No crying in baseball? Sure.
HOW DO you make a chick flick for guys? Make it about baseball. Men aren’t supposed to cry at the movies, unless it’s “Field of Dreams,’’ and the father and son are playing catch in the cornfield. Then the waterworks begin.
I’m not sure there’s been an equivalent male tearjerker since; at least, they’re the rare exception. When I saw “Moneyball’’ at a megaplex the other day, I sat through previews for the sorts of messages Hollywood assumes men want: “Immortality’’ (endless swordfights, from the producers of “300’’) , “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’’ (middle-aged Swede solves crime, attracts women), and the biopic “J. Edgar’’ (which seems to posit that Hoover had serious mommy issues).
Then came the feature, which dwells on Brad Pitt’s sad blue eyes as he inhabits Billy Beane, the general manager of the underdog Oakland A’s - a man still haunted by his own past as a once-promising ballplayer who never fulfilled the scouts’ expectations. The movie shows Pitt emoting in the weight room, getting misty over the thought of leaving his daughter for a job at Fenway Park. Most of all, it shows him teaching discarded players that they really have potential, so long as they believe in themselves. It’s Hit, Pray, Love.
“Moneyball’’ also happens to be the perfect cap on the emotional week-and-a-half that Boston has endured, with fans and columnists wailing about the Red Sox’s demise, the reintroduction of crushing loss, the exit of a beloved manager who couldn’t turn his players into humans. A common theme is that this team wasn’t underdog enough, that it had money but no heart. And then to top it off, the front office guys stood at press conferences and lied to us - lied! at press conferences! - about their relationships with each other.
In other words, please use all of the statistical and financial resources that are at your disposal to engineer us a winning team next year. But it must also come with a heartwarming tale of emotion and inspiration.
What baseball reveals, and relies on, is the disconnect between what people think they want and what they actually want. “Moneyball’’ is supposed to be about the triumph of rationality: the way Sabermetrics, a deep statistical analysis of players, helped Oakland’s rosterful of rejects go on a 20-game winning streak, and later helped the Red Sox break the curse.
But in order to have a dramatic arc, the movie rejects its own premise. Yes, Beane ignores the advice of old-school scouts, who dwell on such intangibles as whether a guy with an ugly girl-friend can be confident on the field. He casts his lot with the nerdy Yale grad with the economics degree. But his team only starts getting good when he stops avoiding contact with the players - the better to fire them at a later date - and starts entering the clubhouse to give pep talks.
Fans want this from their teams: More wins, but also more talk. Statistics and pop psychology. We want to know how John Lackey’s personal life factors into his ERA. (And while he’s under no obligation to answer, he can’t be surprised when those questions are asked. You make the big bucks for a big-league team, and media interest is part of the deal.) The sports-talk hordes, who pride themselves on sharp armchair analysis, are as emotional a crowd as you can find - the AM radio equivalent of chick-lit devotees.
Similar emotions show up in guy movies. Football films traffic in personal toughness. Basketball films deal with inspiration. Old-school buddy movies have their moments of bromance. Judd Apatow’s gross-out humor masks sweet stories of young men and mutual support.
But only baseball - in the movies and real life - has the constant specter of grown men in love: Piling onto home plate, as they do more than once in “Moneyball,’’ with genuine expressions of joy. There’s an emotional arc to be grafted on every meaningful win. And you don’t need Brad Pitt to make that stuff sing.