I used to be a person who went to a lot of movies. Now, not so much. I’ve come to value both my time and money more so that I feel I can wait a few months and get it on Netflix (or Quikflix, or whatever the hell they’ll be calling themselves). Typically when a movie hits theaters and I’m even remotely interested in seeing it, I’ll put it in my queue and then see it when it comes out. However, there is the occasion film that I’m willing to check out in the actual movie theater (pronounced THEE-ater, as an homage to my dad).
First, I’ll almost always see something starring Brad Pitt. Yes, there is the hotness, but I really like him as a person and I life the trajectory of his career and the roles he’s chosen. The other actors are favorites of mine as well – Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, and Jonah Hill. Then add the fact that it was shot in the Bay Area where I live, and I’m there. And, of course, the hotness.
The story is true and adapted from a 2006 book and it’s an interesting story of how difficult it is to change the inner workings of an institution from both the bottom up and the top down. Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s, had an incredibly small payroll to use to attract marquee players. His owner wasn’t willing to budge on money and told him to work with what he had. A trip to the Cleveland Indian’s office unearthed Pete, a Econ major mathlete from Yale who had the ear of the top of the Cleveland organization. As soon as Billy heard of Pete’s ideas about how to assemble a winning team, Billy saw the answer to his payroll problem.
Billy soon found that he’d stumbled on a way of assessing players that not only would revolutionize his team, it would revolutionize the game. Changing institutions is historically difficult if not impossible. Duh. Call me Capt. Obvious. What was interesting about this attempt was that it was coming from the top of the organization down, and it was an attempt to de-humanize the process – usually it’s the other way around on both counts.
The A’s were underdogs in the league, but Billy was the GM and no one in the organization wanted to follow his idea. How many times have we seen stories of the folks at the bottom of the totem pole scrape their way up to an unlikely victory? This was a guy who was at the top. He didn’t need anyone’s permission to make changes. How many times have we been in systems or organizations that we wanted to change and thought that if only we had some power we could make it happen? Apparently it’s not as easy as that. Billy used all the power he had to rearrange the system to make things go his way, and they did to a point, but they didn’t take the team far enough in the season. He still needed the buy-in of all levels of the organization.
I found it interesting that he was trying to come at the change from a strictly numbers perspective. He wanted to use just on-base numbers to put together a team, including those who were advanced in years and had permanent injuries. Most of the time, these come-from-behind stories are all about putting a human face on a team or organization that the corporate machine only sees as a column of numbers that indicates a lack of profitability. The scenes with his scouts were by far the most entertaining ones of the film and they were all about the scouts choosing players because of looks, tats or no tats, haircuts, off the field habits, how pretty their swing was, etc. There was very little talk of stats. I feel like in the end Bill recognized that he’d swung too far in the direction of numbers and in the end balanced his perspective a little bit. I think Billy learned a valuable lesson (cue epilogue synth music from any episode of Perfect Strangers).
There were also a couple of quotes that stood out to me:
1. “When your enemy is making a mistake, don’t interrupt them.”
Most of the time, “enemy” is too strong a word, but we all have people who, given the chance, would work against us or our ideals. This statement puts a lot of faith in a system of sowing and reaping and is wise counsel on the allocation of energy. I have a friend who is in a difficult ministry situation and she is trying to control her legacy with the few staff members who are doing the poorest job of running the show. No, they’re not her enemies, but they are doing what they can to keep her from living her calling. She and I talked about this and it was very clear to her that she needs to let them stumble down their path and eventually trip and worry about the greater legacy in the community which is overwhelmingly positive.
2. “The first man through the wall is always bloody.”
Billy was offered an insane amount of money to take his philosophy of player recruitment to Boston, which he turned down to stay in Oakland. The Sox took his ideas and won the World Series 2 years later. Baseball is changing because of the Moneyball approach, but someone had to be the first one through the wall. For every lauded hero there hundreds of predecessors who have come through the wall and made space for the famous ones. The truth is change isn’t instantaneous. It’s incremental, a slow drip of unrest that builds to raging flow of discontent, but someone has to come through the wall first, and that’s dangerous business.