"It's hard not to be romantic about baseball," says one of the characters in Moneyball, the new film based on Michael Lewis's book about how a club with scant financial resources could compete successfully against much richer opposition.
There is, indeed, more romance attached to baseball than any other sport I can think of: the artist Saul Steinberg said that "baseball is an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about fate, and sober self-esteem", and it is an often-repeated idea that anyone who wants truly to understand America needs to understand baseball.
It's certainly true that, in the field of literature and film, this Atlanticised form of rounders has inspired many fine works, of which Moneyball is just the latest. While admitting I may be a little parochial here, I think it's a shame that some of the best films about sport – Field of Dreams and Eight Men Out to give two examples – have been about baseball, a game that most in the UK find arcane at best, and often unintelligible.
It's like all the best comedy films being in a language we find very difficult to understand. I've been to a few baseball games, and never really understood what was going on. It felt like a hot dog-eating convention with a game going on at the same time.
The slowly unfolding plot of a baseball encounter is, say adherents, its essential appeal. To me, it felt like ritualised longeur. A friend of mine once explained: usually, you don't want to leave your seat in case something happens, whereas at a baseball game, you leave your seat hoping something happens.
And then there's the statistics, the endless litany of numbers and percentages that form the language of the sport, but which, to the untutored mind, are completely meaningless. Nevertheless, I urge you not to be put off by all this esoterica to go and see Moneyball, and not just for a bravura performance from Brad Pitt.
The clue to the film's relevance and appeal is given away near the end when Pitt, who plays the general manager of the Oakland Athletics club, is shown a video of a player who, embarrassingly, doesn't notice he's hit a home run. "It's a metaphor", he's told. And the film itself is deeply metaphorical.
By showing how Oakland outwitted rivals who had much more money to spend on players, its message is that the traditional way of doing business, and the reliance on conventional wisdom, is not necessarily the most effective in the modern world. There are new ways to succeed, and indeed new ways to govern, that rely on the smart application of research and the courage to adapt rather than the old orthodoxies, and on financial firepower.
It's a thoughtful message, and an absorbing film, even if you don't know a curve ball from a hole in the ground.
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