In ‘Moneyball,’ it takes a prophet to bring change to baseball
The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.
“We’ve always done it this way.” Anyone who’s ever tried to change anything—from engaging in political advocacy to suggesting a new brand of coffee in the breakroom—has likely heard that response. Last week in Catholic Movie Club, we talked about how hard it can be to try to change yourself. This week’s film focuses on an even tougher sort of transformation: changing a system.
Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” (2011), based on a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (adapted from Michael Lewis’ book of the same name), tells the true story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager for the Oakland Athletics who went against decades of baseball wisdom to try something new. Charged with building a competitive team on a tight budget, Billy works with economics whiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to assemble a team based on statistical analysis, a method known as sabermetrics. Instead of paying top dollar for flashy star players, they recruit undervalued players with specialized skills, “recreating” their stars in the aggregate.
Institutions don’t change easily; that goes double for an institution as quintessentially American as Major League Baseball.
But institutions don’t take to change easily; that goes double for an institution as quintessentially American as Major League Baseball. Billy and Peter face hostile reactions from the Athletics’ scouts, fans and team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). “Major League Baseball thinks the way I do,” a scout tells Billy during a heated confrontation. “You’re never gonna win.” Billy counters: “Adapt or die.”
Change takes time, however, and as the team adjusts to the new strategy, the Athletics keep losing and doubts begin to set in. Billy even struggles to convince himself: He’s haunted by past failures—he passed on a full ride to Stanford for what turned out to be a disappointing career as a major league player—and he’s so convinced that he’s cursed that he refuses to watch games live. We see how easy it is for a new venture to die out before it can flourish, smothered by doubt.
Billy and Peter are prophets, and prophets are never accepted at first. By dreaming about what could be instead of accepting what is, they are engaging in what American theologian Walter Brueggemann calls “the prophetic imagination.” (Up to a point, anyway: Brueggemann was writing about challenging the narratives of consumerism and the military-industrial complex, not baseball). In his words: “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy…. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
For a prophet in any context, “We’ve always done it this way” is never an acceptable answer. As Brueggemann writes: “Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk.” Late in the film, a character tells Billy: “The first guy through the wall, he always gets bloody. This is threatening not just a way of doing business... but in their minds, it’s threatening the game. Really, what it’s threatening is their livelihood, their jobs. It's threatening the way that they do things.”
In the end, Billy and Peter can’t convert everyone to a new way of doing things. But in trying, they prove something important: that a new way is possible. Maybe that doesn’t feel like much, especially when the changes we may wish to see in the world are so urgent. In Scripture, the prophets didn’t always see their works bear fruit either; some of them—like many prophets today—met violent ends for their challenging visions. Sometimes a prophet’s greatest accomplishment is to plant the seeds for future change.
“How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Billy asks. “Moneyball” admits that systemic change is slow and frustrating work. But like Billy, the film is romantic at heart and testifies that amazing things can happen when we dare to dream new dreams.
“Moneyball” is streaming on Paramount TV, AMC+, the Roku Channel and DirecTV.