We open up with real life news footage of the 2001 Post season. It is the Oakland Athletics versus the New York Yankees. It is a close game for most of it, until the bottom of the ninth. The A's have two strikes and the Yankees just have to strike out one last batter. They do, and they win the game.
We see William "Billy" Beane (Brad Pitt) sitting in his truck, flicking a radio on and off listening to the A's losing. Eventually, he gets so mad that he throws the radio out the window. He then gets out of his truck and stomps on it until it is destroyed. Beane heads into his office. A security guard sees him coming and turns off a TV he was watching the game on. Beane tells him that it is OK, and heads inside.
In the post season, the A's lose three of their star players because they were free agents. Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen are leaving the team.
Beane goes to the A's owner and tells him that he needs more money to get better players. The owner scoffs, saying they can't afford a payroll like the New York Yankees. Beane says he understands that, but he needs more to compete better. The owner won't budge, so Beane leaves defeated.
Beane attends a meeting of his scouts in order to find players to replace their departing star players. However, Beane notices his scouts commenting more on the potential players' physical attributes (i.e. how they would sell to fans) rather than any actual talent. Beane interrupts them several times, saying they are just talking about nothing. They are concerned more with what isn't important. Their objective is not to replace three players, but make the most cohesive, WINNING team they can, so they compete with teams like the Yankees. At this moment, they cannot.
Beane travels to the offices of the Cleveland Indians, in order to see if he can procure some players. The General Manager Mark Shapiro (Reed Diamond) vetoes several of Beane's choices because they both know he can't afford them or because the Indians like them. When Beane asks about a low costing player, he sees a young man, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), whisper to another man who whispers to Shapiro. Shapiro vetoes that choice as well. Beane is perplexed by what just happened.
As Beane leaves the office, he confronts Brand and asks what he said to make Sharpio change his mind. Brand tells him that he liked the player, and they listened to him. Brand follows Beane to his car and explains his philosophy, which is inspired by Bill James. Picking players should be more about statistics and averages, not about the usual superficial characteristics that most scouts look for in players. There are countless players that never gotten a fair shake due to silly reasons. However, Brand notes he is one of very few that believe in this viewpoint, and he has to keep quiet about it, or be laughed out of the business.
Beane is clearly intrigued with Brand's theory and for good reason; he used to be a baseball player himself. When he was finishing High School in 1979, he was being recruited by scouts for several major league teams. He had to choose between going pro or following up on a full ride to Stanford University. Beane chose to go pro, and spent ten unspectacular seasons in the MLB, never living up to his supposed potential, yet another burnout in the sports world.
The next night, Beane calls Brand and asks what round would he have put Beane in the draft picks. Brand hesitates for a second, then admits he would have put him in the ninth round. Beane would have found that insulting and he would've went to Stanford instead. Beane tells Brand to pack his bags; he just bought him from the Cleveland Indians.
Brand heads to the A's stadium and sets up his office. Beane meets with him, and Brand gives him the write ups of 51 player evaluations he did. Beane tells Brand he is going to sit in with the scouts during a meeting. On the way in, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) stops Beane and asks for a word, and asks who Brand is. Howe is not happy with his one year contract and wants to renegotiate. Beane says he is trying to put a team together, and he will deal with Howe later. Howe is still not pleased, calling a one year contract, "a lack of faith." Beane tells him that they will talk later, and that Brand is the Asst. General Manager.
Beane takes over the scout meeting. As the scouts begin to talk about their picks, Beane shocks them, saying he wants to look at none of them. They already have a game plan. Beane begins to list some of the players they will recruit, all outcasts in the baseball world, yet ones the A's can afford. Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo), Jason Giambi's brother whose personal life is talked about more than his playing. David Justice (Stephen Bishop), a veteran and pushing forty player who has been traded to several teams. Chad Bradford, a pitcher who has been ostracized because he pitched "funny." Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), a catcher who burned out his elbows who they will teach to play first base. The scouts are aghast at Beane's choices, saying he is disregarding all their hard work. Beane dismisses them, telling them the stats don't lie. "We are card counters, it's time to beat the casino," he says. Beane says all he wants is people that will get on base and thus score runs.
Brand discusses with Beane their goal. They need to score at least 840 runs in the regular season to make it to the post season, while only allowing 645 runs to be scored on them.
Beane and another manager go to Scott Hatteberg's house during Christmas. They explain that they want him to play first base, and though he doesn't know how to, they will teach him. Though they never say it, Beane makes it clear that this will be Hatteberg's only chance to play again. They leave him a contract, and Hatteberg hugs his wife, happy to be given a second chance to do what he loves.
Training camp, Spring 2002. Beane and Howe watch as the players train. Some of them like Hatteberg have a long way to go before they are ready. Howe and others talk to Beane, saying Hatteberg is in no way able to play first base. Beane scoffs at their derision of him; it is the only first day of training.
Beane travels to the house of his ex-wife Sharon (Robin Wright) to pick up his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) for an extended visit. Beane has a cordial but tense relationship with Sharon's new husband. Sharon tells Beane Casey is just coming up the hill as she just talked to her on her cell phone. "A twelve year old with a cell phone?" Beane ponders. Beane notes he will talk that over with Sharon.
Beane and Casey go to a guitar shop, where he plans to buy her one. She finds one she likes and hums a song while she plays. Beane asks her to sing for him. She does, singing beautifully. Beane is surprised and happy how nice she sounds.
The A's season begins. At the first game, Brand learns that Beane does not watch the games, and wants to be texted the play by play. Beane goes to work out while Brand occasionally texts him. Brand notes to him that Pena, their lone star player, is being placed at first base instead of Hatteberg. Beane is concerned by this. They are already considered outcasts; to be ostracized by their own team would kill most of these guys' confidence.
The A's lose the game, and continue to lose many games. Newscasters begin to deride Beane's idea as foolish and dangerous, claiming he is going against decades of how things are done. Beane is becoming more stressed at losing, occasionally throwing chairs out of his office in frustration. Furthermore, he is losing patience with Howe, who is more concerned with his job prospects than doing what Beane wants. Howe is playing a traditional game and benched Hatteberg despite Beane's urging to play him.
After another lost, Jeremy Giambi fools around and dances in the locker room. Beane, having enough, rushes in and breaks the stereo. "Is losing fun?" Beane asks his players (he has previously kept professional distance with them). Giambi shakes his head. "Then why are you having fun?" Beane asks, leaving.
Beane is making ice cream for Casey when she asks if he is going to be fired. Beane asks where she got that idea. Casey said she read it, heard it on the radio etc. Beane tells her not to worry about him. The next day, he sends Casey home with a hug and a goodbye.
Beane and Brand have a meeting with the A's owner. They tell him that they need to stay the course, and give him the expected standings the A's will have at the end of the season. They have bought themselves some time, but the team needs to start winning.
With Beane's involvement, the time starts to form a camaraderie and starts to win a game here and there. Beane has to have a heart to heart with David Justice though. Being a veteran, Justice doesn't believe he needs to listen to Beane. Beane gives it to him straight; Justice is past his prime, but he is not being paid for that. Beane wants the last ounce of talent he has, and Justice still wants to play. In return, Beane needs him to be a mentor and a motivator for the younger guys. Justice takes that to heart and begins to watch over Hatteberg and boost his spirit.
Eventually, Beane has had enough of Howe's interference, decides to make a radical change. He trades several players, including Jeremy Giambi and Pena to force Howe's hand. Beane and Brand ferry calls between three teams in order to play them off each other in order to get what they want. Beane shows Brand how to fire/trade a player, telling him that it needs to be quick and painless as possible, not letting empty empathy get in the way of things. Beane confronts Howe and tells him about Pena being traded. Howe is pissed that his hand is being forced.
With the dead weight gone, the team Beane wants starts playing. And winning. To the shock of the baseball community, the A's begin a long winning streak. It gets to the point they are breaking previous league records of consecutive winning streaks. One mentioned is the 1927 Yankees, considered the best team ever, had a best of 9 wins a row. The A's move up to 19 wins and are proceeding to their 20th...
During the 20th game, Beane is driving in his truck, not paying attention to the game. He is superstitious, not wanting to jinx things. However, a call from Casey convinces him to turn around and go to the stadium. He sees why. In the fourth inning, the A's are up 11-0. Unfortunately, as soon as he arrives, the team falls apart and blows their lead quickly, winding up tied in the ninth. With time running out and two strikes, Scott Hatteberg steps up to the plate. He swings and hits a home run, becoming a hero and allowing the A's to have the longest consecutive winning streak in baseball history.
After the game, Beane and Brand are talking. Beane doesn't look happy and Brand notes they just set a record. "I'm not here for records." Beane says they have to win in the playoffs. If they lose the last game, all of it was for nothing. The community will think they were right in calling them foolish. "They will erase us," Beane grimly states.
2002 Postseason. True to his prediction, the A's lose to the Minnesota Twins. The press has a field day, declaring that while Beane had a great idea, it was doomed to fail. "You don't change baseball," one commentator says.
Beane is depressed by this. "I really wanted to win here." he says. Brand says perhaps he already has. Brand shows him a tape of an Orioles game a few weeks back. A large batter who never had much luck hits a lucky shot. He falls down near first thinking he is about to be called out. But he actually hit a home run and had to be told by his teammates and the opposing team that he did. "He hit a home run without even knowing it," Brand says (the metaphor being despite losing overall, Beane won by showing another way to win in baseball). Beane listens stoically.
Beane takes a meeting with the owner of the Red Sox. They want Beane as their General Manager. The owner thinks Beane and Bill James (who originally came up with the idea) are visionaries and that every team should be stripping themselves down and using this model. But they won't and deride it because it threatens their livelihood. Beane made a team that only cost him $260, 000 a game and had the same amount of wins as the Yankees who spent $1.4 million a game. The owner tells Beane every team that doesn't change to his model will sit on their couch next season while the Red Sox win the world series. The owner gives Beane their offer for the job (we don't see it).
Brand sees Beane back at the A's office. Beane shows him the offer. "This would make you the highest paid General Manager in baseball," Brand says. Beane is less than happy, wondering what the money means in the big picture. Brand says he has to look at it as high paid athletes do; they are paid a lot because they're worth it. Beane nods and leaves, telling Brand he'll call him later.
We last see Beane driving his truck, listening to a mix tape his daughter made.
Title cards state that he turned down the Red Sox's offer of 12.5 MILLION dollars and stayed as the General Manager of the A's.
Two years later, the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, using the same model Beane pioneered.
The last title card notes Beane is still working on winning the last game...
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