If Moneyball walks away with any Oscars tonight, the Cleveland Indians should share in the credit.
The drama includes an extended scene set in Cleveland; an actor playing Indians President Mark Shapiro; and a character based on Paul DePodesta, a former Indians assistant now working for the New York Mets.
Moneyball, based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, looks at how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane went beyond standard baseball statistics in 2001-02 to find excellent but underrated players who could be obtained with the A’s modest budget. It is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor (Brad Pitt, who plays Beane), best supporting actor (Jonah Hill, as the Podesta-inspired Peter Brand), adapted screenplay (by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, both previous Oscar winners), editing and sound mixing.
The Indians are important because Beane comes to Cleveland to deal with then-General Manager Shapiro (played by Reed Diamond) for pitcher Ricardo Rincon. Beane’s efforts are stymied, with Brand repeatedly whispering objections to the terms. Recognizing someone who knows baseball, Beane soon hires Brand to help him remake the A’s.
The Indians became involved in the movie through Major League Baseball, which has a division handling the licensing of team images for movies and television. If, say, NCIS wants to use a Joe Charboneau baseball card in an episode, or a movie home has an Indians poster on a wall, Major League Baseball first decides whether it approves; then the Indians get the final say. Revenue — which a Major League Baseball spokesman declined to specify — goes to MLB; after its expenses are deducted, the revenue is divided evenly among all the teams.
Real life vs. movie
Those arrangements do not require that a movie be completely factual. As good as Moneyball is, it takes dramatic license, including in the Indians visit, which was not shot in Cleveland.
Indeed, before a screening of the movie, Indians executive Bob DiBiasio told his wife, “Hit me if I start nit-picking.”
There were nits to pick. DiPodesta, for one, “wanted nothing to do with the movie,” said DiBiasio, the Indians’ senior vice president for public affairs. So the Brand character was created — and the short, portly Hill does not resemble DiPodesta, whom DiBiasio called “a dark-haired guy, Italian, skinny, maybe 6-foot, 6-1.”
The Indians’ offices are not quite like the ones in the movie. Shapiro was not general manager at the time of the supposed Beane meeting; John Hart was.
“Mark and Billy Beane are close friends, so Mark was willing to have himself be portrayed in the movie to help Billy out,” DiBiasio said.
And, he said, “We know a GM would never travel to another city to sit in an office to talk about a guy like Ricardo Rincon. You wouldn’t even do that to talk about Albert Pujols. That’s what the telephone is for.”
Similarly, a later scene where Beane is working the phones to make a deal did not ring true. “They had Billy doing what probably three or four people are doing. If you’re in the works for a trade of one guy and you’ve got three or four teams on the hook ... one guy’s on email to one team, one guy’s texting to another team, one guy’s on the phone to another team, and Mark is on the phone. ... But to show what they wanted to show about Billy, that’s how they wanted to portray it.”
Bigger hand in production
The Indians had some say in how the team was presented in the movie. In fact, the last time DiBiasio remembers such close involvement with a film was when the original Major League was made in 1989; in that case, he said, “I went through [the script] with a red pen, and gave opinion on things.” (He did not get to see the script for the sequel and said he does not know why.)
“Most of the Indians references were pretty on point,” he said of that movie. Still, he deleted a reference to Rocky Colavito that he found disparaging, and objected to the use of a red tag in a locker to tell a player he was being cut. While “that doesn’t happen,” DiBiasio said that the moviemakers insisted they needed the visual flourish and it stayed in.
Moneyball came more than 20 years after Major League, and movie technology allowed even more direct scrutiny of the movie. Where with Major League DiBiasio simply mailed his script notes to writer-director David Ward, for Moneyball he not only read the script beforehand, but he was also able to see what was shot, including any off-script improvisations.
“I had to have our IT department reconfigure my laptop so I had enough power to accept the dailies that were sent for all Indians-related scenes,” Di-?Biasio said. “They’d shoot a scene four different ways and I’d have to get back to them and say yes to Scene 42A and no to Scene 42B.”
He had six hours to look at footage and get back to the filmmakers; if he did not reply in time, they could choose whichever scene they wanted.
“I would get these at all different hours,” he said. “During a two-week period, I’d go to bed at midnight and I’d wake up at 5 and go directly to my laptop to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”
He found it fun to see the different approaches to scenes. And, most of the time, what he saw was acceptable. But he did draw the line at some representations.
“One of the scenes they shot, Billy Beane is sitting there and they portrayed it as Mark’s first day as general manager. And Billy says, ‘Hey, Mark, you look good in that chair your first day. That chair fits you.’ And Mark leans back, puts his arms on the armrest and said, ‘Yeah, I feel like Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise.’ And I was like, no, no, I don’t think we’ll have Mark portrayed that way. ... I thought it was a goofy line. With the other options that were available, that was one that didn’t make sense. Mark wouldn’t talk like that.”
And how were things when he went to that screening? “I didn’t [nitpick] at all,” Di-?Biasio said. “It worked. I liked it. I liked the way it represented us. ... It gave people a sense of how things have changed in terms of how you try to evaluate a player and how you put a team together.”
Moneyball is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.