressed in a teeny-weenie, itsy-bitsy . . . bikini. She was the most tanned person I ever saw, slathered in oil, a real looker.
“What in the wide, wide world of sports is goin’ on here?” I said to myself in my best Slim Pickens imitation.
The girl was married to an A’s coach whose name I will not reveal. One of the other coaches was chatting her up. I eavesdropped and heard him ask what she was up to.
“Oh, just trolling for dates,” she replied.
Trolling for dates?
Basically she was putting herself on display so the young A’s players would make sure to notice her in all her bikini-clad, tanning oil glory. When asked, “What about (husband’s name)?” she said, “Oh, I date who I want to and he dates who he wants to?” The back story of this comment could have meant many things, all speculation on my part. It was one strange dynamic in a memorable day in which I recalled every detail, knowing this was a day I would want to remember all my life. It may sound like an exaggeration, but as God is my witness it happened as I describe.
I had a job to do and stopped fantasizing about the coaches’ wife. The big league A’s looked at me like I was out of place, which I was. No one gave me one iota of love, but I was not that unusual. That spring Billy Martin invited a huge group to big league camp and nobody could keep up with it. I think Billy and Art Fowler tied one on the evening before, because they both showed up at game time, sitting in a dark corner of the dugout. Neither came close to noticing me.
Finally I went down to warm up. An ex-pitcher, now a bullpen coach, named Dave Heaverlo was the only person to be nice to be that day. My catcher was a guy named Daryl Cias, who it is reputed, was Kevin Costner’s model for Crash Davis in Bull Durham. My team included Rickey Henderson, Tony Armas, Shooty Babitt and Joe Rudi, among others. The 1982 Giants included Joe Morgan, Jack Clark and Rob Deer. It was a sell-out crowd as best I recall. Bill King and Lon Simmons both announced for the A’s that year and described the action to my hometown. I am told King somehow did research on me, calling me a “lanky right-hander out of Marin who pitched for Redwood High in their glory days.” It was a dream. I had my best stuff and struck out seven in three innings. It was insanity. I K’d Deer twice.
A few days later Wiencek was right behind home plate scouting me again. I again pitched against the Giants and struck out Deer (a lot of people struck out Rob Deer but he also hit 230 homers in 11 big league seasons). Afterward he directed me to Walt Jocketty, who had a contract and travel particulars waiting for me. From there it was on to a pay phone for one of those golden calls you remember forever, telling my folks I’d made it, the dream was not over, I was an Oakland A, or at least a Modesto A or Medford A, or whatever A I was gonna be; it was not yet determined for sure. From there it was on to the hotel; a dip in the pool, sunning myself next to teammates, ogling pretty girls, a sense of satisfaction, a few beers to celebrate. Good times.
I did not have a long professional baseball career, and I suppose most players have their share of crazy stories, but for some reason it seems I had more in a shorter period than others. Maybe it is because I became a writer and had a mind for the vivid detail of it all. Eventually I found myself in Medford, Oregon. An event occurred there that I cannot describe except to say it was pornographic and bizarre, involving the under age daughter of a prominent Medford family; the son of a former Major League player; acts worthy of a triple-X movie; and many arrests in the parking lot. Use your own imagination and it would still not be quite as crazy as what actually occurred. Me? I avoided it all, arriving back at the motel in time to see handcuffed teammates being escorted into police cars.
“The writing,” as the Old Testament tale of Daniel tells us, was “on the wall” as far as my career was concerned because every transaction kept seeing me sent lower down in the organization instead of the other way around. I was hanging on by my fingertips, my shoulder in agony, able to throw in relief maybe every three days, to the consternation of the organization, when I was called into the office of manager Keith Lieppman at Idaho Falls, Idaho. Standing about 10 yards away was a teenage Jose Canseco.
Lieppman started off with the old saws, “The organization’s decided to make a change . . . there’s no easy way to do this . . . it’s the toughest thing a manager has to do.” It’s been heard a million times and I knew immediately I was gone. With Lieppman was a feisty little guy named Grady Fuson, his assistant coach, who was probably only a few years older than I was. Fuson told me to “prove us wrong” and go out, try to sign with another club. I briefly was inspired to try, but truth be told I was set to go back to school at the University of Southern California, the fall semester just a couple weeks away (where I was good friends' with Mark McGwire). It was a great diversion for me, something positive to focus on. My arm was shot. I had left it all on the field and had nothing to be ashamed of. I made some lifelong friends, who included Dennis Gonsalves, a former Cal State Fullerton All-American named Dave Weatherman, and Chuck Fick (now a Cardinals’ scout).
But after that, real life. At first, a bright, shining star. In the 1980s I was a golden boy: USC graduate, law school, married, a baby daughter, homeowner, and strong political connections in Orange County. I seriously planned for a run at the U.S. Congress, but something happened. I entered a slump worse than any I ever experienced on the baseball field, a slump in life that included a divorce, seven “wilderness years” in which all my plans, hopes and dreams ended in failure.
Then I began to write. Something clicked. I loved it so much I did it even when I had no income from it, but kept doing it until I did. I wrote a script about Bo Belinsky. Bill Rigney, a former A’s executive I knew from my days with the organization, helped me a lot, God bless him. I eventually returned to the Bay Area, back to my roots.
By then the A’s were under the leadership of Billy Beane. It was a Renaissance in Oakland. I had a column for the old San Francisco Examiner. I was there in 2001 and 2002, when Barry Bonds broke the single-season home run record, and Beane’s Moneyball legend was built. Brad Fischer, who was a coach on the Modesto club I once “played” with for about a week, was the A’s bull pen coach. We actually had serious discussions about my being the A’s batting practice pitcher. What would that have been like, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner pitching B.P. for the A’s? But it never happened. For a guy who grew up an A’s fan, played in their organization, and whose father was still a diehard for the green-and-gold, it was surreal to the extreme. It was a very circular experience for me, completing this journey with the game and team of my youth. My life, of my dad’s life.
Like so many writers of the 2000s, I began to blog. Blogging is not like writing a column for a daily metropolitan paper. I was free to write about anything, including politics. I wrote often about Pete Carroll and the USC Trojans. One day I got an email from Billy Beane. At first I thought it might be a joke, as at various times I was contacted by people saying they were somebody they were not, including one memorable missive from a guy who said he was the newspaper editor Phil Bronstein, and that his wife, the bombshell actress Sharon Stone, was a big fan of mine, and they wanted to meet for what looked like a quasi-swing party someplace in San Francisco. I sent the email to Scott Ostler, the San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist, who confirmed it was a hoax, to my ever-so-slight disappointment.
But Billy’s email was the real deal. In it he said he loved my writings, shared my political views (“I’m a registered Republican”) and especially loved my “SC stuff,” adding he was a “big fan.” Thus was a kind-of friendship begun.
After that I read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, which included numerous references to people I knew personally in my baseball career, most notably Grady Fuson, now a top A’s scout who apparently totally disagreed with the Beane approach, resulting in a fairly famous parting of the ways.
Over the next few years I wrote many books about sports, often with a socio-political bent, such as One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation, the story of a 1970 college football game generally credited with ending once and for all the practice of segregation in collegiate sports in the Deep South. It is currently under development to be made into a movie, possibly with Sony, the same studio that produced Moneyball.
Billy and I exchanged emails on occasion, most often regarding USC. Billy Beane is as big a USC football fan as any Trojan alum. He grew up in Southern California but signed a huge bonus contract with the Mets instead of going to college, which he regretted and is a huge theme of the book and movie about him. When he drafted USC baseball players he would email that he has a “soft spot in my heart for Trojans.” After all, Mark McGwire and Barry Zito were among A’s stars from USC. When assistant athletic director John K. McKay asked if I might be willing to help identify a new baseball coach to replace Chad Kreuter, I asked Billy if he wanted to be involved and he said he would be happy to help in any way he could.
In 2007 I wrote A’s Essential: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Real Fan! for Triumph Books, a division of the New York publishing giant Random House. Billy wrote the foreword for me. I wrote a chapter about him with the rather ostentatious title, “Boy Genius.” In that chapter I wrote that Billy was the kind of guy who read histories and biographies, using lessons learned, as in Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, to use in baseball negotiations. I added that he could read about the Roman Emperor Octavian and glean something from that helping him do a trade or get the upper hand over a rival GM.
When the book came out Billy emailed me that, as it happened, he was reading a book about Octavian at that very time, a pure coincidence. The only reason I used Octavian as an example was because when I wrote it I was watching an HBO series called Rome, featuring Octavian, and I suppose since Octavian was a “boy genius” as was, according to my chapter at least, Billy Beane, this seemed a good example. However, the coincidence of Billy reading about Octavian just as I wrote he did was both happen-stance and serendipity. Or maybe great minds thinking alike?
Anyway, I continued to root for the A’s as hard as ever, but in recent years it has become tougher and tougher, especially with the once-moribund Giants looking like royalty over at AT&T Park while Oakland pounds away in the dilapidated Coliseum, a stadium that may be a “dump,” but evokes the best memories of my life: Dad, baseball, camaraderie.
On July 7, 2011, my lovely old father passed away at the age of 93. Among the last things I said to him were profuse thanks for taking me to all those A’s games, and for sticking with me after the Cardinals released me, knowing how happy he was when my team, the Oakland A’s signed me to a contract.
Now comes Moneyball, the movie. When I heard there was a premiere in Oakland, I contacted Billy, but he said he had used up all his passes. I tried a few other sources to no avail until Kerry McCluggage, the Hollywood movie producer trying to develop my book One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation, told me Sony was pretty interested. He put me in touch with Bob Osher, a fellow USC graduate (seemingly 90 percent of anybody who is anybody in Hollywood now is a Trojan), who was a Sony exec. Osher came through with passes to the movie and the party.
First, the theatre. The old Paramount in downtown Oakland, built in 1931, simply is one of the most magnificent movie palaces in the world. It is very old Hollywood, something out of the Clark Gable era, a shrine. As soon as I got there I knew this was a big, big deal. The lobby was a party already, with free cocktails and beer available. Everybody was dressed up, women looking glamorous in their gorgeous gowns. I figured I was low on the totem pole and ambled on up to the balcony, where the usher said to me, “Do you realize you are located down below, in the best seats?”
I felt like Bob Eucker and said, “I must be in the front row,” which I almost was. My seat was for all practical purposes the best in the Paramount Theatre, about 15 feet from Billy Beane and Brad Pitt. Any question whether Oakland would draw real star power was answered when director Bennett Miller came on stage and introduced one of the most star-studded ensembles of Hollywood talent to be found anywhere. Scott Rudin, a legend, produced this movie. Its two screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) may simply be the two best at what they do in the past 20 years, no exaggeration. Then came Jonah Hill, a comic star and new talent at the highest echelon of movie stardom. Then Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Academy Award-winner. Then Brad Pitt, also a producer, the star, and as big a name as there is in movies worldwide.
Now the movie itself. It had a big build up. I loved the book. I am a big A’s fan and a baseball fanatic par excellence, so I knew I’d like it, but I also know enough about movies to know if it was something only people like me would relate to. I am no rube. Would this be a great film, a box office success, a film with crossover appeal?
Having seen it, and now writing about it, I must temper my comments at first with acknowledgement that, yes, I did love it in part because I was so close to it. I know every nook and cranny of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (or whatever corporate web site it is named after today), from the parking lot to the outer ring to the field, to the dugouts, to the stands, to the clubhouses, to the front offices, and naturally was thrilled seeing it all on screen. I loved all the inside baseball, the “dip cup” (a habit I quit in 1996), the idiosyncrasies of baseball, the small things only inside men know about this game, all captured perfectly. Plus, the energy of an Oakland crowd, a baseball frenzy, the chants of “Let’s go, Oakland,” the cheers as if at a real game, the general ballpark ambience, was impossible not to have an affect on me. It was a huge crowd, the gigantic theatre packed literally to the rafters, a palpable sense of excitement, anticipation, and joy, which was impossible not to be part of. I could not just be dispassionate.
That said, as mentioned, I know movies. I studied film at USC and in the UCLA Writers’ Program. I wrote screenplays in Hollywood for five ears, and have taken many meetings with agents, producers and nobodies. Aaron Sorkin I am not, but I know film quality. So, take it from me, I know whereof I speak when I happily report that yes, Moneyball is a great movie. If The Social Contract garnered Oscar attention, then so too should Moneyball. Brad Pitt was absolutely Academy Award-caliber.
This being a non-fiction story based on a book about historical events almost everybody knows coming in, I cannot give too much away. We start with TV footage of Oakland losing a heartbreaking 2001 play-off series to a team, the New York Yankees, that out-spent them four-to-one. Pitt/Beane, the young general manager, having built a near champion after a period of doldrum years in the mid-1990s, complains he has no money for payroll. It is 2002, post-9/11, an economic recession far worse than the one Barack Obama called “the worst since the Great Depression” in 2008, and Billy Beane is not going to get extra dough from owner Steve Schott.
At the offices of Mark Shapiro of the Cleveland Indians, he notices a rotund figure whispering in the ears of seemingly more-important execs and scouts, all of it rolling straight into Shapiro’s ear, who in turn changes his mind in accordance with whatever the large, unknown man has suggested. Beane is foiled and curious. He seeks out the man to find out what in the heck he is all about.
This leads to what some will call a flaw, but I disagree. The man, played by Jonah Hill, is a character named Peter Brand, who everybody who knows anything knows, is Paul DePodesta. Why is he called Peter Brand? This is artistic license, and for the sake of good entertainment it works.
DePodesta played football and baseball at Harvard, which is not exactly LSU but yes, he was an athlete. He never played professionally, but he went to work for the Indians, crunching numbers, using computer analysis to help Shapiro with scouting and budgets. He is a fairly handsome fellow and looks athletic.
Jonah Hill is a roly-poly figure who has been mainly portrayed as a movie buffoon. He is good at it, a very large, totally unathletic figure. As Brand, he is a Yalie, not a Harvard man; an economics major barely out of college, and his job with the Indians is his first job, period (not the five years experience on the job DePodesta had in reality).
But hey, Zaillian and Sorkin know how to play up dialogue, conflict and improbability. To portray the real DePodesta as the normal, qualified fellow he is would have lacked pizzazz. I agree with the choice made, and Hill makes it work to perfection.
DePodesta reportedly did not “allow” his name to be used, which he technically did not have power to do in a story of historical fact and significance, but they did change the name. He is not unhappy, as some have written, telling reporters he understood why the choice was made to make his character different from who he was. They had to change the name, because if he was portrayed as he was and still called Paul DePodesta, that would not have been believable. The filmmakers ask us to suspend our disbelief and I for one was happy to do so. So far, so good. Beane hires Brand to come do that voo-doo that he can do.
Next, the very private Billy Beane’s personal life. His ex-wife is played by the attractive Robin Wright (now divorced from Sean Penn), living in swanky waterfront surroundings, apparently with a new husband who knows nothing about baseball and is (understandably) intimidated by Billy Beane/Brad Pitt. At issue is Beane’s adolescent daughter, Casey (good baseball name even for a girl), played extremely well by Kerris Dorsey.
This is what the movie needs, a humanizing effect and the meaning of Billy Beane’s life. He must prove himself to his daughter, his ex-wife, and to baseball all at the same time. This theme plays itself out amidst the angst of losing, and later winning baseball, a metaphor for life. Human relationships are like a baseball season.
Back in the Coliseum offices, I now see scenes that leave me thunderstruck. Sitting at a desk analyzing scouting data are about eight scouts, actors portraying real-life scouts, about five of whom once scouted me, knew me, knew my dad, and one – the Grady Fuson (Ken Medlock) - who once upon a time actually released me not just from professional baseball, but from the Oakland Athletics. So, yes, when I say I am uniquely qualified to write about the Oakland A’s, that I perhaps more than any other have a lifelong connection to this organization few if any others have, I do not exaggerate. This was personal to me.
Other scouts represented a personal connection. Nick Searcy played Matt Keough, who technically was a teammate when I pitched that exhibition game at Phoenix Muni in 1982 (and later earned notoriety on The Real Housewives of Orange County). Then there was Tom Gamboa, a scout with the Brewers in my day I knew very well and always saw hanging out at Dedeaux Field at USC.
Then there was Stephen Bishop playing David Justice, who I interviewed back in my columnist days. Brent Jennings plays Ron Washington, who I also rubbed elbows with back in the day. All the players of the 2002 A’s were well known by me, some on a personal basis. Barry Zito was a friend of mine from his days at USC, his father a pal. I had once spent a night on the town in Scottsdale, Arizona, a swingin’ place, with the A’s, led by Jason and Jeremy Giambi, during Spring Training. Later I interviewed pitcher Tim Hudson, openly wondering how a team supposedly “training” for the season seemed instead to be participants in a Girls Gone Wild video? Huddie’s answer may be the best I ever heard.
“Yeah, well,” he drawled, “we better get out of town while we’re still standin’.”
Royce Clayton, who plays Miguel Tejada, was once a prospective client in an ill-fated sports agency I happily no longer work for. In 1994 Clayton and a big leaguer named Derek White went to the old Johnny Loves in San Francisco for a big night out with us. It does not end there. The lovely Lisa Guerrero plays herself from the old Best Damn Sports Show Period days. I knew her when we both wrote for a sports magazine in Marina Del Rey called StreetZebra. I know announcers Greg Papa and Ken Korach. Bill King announced me, did an interview with me, and was as far as I am concerned the best announcer on Earth except for Vin Scully. Chad Kreuter plays pitching coach Rick Peterson (he was also a major technical advisor). I have known Chad since he was 15. He and I attended the same high school a few years apart. His father-in-law, ex-USC coach Mike Gillespie, is a friend of mine.
All of this may be great fun for me, quietly sitting in a movie theatre restraining myself from yelling out loud, “I know that guy” or “I know the guy that guy is playing” or “That guy released me,” but had nothing to do with this review, such as it is, in terms of informing the reader of the film’s merits. So, we press on.
If DePodesta was unhappy with Jonah Hill’s character, perhaps the line where Peter Brand says scouting is like an island of “misfit toys,” each of which, if well placed, can find a happy home; this is the place for some agitation. This line, used in many promos, gives the film an amateurish quality that diverts from the hard-boiled inside baseball conveyed most of the time. A guy chewing Copenhagen would not say this, but again, it is a fun line and evokes chuckles. But Brand makes all the sense in the world describing the essential spirit of the Lewis book, which is about assigning value (his name is not Brand for nothing) to each player via statistics. How a player looks getting the job done is less important than the fact he gets the job done. The “fat catcher” (Jeremy Brown, a star of the book); the strange-squatting Kevin Youkilis (Brand’s “hero”); and the out-of-position Scott Hatteberg; these and many others represent the “value” Brand assigns, using language much like a card-counter looking for a hot deck out of a four-deck shoe.
Thus “a walk is as good as a hit.” Righty-left match-ups do not matter, particularly if an unorthodox right-hander like Chad Bradford is just as effective against lefties. Defense is not important at first base (a premise I as a pitcher would sure dispute), thus creating a big disagreement between Beane and manager Art Howe.
If DePodesta can accept the Jonah Hill character, Art is left as the guy with the biggest complaint. His disagreements with Billy may have been accurate, but Art was a thin, athletic ex-big leaguer. Not sure why Philip Seymour Hoffman had to play him with a huge beer belly, except that Hoffman probably just has a huge beer belly and lacks the discipline to get rid of it. The flip side is that if an actor with his chops plays you on film, it is a compliment.
Beane wants Hatteberg at first, where he is a defensive liability, but he draws the walks the GM craves. Howe insists on Carlos Pena, a proto-type star-in-the-making of the era who flamed out early in his career, later found brief stardom in Tampa, but has not been consistent at all. But Pena is a casting director’s athlete. Beane complains they are not “looking for Fabio,” leading one scout to dead pan “Whose Fabio?” a good comedic line among many. Another says because a player’s girlfriend is “a six,” that shows the player “lacks confidence.” My personal experience is that this logic is not totally off base.
Unable to get Howe to play Hatteberg and pitch Bradford in the situations he wants, Beane pulls rank, trading Pena, demoting pitcher named Mike Magnante, and unloading Jeremy Giambi, who loves the ladies and the night life a little too much. All of this is very well done, good inside baseball, and part of the Hill character’s maturation process as he is asked to handle the Pena trade face-to-face. After all, what is there to say beyond, “You’ve been traded to the Detroit Tigers”? It is hard game. I have been there and done that.
But the Beane-Howe disputes are nothing compared with Grady Fuson, the man who, as mentioned, sent me packing from Idaho Falls . . . the same day my parents arrived to see me play pro baseball for the first time. Hardball, hard game.
The actor (Medlock) lays out the traditionalist’s diatribe about experience, intuition, and old school methods used to determine a player’s value going back to Connie Mack. This is where Bennett Miller makes excellent use of the flashback, showing Billy as a San Diego prep baseball phenom (1979), a first round pick given a huge bonus by the New York Mets. They confidently inform him he is a “can’t miss” prospect. Beane did miss, as in the baseball, via a loopy swing or inability to adjust at the plate, as shown in subsequent shots of the young player struggling through an unsuccessful pro career. This informs the mature Billy Beane that indeed nobody does know, a fact as true in baseball as it is in movies, where nobody really knows if a screenplay will truly translate into a great film, either.
Bean and Fuson have history, albeit with friction. Beane tells him despite their differences he will not fire him, but Fuson tells him what he can do with a part of his anatomy, whereby Beane does fire him. Bye, bye Grady. In the book the argument was centered around a high school pitcher named Jeremy Bonderman, who seemed to pan out with Detroit, but only for a very short while, kind of making both men right. Beane loves the college player, but this aspect of his philosophy is not described in the film.
Finally, with his team in place, but beset by doubts because the club has struggled mightily (which the A’s did year-by-year in the early 2000s for some odd reason), Beane oversees his vision. The A’s get hot using the metrics he and Brand put in place, and roll to a 20-game winning streak. Hatteberg hits the game-winning homer in the movie’s penultimate moment. A sense of redemption for Billy is shown via the respect of his ex-wife and his daughter no longer worrying that her dad will get fired. But Beane’s existentialism, his inner angst, well known about him and captured beautifully by Pitt, is shown when he asks Brand, “What does it all mean?” A 20-game winning streak is great but glory only comes to the team that wins the “last game of the season.”
This is where a review about true events can go all the way, because there is no surprise here, we know how it ends (like a war film about America stopping Hitler). This is where everybody wondered how the filmmakers would handle the subject matter. They did not win the World Series. The “happy ending” eludes us, but the masterstroke of the writing is that in so doing they give us a real life lesson.
A few years ago some friends of mine, Logan and Noah Miller, made a wonderful little festival movie called Touching Home. Starring Ed Harris, it was about their failed efforts to re-sign pro baseball contracts after one is released and the other washes out of a college program. Neither achieves their goal, but this did not matter. What mattered was the journey, and the same is true in Moneyball. It is the story of the struggle, the journey, the quest. This is what drives Billy Beane. If he won the World Series he would be just as driven to do it again in a “what have you done for me lately?” game.
The film ends on the just the right note. Beane visits Boston, where he is highly impressed by all the trappings of the Red Sox, but turns big money down, citing as his life lesson his great regret – not going to college – “because of money.” He will not make that mistake again. He calls the Coliseum a “dump,” but it his dump and he loves it there, so he stays. The credits tell us what we know. The Red Sox adopted his (and DePostesta’s/Brand’s) methods of statistical analysis and, with more resources, won the World Series in 2004 and 2007. Beane’s teams contended mightily for another four years but never won “the last game of the season,” the World Series.
But his loyalty to Oakland remains a highly compelling aspect of his personality and the film. Finally, the movie ends with a song by the actress playing his daughter, a budding guitar player, and at just the right pitch her lyrics “You’re such a loser, Dad, You’re such a loser, Dad,” capture the sentiment to perfection. Of course Billy Beane is no loser and she does not mean her father is a “loser.” The word is a loose one used by teenagers to mean things other than being a “loser.” But the double entendre is that in a cutthroat, hardcore game like professional baseball – Moneyball – unless you win the World Series and capture ultimate glory on the American, the world stage, well, you’re lumped in with all the losers. This is life in the big city.
So, will Moneyball represent at the Academy Awards? Personally I think it is good enough, but I think some artsy, more “meaningful,” but less outstanding movies will get the nod for reasons other than they should be. But it could get some nominations: Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, maybe some cinematography or something. In a movie that was risky, Brad Pitt is a winner for pulling it off and making it a great film, and a great film it is. It ranks, at first blush, as one of my all-time fave sports films, which is saying something. It is well worth the investment and I think offers something for all.
The promos used AC/DC’s “Money Talks,” a great theme which would have played well, but it was never used in the film. Certainly it could have been part of a series of scenes of swift transactions, Beane on the phone, negotiating his tail off amid a series of winning baseball games. Alas, no. I like that song.
Beane sat about 10 yards from me in the Paramount. I approached him after the crowd began to dissipate.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked him.
“It was surreal, is all I can say,” he replied.
I told him I just loved it, not kind of liked it, but truly loved it, which I think brightened him in case there were still any doubts. Then he moved to the subject that I honestly think he likes more than baseball, second only to his daughter.
“SC looked great against Syracuse, I think they’ll handle Arizona State on Saturday,” he said with a gleam in his eye. Man, he loves the Trojans.
Finally, flush from the excitement of the big screen, it was off to the Fox Theatre for the post-movie party. That took the cake. The Fox, another classic Oakland venue, was re-modeled to look, like the Paramount, to be something out of the 1940s. I expected top see Bugsy Siegel and Humphrey Bogart squiring the likes of Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall, which all the fabulous, utterly beautiful women strove to look like in be-jeweled, be-gowned splendor. Oh my, the eye candy!
A huge hall and a very large crowd, ravenous with hunger, descended on a spread of gourmet food for the ages. The best wines and drinks flowed. Beautiful People – actors, writers, media, studio execs, starlets, models, pheenom girls – all partied away. It was better Hollywood than Hollywood, it out-did itself. It was off the hook.
I found A’s equipment manager Steve Vucinich, who was part of the organization back in the day when I played for them. I gave him a signed copy of my book A’s Essential, and mentioned how crazy it was seeing Grady Fuson portrayed on screen.
“Grady’s here,” he replied. He found him and there he was, the man who officially told me they would not let me play anymore, a theme in the film in which a Mets’ executive tells the young Billy Beane, “The day always comes when they tell us we can’t play anymore. For some it happens at 18, for others it happens at 40.” For me it was age 23 and it came courtesy of Grady Fuson.
Fuson had left the A’s in a huff, but was eventually welcomed back by Billy, past sins forgiven. He looked the same as I remembered him; short, feisty, but looking good, a competitor. He remembered me and was glad to see I was doing well. We talked baseball circa the Pioneer League, 1982, and I gave him a signed copy of my book, too.
I drove and could not drink too much. The whole night was a blast, though, but almost too much. I had made the rounds, talked to the people I wanted to, and was ready to fly, so I excused myself and headed into the night, somehow finding the 80 Freeway after traversing the dark, mean streets of Oakland with little clue as to my location.
Home I headed to, my night of celebrity, my brush with real stardom and fame a thing of the past. I dreamt of my book One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation being developed into a film; of sharing a similar stage with a Kevin Costner, a Tommy Lee Jones, a Taylor Hackford. But all glory, as many from Roman emperors to George Patton can tell you, is fleeting.
Then I thought about the things that really matter. My daughter, Elizabeth, who is in school in Southern California and sadly could not be there. Then my father, who so loved the Oakland Athletics and would have smiled from ear to ear hearing me describe this night of splendor.
Dad would have loved it.
Finally, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who remains my rock, my cornerstone.
But it sure was fun!
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism