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‘Moneyball’ plays it slow and steady

IN "MONEYBALL," we learn that cash-strapped baseball GMs in places like Oakland, Calif., can use algebra to find enough undervalued players to field a competitive team.

IN "MONEYBALL," we learn that cash-strapped baseball GMs in places like Oakland, Calif., can use algebra to find enough undervalued players to field a competitive team.

To which we in Philadelphia say: Good luck with that, small-market America.

Atop the mountain of our $178 million payroll, we get a different view of baseball economics.

Paying T.J. Maxx prices for walks and singles, that's nice, but so is a Cy Young winner who earns $20 million. Two or three, even better.

When we need a righthanded bat, we go to baseball Tiffany and pick out the nicest one in the window. (About the only thing that "Moneyball" and Phillyball have in common is the idea that whenever you really need something, you can get it from former Phillies general manager Ed Wade.)

We have a World Series, five straight division championships and a hundred wins, Oakland has . . . a very high base percentage.

So the movie's idea to position Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane as a crusader/reformer whose number-crunching methods changed baseball forever seems to conflict a bit with reality, certainly with what Phillies fans have seen with their own eyes.

"Moneyball," for instance, plays up the conflict between Beane and a manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who doesn't think baseball can be reduced to a mathematical model.

The manager sounds a little like Charlie Manuel, who's about to become the winningest manager in Phillies history, and an intuition guy if ever there was one.

He makes all sorts of nutty moves that have no short-term logic, but are long-term brilliant. So when he needs a Geoff Jenkins or a Matt Stairs to come confidently off the bench and get a postseason hit, he has one.

He doesn't manage to win one game in June. He manages to win 11 in October.

I'd love to get Manuel's take on "Moneyball," which opens with a scene of Manuel-ish old-school baseball gents at a table, discussing prospects, using venerable baseball jargon to express antique baseball thinking.

It's like a riff on the old FedEx commercials about the post office - aged, obsolete, inefficient.

And, in truth, the scene works like a charm. It's a brilliant, funny sequence that smartly and vividly defines and evokes the movie's themes. I'll wager that it was scripted by Aaron Sorkin (he co-wrote with Steve Zaillian), and it's every bit as good as the prologue he wrote for "The Social Network" last year.

At the head of the table is the exasperated Beane (Brad Pitt), who desperately wants to find a new way of doing things. He needs a radical new mix of baseball and economics, and finds it in a Yale math whiz (Jonah Hill) who has assimilated newfangled theories about (for instance) the importance of on-base percentage relative to more glamorous measurements of productivity (homers, RBIs).

"Moneyball" is the story of their embattled attempt to reform the Oakland A's and baseball with these new metrics. It has some rah-rah moments, but this is only nominally a sports movie, in style or tone.

It's actually about cultural change, tradition versus innovation, built to resonate in a rapidly evolving, 21st-century digital world.

The dramas and relationships that matter are off the field, and they sort of feel like Oakland A's baseball - a lot of walks and singles, not a lot of home runs.

"Moneyball" always has Pitt at the center, but meanders (for 140 minutes) among a large array of Beane's relationships, with his rebellious manager, scouts, owner, clubhouse protege, star player, ex-wife (Robin Wright) and daughter (Kerris Dorsey, who ends up making the biggest impression).

Then there is Beane's relationship with himself and his own contradictions - a man tired of baseball superstitions who can't shake his own, as haunted by his past as an overhyped baseball prospect.

I like what Pitt does here with an atypically internalized role, but he needs more help from the movie around him, one that never really captures the zing of its first, best scene.