My pal Jon Luff would never claim to be a bigger fan of baseball than me, but he has taken his appreciation of the movie Moneyball, the adaptation of the 2003 Michael Lewis best-seller, further than I ever did.
The film, featuring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, had to wait eight years after Lewis disseminated in popular form fundamental insights gleaned by an obscure clan of baseball-mad statisticians, insights which continue to reverberate through every professional ballpark. No longer obscure, these number-crunchers of the National Pastime are known as sabermetricians owing to the lucky acronym SABR–the Society for American Baseball Research.
As a book, Moneyball remains the Rosetta stone to understanding modern baseball–how teams choose players, how players approach the game, how skippers go about managing–since the mainstream adoption of sabermetrics. While the book teems with memorable, often hilarious vignettes, the movie goes further in humanizing the curious intersection of baseball and mathematical analysis, an enhancement largely achieved through Brad Pitt’s quietly nuanced portrayal of Billy Beane.
My pal Jon loves the movie for reasons beyond baseball or statistics. Jon appreciates Moneyball as a philosophical template.
Jon and I are lifelong runners and we met through running in 1999. Luff was back at his alma mater pursuing a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering (some years earlier, he’d earned a bachelor’s from Princeton as an English major while bolstering a formidable squad of cross-country/middle-distance runners which included Joe LeMay.) Just recently opened, the Princeton Running Company began hosting its now-celebrated Thursday night runs. That’s where our paths first paralleled.
I soon found that hoofing long distances comprised one of our many shared sensibilities. Jon’s just as happy to talk about theoretical engine designs for interstellar spacecraft as the choice details Hemingway drops into his short story “Big Two-Hearted River.” But while Jon has some grounding in the lore and daily doings of Major League Baseball, he can reel off the name and personal best of every great miler since Roger Bannister and empirically chart the suspect progress of 10,000-meter times since Lasse Virén won consecutive gold medals in the 1972 and ’76 Olympic Games.
Sure, Chariots of Fire will always be a touchstone, but it’s a baseball movie that’s been getting it done lately for this Renaissance man of a runner:
I find Moneyball always has a little moment that perfectly sums up what I am going through at any particular point in my life. For instance, I find the line, ‘take some pitches, there’s no clock on this’ works with my life right now. There’s no clock on this–I keep that line in my mind when I am taking my kids to sports practice, school, helping them with homework–take some pitches, Jon, there’s no clock on this.
What a beautiful, incredibly apt mantra for this device-addled age in which we live.
Since my teenage days running cross-country in high school, it’s been my experience that distance runners are a cut-above. What draws people to long-distance running and what keeps them coming back for more often presupposes a meditative mindset, a philosophical bent that bends heavy on the stoic side.
I’ve read Moneyball three times; I won’t state how many times I’ve watched the flick because I don’t want to scare off my readership. Jon Luff has read the book and he’s watched the film a few times too. Only Jon has gained more than an inside scoop on the new breed of baseball executive, he’s found something he can really use in his daily life, something that will take him further than a free trip down to first.
Now that’s learning from the movies.