Moneyball, Bennett Miller’s new movie starring Brad Pitt, tells the story of Billy Beane, long-time general manager of the Oakland A’s. Based on Michael Lewis’s hugely popular book of the same name, the film chronicles Beane’s attempts in the early 2000’s to practice the “art of winning an unfair game” (Lewis’s subtitle), of combatting the ruthless capitalism of major league baseball by which large-market teams (like the New York Yankees) pay exorbitant salaries to premium players who then produce world-class teams and championship rings.
Beane applied (and still does) sabermetrics (itself a form of ruthless capitalism) to try and beat the unjust system. Rejecting the century-old wisdom of relying on statistics like stolen bases, RBI’s, and batting averages (and the more modern-day, media-driven trend of pursuing likeable, good-looking talent), Beane’s approach is based on the idea that a player’s on-base percentages are a better indicator of offensive success (it’s runs, after all, that win games). Hitting the ball and getting on base are skills that are cheaper to buy on the open market and thus overlooked, undervalued players with these particular skills are a steal (pun unavoidable) for poor teams with a cash-flow problem.
Moneyball is an exuberant fictionalized account of this compelling real-life drama (and that rare sports movie able to resist sentimentality and all the tired clichés about winning, losing, and washed-up athletes). Brad Pitt is pitch-perfect in the part of Billy Beane, as is Jonah Hill, who plays a Yale-educated statistician who introduces Billy to the whole baseball-by-objective-analysis theory of winning. (Hill’s character is based on Harvard alum, Paul DePodesta, currently the VP of scouting and player development for the New York Mets).
Yet what kept coming most to mind as I watched the movie–nerdy theologian that I am–is that inexplicable story in Luke’s gospel: the parable of the shrewd manager. (The parallels aren’t perfect but bear with me). In the story Jesus tells of a rich man who discovers that his business manager has been cheating him, so he summons the manager in order to fire him. In a panic, the manager goes out and restructures the IOUs of all his master’s debtors. “You owe a hundred jugs of olive oil? Make it fifty.” The master is impressed with the dishonest manager’s business acumen and commends him for it. But even more striking is that Jesus does, too. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” he says, offering a takeaway lesson that must have bewildered his followers, and still does.
Through the centuries interpreters haven’t quite known what to make of such a story. In our own time when so much of the gospel is reduced to banal pieties about being a “nice person,” the parable of the shrewd manager is unintelligible. My favorite recent interpretation is summed up beautifully in a sermon by Sam Wells: “It’s too late for the manager to make money, but it’s not too late to build social capital.” The manager knows he’s on a sinking ship, so to speak, so best to make friends who can do him some good when he needs help. Generosity, it turns out, is the best investment.
So Billy Beane wasn’t a swindler or a “squanderer of property” necessarily; he wasn’t particularly dishonest (unless you count the ways that baseball players are sold, swapped, sent down, etc. as calculatingly inhumane). But when his back was against the wall and his job, like the shrewd manager’s, on the line, he got crafty. He didn’t reject the stacked-deck system of baseball economics so much as he reshuffled the cards. And while he started out with lots of enemies (most in his own organization) he soon found friends. Major League Baseball, with its cutthroat deals and high romance, couldn’t sustain Billy ultimately as a human being–as a friend and a father searching for a more lasting home (Lk. 16:4,9).
When the Boston Red Sox came calling after the improbable success of the A’s 2002 season, Billy turned down their $12.5 million offer. His pre-teen daughter in California would need him; the A’s might have a shot next year (post-season success still eludes them). But in staying with friends–in participating in another kind of oikonomia–Billy Beane would find a home to be welcomed into.
Who knew? Jesus and baseball. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.