Jean Marbella: Watching 'Moneyball,' living with losing ball

How great was that Wednesday night, when the Orioles, perennial wallflower at the baseball party, finally got in on the action?

But also, and alas, how fleeting.


As crazy thrilling as it was to watch the O's, down to their last strike, beating the Red Sox and eliminating them from the postseason, it got us nowhere near there, either. So here we are, watching the playoffs from the sidelines as usual, only this time with a bit of schadenfandom to keep us warm.

To forestall my usual October bitterness, I decided to go see the new baseball movie, "Moneyball," on Thursday. I figured it would stretch out the bliss of that sweet, sweet final game, tide me over until the playoffs started on Friday and, well, OK: Brad Pitt.


He stars as Billy Beane, the real-life general manager of the Oakland Athletics who as a way of competing with the wealthy teams like the Yankees — sound familiar? — turns to "sabermetrics," a stats-driven approach to finding undervalued and thus affordable players.

It was funny to watch a movie set nine years ago, as the 2011 season is heading toward the World Series, especially because the computerized spreadsheet approach, depicted in "Moneyball" as new and radical, has since become so commonplace.

Did you see how even Nate Silver, the fivethirtyeight guy who normally crunches political poll numbers, worked up a formula to determine just how improbable Wednesday night's outcome was. The New York Times blogger's conclusion: There was a one in 278 million chance that the Red Sox would be blown out of the playoffs in such a dramatic fashion, which apparently is even less likely than getting struck by lightning twice in your life.

But from the vantage point of the Orioles, not all that much has changed over the course of those years — at least as far as getting into the playoffs. In the movie as now, the O's play their now accustomed role on the sidelines.

(By the way, I have to wonder if any Orioles decided to go see "Moneyball" when I did. During a scene in which Beane coaches his assistant on how to tell a player he's been let go — he favors a cold, no-frills dispatch — I heard a guy a couple rows behind me chuckling knowingly and affirming, "That's right.")

The O's do provide a plot point of sorts — they beat the Athletics in a game that, at least in the movie, triggers Beane to go bonkers. Passing by the clubhouse after the game and hearing the players laughing it up despite being mired in a losing streak, he starts smashing things and dresses down the goof-offs. As the players stare back in either stunned or sullen silence, Beane tells them, "This is what losing sounds like."

Exactly. I grew up a Cubs fan — I barely survived their '69 collapse — but that whole "lovable loser" thing that cropped up around them makes me crazy. There's nothing adorable or even inevitable about losing, and that, more than even the gee-whiz stats-juggling, is what "Moneyball" gets.

In any event, Beane busts up his underperforming team, brings in some new finds and forces the manager to use the players he's pinned his strategy on. Which results in: Winning! At least to a certain point. The A's go on a record-breaking winning streak, although in the end even Brad Pitt can't get them to the World Series.


Some have used that to dismiss sabermetrics as voodoo calculus. And, in a sense, with so many teams adopting its precepts to varying degrees, it may be a wash at this point. Among its most devoted adherents, after all, are the now-vanquished Red Sox, although they also are one of the biggest-spending teams, so who knows what is to credit or blame for their flameout this year?

Maybe I'm still dazzled by the wild end to the regular season this week, but I have to think there's a way out of the years-long wilderness for the O's. With apparently some changes in store in the team's leadership ranks during the off-season, maybe the team could be the one that, this time, comes up with the next big thing in baseball.

It sure would be great to watch it unfold at Camden Yards, rather than in a movie theater.