DePodesta refuses to be typecast in ‘Moneyball’

When they were passing out roles for “Moneyball,” the film being created from Michael Lewis’ seminal book on the Oakland Athletics, Paul DePodesta drew the rumpled, doughy guy.

Billy Beane got Brad Pitt.

DePodesta was rather pleased.

He admired the skills of Jonah Hill, who’d starred in “Superbad” and “Knocked Up” – as the rumpled, doughy guy. And he liked Hill when they met to confer over the book and its adaptation.

Paul DePodesta (L) and Jonah Hill.

That Hill looked nothing like him – DePodesta is trim and somewhat bookish in appearance, Hill is not – was of little significance to DePodesta. That he would be portrayed as an Ivy League-bred assistant GM-o-tron, an amalgamation of the computer-wed stat-heads who’d foisted their fancy theories on a perfectly archaic segment of the game was vexing.

Believing the script’s image of him was inaccurate and unable to convince the filmmakers to alter the depiction, DePodesta requested his name be removed from the character. “There were a handful of things,” he said. “Some were factual, others were more ephemeral.” Beane’s new assistant GM, the one played by Hill in the movie, will carry the fictitious name Peter Brand.

“Jonah was awesome,” DePodesta said. “He was so respectful of me and my time. It would have been flattering to be portrayed by someone of his expertise.

“It had nothing to do with the casting. I feel really bad for Jonah. It had nothing to do with him at all. And I think he’s caught a lot of flak about this.”

DePodesta attended Harvard. He owned a computer. For five years beginning in 1999, he helped shape and reform the A’s analyses of the game and its players, some of which challenged long-held assumptions about both. The A’s views weren’t necessarily new, but the book – “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” – brought those theories (along with Beane and his assistant, DePodesta) to the masses. And so DePodesta, with Theo Epstein, Josh Byrnes, Jon Daniels and other young baseball thinkers, came to represent – however accurate – a movement that appeared to value heartless statistics over established evaluation tools such as living, breathing scouts.

The way DePodesta views himself is at odds with how the baseball world viewed his role with the A’s and later as GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He symbolized “Moneyball,” and was never comfortable with it. This is about a man vs. an image he’s long tried to shed, a man never comfortable with being typecast.

When he was playing football and baseball for Harvard, he’d wear khaki pants, a button-down shirt and glasses (rather than his preferred contact lenses) so he wouldn’t be viewed, he said, “As a dumb jock.” Then, after catching on out of school with the Cleveland Indians, for whom he served first as an advance scout, he’d downplayed his schooling so as not to be presumed an Ivy League geek who’d viewed the game over the top of a computer printout.

The latter perception chased him through a two-year, ultimately unfulfilling stint with the Dodgers, who fired him. He caught on with the San Diego Padres and ascended to executive vice president, where he serves both the baseball and business ends of the organization.

Now, seven years after the release of the book, which for him captures part of a time in his life he calls “magical,” DePodesta remains sensitive to portrayals he views as inaccurate, and especially so to those he considers flatly “fictional.”

“At the end of the day,” he said, “I didn’t feel comfortable with my name being attached to a fictitious character.

“When the book was released, I became something of a caricature. I think a caricature plays really well in a movie, more so than the real me. But I’m not particularly fond of the caricature, particularly since it’s not me. I never was that guy before the book came out and I’m not that guy now. I’ve happened to fall into a couple stereotypes in my life and, in general, people are more complex than any stereotype.”

Beane

That view of him, DePodesta said, “Only bothered me when I felt like it was an impediment to do my job or it was an impediment to the organization. The people connected to the movie, they told me, ‘For everyone who knows you, they will never identify the character to you. So, sleep well.’ Well, I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about the dramatically larger number of people who don’t know me. They would have assumed it was truthful.”

The Sony-produced movie, being filmed in part at the Oakland Coliseum, is on its third director (Bennett Miller replaced Steven Soderbergh, who replaced David Frankel), its second or third script and its second casting of DePodesta (Hill replaced Demetri Martin). So, a second name for Paul DePodesta was a minor obstacle, and a favor to DePodesta himself.

“There’s absolutely no malicious intent here or anything like that,” he said. “They’ve been great to me. By the letter of the law, they didn’t need to change my name. I still want it to be a great movie for Billy and a great movie for Major League Baseball. There are no hard feelings at all.”

So the film goes on without him. He joked that, this way, he’ll be able to pass along his version of those years in Oakland to his children (his fourth is due in September) his own way, exaggerating as he sees fit.

“I was there,” he said. “That’s good enough for me. I was lucky enough to be there.”

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Aug 6, 2010