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Mallory McDuff, Ph.D.

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Moneyball, Wall Street and Change

Posted: 09/29/11 12:00 PM ET

We might want to pay attention when a movie with the title "Moneyball" opens the same week that protesters occupy Wall Street and Republicans leaders protest President Obama's call for the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes.

The game of baseball, as depicted in "Moneyball" is about statistics; our current national pastime of political wrangling about taxation is about math, as Obama reminded us from the Rose Garden. But the movie -- and our fate as a country -- is also about openness to change, innovative problem-solving, and a moral ground that will benefit the team, rather than showcase individual players.

Here's a quick primer on "Moneyball": based on the 2003 book, the film stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the general manager of the small market team, the Oakland A's. With help from Yale economics graduate Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, the general manager decides to recruit players who get on base most often, rather than star players who can throw the farthest or hit the most home runs.

Many of the scenes in the movie hold truths for a country struggling to gain momentum with 9 percent unemployment and disillusionment with corporate and political leaders. As we head into this election season, we must remember that in the end, the "team" is our entire country, which risks a big-time loss if we cannot regain our vision and power as one nation under God.

"There are rich teams, and there are poor teams; then there is 50 feet of crap. And then there's us," says general manager Beane, describing the gap between winning major league teams and the Oakland A's.

The cardboard signs of protesters occupying Wall Street reflect a similar gap between corporate profits and the household economics of the middle class: "We are not leaving -- not while the richest 1 percent own 75 percent of the USA's wealth," and "Wall Street is our street." Such disparity creates an image of the middle class, like the Oakland A's in the film, as an "undervalued island of misfit toys." But we must remember that social movements in this country have not relied on star political leaders, but rather on a common identity of those who aim for justice for all. Our history and abilities as organizers, even as underdogs, can mobilize our power to revision our country.

"We've got to think differently," implores Beane to a roomful of aging baseball scouts, who consider the merits of players and their girlfriends in the same sentence.

In the movie, the Oakland A's become a successful team by employing a new way of thinking, this innovative approach that targets players who get on base. Just as Beane challenges outdated perspectives, we must counter the business-as-usual approach of many politicians more intent on their individual scores (read election results) than our fate as a nation. We have to think differently, not just blame the existing power structures and decision-makers.

"If we win with this team, we'll have changed the game," Beane says to his right-hand stats man Peter Brand.

Creative thinking and risk-taking can change the game of baseball, but also the world. The Oakland A's questioned an existing recruiting system that had worked for 150 years: those questions threatened a way of life for the scouts. Such is the perceived threat faced by the mega-rich today in our country. Many of the protesters on Wall Street are youth, who face an 18 percent unemployment rate, double the national average. Using a sports metaphor, Washington Post opinion writer James Downie states, "youth have skin in this game," especially given that the average college graduate carries $27,000 in debt at graduation. Only imaginative thinking will sustain a vibrant, civil society that now includes young and old, rich and poor.

* * * *

Baseball as a metaphor for life may seem as cliché as quoting Yogi Berra or "A Field of Dreams." But it really isn't over until it's over. We must ask the hard questions that can lead to rebuilding a nation where we want to raise our children, where there is justice for all.

Theologian Richard Rohr notes that easy answers, instead of hard questions, allow us to want to change others, rather than allowing God to change us. "We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking," he says. That liminal place between knowing and unknowing, that openness to change, can prepare us to reform the institutional systems that create these enormous gaps between wealthy and poor.

As Babe Ruth once said, "The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime." With the bases loaded and the stakes high, it's now our turn to play ball.