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THE BIG PICTURE

'Moneyball' is circling all the bases

It was only a matter of time -- and enthusiasm on the part of some fans -- until Michael Lewis' book about the Oakland A's was green-lighted.

June 02, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

I have to admit that when Michael DeLuca called me earlier this year, saying he was finally going to get "Moneyball" made into a movie, I figured he must've been smoking the proverbial Hollywood crack pipe.

Anyone who loves baseball has read Michael Lewis' bestseller about how Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane almost single-handedly upended the traditional way baseball evaluates athletic talent. Beane was a prized young baseball player who ended up being picked by the New York Mets in the 1980 major league draft. To the old scouts, Beane was considered a phenom because, well, he looked like a phenom. With his slim, muscular athletic physique, he ran, threw the ball and swung the bat the way great baseball players were supposed to.

But Beane was a bust. He ended up playing only 148 games in the majors, hitting a pathetic .219. So when Beane became a talent evaluator, eventually emerging as the general manager of the Oakland A's, he spent far more time studying arcane statistics like on-base percentage than he did worrying about whether a prospect was tall or lean or chiseled. Beane's shrewd wheeling and dealing and his embrace of the stats-driven science of sabermetrics helped the under-financed A's become a perennial contender in the American League West.

As the story is told by Lewis in "Moneyball," Beane is a classic outlaw hero, thumbing his nose at decades of baseball tradition in his irreverent efforts to transform the sport's hidebound ideas of how to scout talent. Still, it felt like an impossible dream to imagine that Hollywood would possibly transform the Beane saga into a feature film, because the saga has no love story, no real villains and lots of wonky baseball chatter. But sometimes improbable stories do get told. Not only is "Moneyball" set to start shooting on June 11, but the $57-million project is in the hands of a first-class group of talent, with Brad Pitt playing Beane and Steven Soderbergh directing a shooting script penned by the much decorated Steve Zaillian ("Schindler's List").

What's more, having read the final script, I can only say that the story is amazingly faithful to the book, capturing the rebellious energy of Beane as he butts heads with the old-school baseball establishment. Soderbergh, who will serve as his own cinematographer on the film, is so adamant about sticking close to the tone and texture of the book that he is having many of the actual characters involved with the 2002-era events -- including Oakland A's Manager Art Howe, catcher-turned-first baseman Scott Hatteberg and outfielder David Justice -- play themselves.

How did this unlikely project make it to the starting gate? It all started when a woman named Rachael Horovitz decided that she needed some good books to read when she went to Tahiti in 2003 for a much-needed vacation. Having spent years working at Fine Line and Revolution, Horovitz decided to strike out on her own and become a producer. She fell in love with "Moneyball," not so much for its inside take on baseball, but because it was such a compelling example of a workplace drama. "For me, the movie is a love story about a man and his job," she explained the other day.

The film rights were there for the taking. "Every studio had passed on the book," she recalled. Horovitz recruited the screenwriter Stan Chervin, who'd written some other baseball scripts, to help put together a solid pitch. They took it around town, got several bites, but the studio that was the most enthusiastic was Sony, largely thanks to Amy Baer, then a production executive there and a big fan of the book.

"Everyone at Sony was incredibly supportive," Horovitz said. "Of course, they all asked the same question -- how do you make a movie out of it? I kept telling everyone 'This is a story anyone can relate to, because it's basically a second chance story. It's about a guy whose early failure could have doomed him to failure, but managed to turn it into a huge life lesson.'"

Sony teamed Horovitz up with DeLuca, the longtime New Line Cinema production chief who'd also become a producer, with a production deal at Sony. DeLuca had his own reasons for identifying with "Moneyball." If anyone in Hollywood could relate to how Beane turned the A's into a contender without the resources of high payroll teams like the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, it was DeLuca, who for years had pulled rabbits out of hats at New Line, as the studio usually had a fraction of the operating budget of bigger studios like Sony or Warners.

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