Baseball is America's most literary game, one that has inspired great authors from Bernard Malamud to John Updike to Philip Roth to delve into its mysteries. As if to confirm this verity of American cultural life, one of the hottest novels these days, The Art of Fielding, is a baseball book. In the world of cinema, only boxing competes with baseball for profound moments on the silver screen. Roy Hobbs smashing out the lights in The Natural's finale and Kevin Costner playing catch with his dead father in Field of Dreams have transcended the sport to become instantly recognizable cinematic moments.
Until the recent release of Moneyball, however, literature had explored an attribute of baseball missing at the movies: the sport's inherent cruelty. For example, in Malamud's novel The Natural, Roy Hobbs is a tormented soul whose suffering does not bring redemption. He ends the book having struck out, let his team down, and disgraced himself. In the film, he overcomes his past, wins the game, saves the team, and lives happily ever after. It seems that Hollywood just can't resist the narrative of baseball's romance.
Moneyball on the other hand, perhaps because it's adapted from a true to life account rather than a novel, understands that fear of failure is the specter that haunts each moment on the baseball diamond. Hitting .300 is the gold standard of an exceptional player, which means he still fails 70% of the time. Players who make mistakes in the field are formally charged with errors, and many players with long careers have their lives defined by a single miscue. Bill Buckner was a good player for many years who managed to bravely play through incredibly painful injuries, but he will always be remembered for letting the ball go through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Even the best teams must accustom themselves to losing. The Philadelphia Phillies won a major league best 102 games this year, which meant that they still had to lose sixty times.
Moneyball's main character, Oakland As manager Billy Beane, can never forget his own failure to make it as a big league player after having such a highly touted high school career. He doesn't watch the games at the stadium because it makes him sick with anger and worry. He smashes stuff when things go wrong, and nervously chews tobacco and inhales junk food in order to balance the tension of his job. One part of his job is having to tell players that they've been traded, demoted to the minors, or cut from the team. As a scout tells him as a young man, "at some point we are all told we can no longer play the boy's game."
That sounds like a typically romantic sentiment, deeming baseball a "boy's game," but there is a profound of sadness underneath it, the knowledge that playing baseball as an adult is abnormal, that players are eventually torn from the game against their will, as we are all torn from our childhoods. Moneyball may very well be the least romantic baseball movie ever made. Not because it is cynical, but because it reveals the difficult realities behind the game, and refuses to give us a Hollywood ending. Beane and the Oakland As must resort to an unorthodox way of valuing players because the economics of the game make them incapable of signing the players considered to be the best.
Despite the wonders of sabermetrics, Bill James' ideas, and computerized scouting, Beane and the As do not win a World Series, in fact they don't even get past the first round of the playoffs. In a strange way, however, they accomplish something even greater than winning of title, they win twenty games in a row, the all time record for the American League. Over 100 teams have won a World Series, but no other has been able to do what the 2002 As managed to do. But immersed as he is in baseball's ethos of cruel failure, Beane cannot take pleasure in these victories, and can only rue the fact that until he wins a title, he will have lost.
If you need any reminder of the pain that baseball can inflict, just look at the fate of the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox this week. Both teams looked poised to go into the playoffs with ease, both collapsed and lost in dramatic fashion on the last day of the season, ending a month of slow torture for their fans. Football teams have imploded in dramatic fashion before, but in football the agony does not take place each and every day of the week, like in baseball. Norwood's wide right is a shot to the gut, an end of the season collapse, like the Sox this year and Cubs in 1969, is a crucifixion. True fans follow their teams day after day each passing year from the melting of winter's frost until the chilled winds of October blow in.
The moment in the season where the dream is dashed, which happens to rooters for 29 of 30 teams, is a cruel reckoning. I moved to Michigan in 2006, and was thrilled to vicariously experience the enthusiasm of the state's Detroit Tigers die hards, a true blue group of fans hoping for a break from the lashings of Michigan's economic crisis. I will always remember their moment of truth. I was with friends at a bar in Ann Arbor the night of the fifth game, and when the Cardinals took the title and the Tigers lost, I heard a collective cry of agony, not just in the bar, but seemingly across the long-suffering state, from Benton Harbor to Traverse City to Saginaw. It might be a child's game, but it encapsulates that most soul wrenching of adult emotions: failure.