Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy Columbia Pictures/MCT
“Brad (Pitt) couldn’t have been more of a gentleman,” the real Billy Beane said of the actor who portrays him in “Moneyball.”
Brad Pitt steals the picture, as deftly as Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane altered the way CEOs solve problems inside baseball and throughout the business world.
But typical of the bestseller, the "Moneyball" movie that hits theaters Friday comes with a new twist on conventional wisdom.
"This is the only time Brad Pitt has ever played someone who is actually better looking than he is," Charleston RiverDogs co-owner Gene Budig said.
Beane, 49, is still coming to grips with the whole thing. Sure, he developed a rock-star persona in California for making creative use of statistics and other non-traditional baseball formulas to keep the financially strapped A's competitive with the powerful New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Beane, who lived briefly in Charleston as a child, has talked to corporate groups from here to the Deutsche Bank in Paris about "market inefficiencies." Start-up bosses love Beane's "card counting" approach to catching up. Tired industries full of dead weight lock onto his "under- valued assets" lectures.
But he never thought Michael Lewis' 2003 book would reach the big screen.
"Absolutely not," Beane said by phone from Oakland. "In fact, I told Michael after he told us he was going to write the book that we didn't think anybody was going to buy it. So the idea that, here we are with the movie about to come out nine years later, it's even more surprising."
The book details how Beane embraced sabermetrics -- statistical analysis spun by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) -- to help make prudent decisions. Offending baseball traditionalists, Beane brought in stat geeks with no baseball experience and ignored veteran scouts.
The A's valued on-base percentage and walks over contact hitters and speed. They carefully opted for polished college players over raw high school talent in building a pitching staff of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder.
They made a mockery of flawed subjective scouting and made the playoffs.
And did so, in 2002, with a $41 million payroll dwarfed by the New York Yankees' $125 million.
Ties with Tanner
"The book is about using statistics," said Beane, who became the A's GM in 1998. "It's about using a more objective way of making decisions through the use of metrics. It's about not viewing things myopically."
The movie holds to reality, sort of.
"It's very well done," Beane said, "but it's a movie."
Ray Tanner plans to see it. The head coach of South Carolina's 2010 and 2011 College World Series champions loved the book and was delighted a few years ago to receive a phone call out of the blue and out of the Lowcountry.
Beane was coming to Charleston to speak at a business function. Someone asked Tanner to serve as Beane's host.
"I said, 'Man, I'd love to,' " Tanner said.
There they were, having lunch in Charleston, Billy Beane and Ray Tanner.
"We talked a lot," Tanner said.
Beane doesn't turn down many local invitations. He lived here briefly when his late grandfather, Elmer Adrian, was in the Air Force and stationed in Charleston. Jeff Beane, Billy's younger brother, was born in Charleston in 1965.
As a kid in the Lowcountry, Beane honed a baseball arm that eventually would help make him a New York Mets first-round draft pick.
"My next door neighbor had a Sheltie named Happy," he said. "We used to throw pine cones that she would retrieve. The backyard seems like the whole world when you're that young.
"I've been back to Charleston a number of times since then and it's a great, great town. I always enjoy going there. As a kid, my memories are my grandparents and the mugginess in the summer."
Tough times in Oakland
As a baseball executive, Beane knows Brad Pitt will be up high in his obituary. The trailers have Pitt nailing the brashest Billy.
"Brad couldn't have been more of a gentleman," Beane said. "He was incredibly respectful of the fact that I had a job that takes up a significant amount of my time. He was great, and he was great to everyone in the organization.
"He's very intelligent and has a great sense of humor. He's one of those guys that seems like a very grounded person, and he makes you feel very comfortable right from the beginning."
Since Beane started in Oakland, many other Major League teams have borrowed "Moneyball" tactics, including the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. Budig, a former American League president, points out that "Moneyball" fans include multi-billionaire Warren Buffet.
But times are tough in Oakland now.
The A's, after finishing a surprisingly strong 81-81 in 2010, have clinched a losing season and have the worst stadium situation in baseball.
Only the A's and Florida Marlins share a stadium with an NFL team, and the Marlins have a new stadium coming in 2012. Oakland's new stadium plans keep getting rejected.
"We're in a more challenging situation now than we were 10 years ago," Beane said. "A lot of it is based on the uncertainty and inability to secure a new venue. We're falling farther and farther behind the curve."
Baseball is abuzz with rumors that Beane finally will take that bigger offer and bolt, maybe for the infamously sad-sack Chicago Cubs.
If that happens, there might be a sequel.