This is Throwbacks, a weekly-ish newsletter by me, Michael Weinreb, about sports history, culture and politics. Welcome to all new readers/subscribers, and if you like what you’re reading, please subscribe and share, however you feel comfortable sharing. (It’s still free to subscribe: Just click “None” on the “subscribe now” page.) The best way you can help out is by spreading the word as much as possible. That said, I have set up payment tiers, if you wish to give something—I’ve made them as cheap as Substack will let me make them, which is $5 a month or $30 a year.
I had an idea a few weeks ago about how to evolve this newsletter, and that idea was to start writing more regularly about sports movies, both iconic and obscure, both great and terrible. I’ve done this a few times in the past, but if I was going to turn it into an ongoing series, I figured I might as well start by writing about the tenth anniversary of the most improbably great sports movie of the 21st century, a movie that went through dozens of iterations helmed by a handful of talented people before it settled into its final form. That movie is 2011’s Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller and co-authored by two of the best screenwriters in Hollywood, Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, based on a book by perhaps the best American non-fiction writer of his era, Michael Lewis.
Moneyball now lands regularly on the lists of best sports movies of all-time, but if anything, I think it is underrated. I think it’s the most improbably great movie of the 21st century, period, and arguably the best performance of Brad Pitt’s career. And I will get to the movie in a moment. But first, I’m going to write about a dog.
I apologize in advance for writing about a dog, because stories about dogs are so often trite and sentimental, and I’m sure this one is no different, so if you want to stop right here, I won’t blame you. Then again, I guess I felt that way about dog stories before I got a dog of my own—which is not a decision I made actively, but one that fell into my arms, almost as if by some divine course of fate. I’d never owned a dog in my life until five years ago; when I was a very small child, we adopted a Siamese cat who got into so many fights around the neighborhood that we literally nicknamed her “Trouble,” and after that, my parents were no longer pet people.
But five years ago, on my third date with my girlfriend, we were walking through Golden Gate Park when she mentioned that she was considering adopting a 12-year-old chihuahua from a senior dog shelter called Muttville. This dog had been found wandering the streets of Rancho Cucamonga, California, all by herself; after the shelter performed surgery on her, she had roughly three teeth remaining. At this mention, I had two opposing thoughts: Either this woman is nuts, or she is one of the kindest and most loving people I’ve ever met. (Fortunately, it turned out to be the latter.)
The dog’s given name at the shelter was Meredith, but she was not really a Meredith. She was neurotic and headstrong and stubborn, an alpha dog trapped in a nine-pound body. (She intimidated the other, larger dogs in her walking pack so much that they steered entirely clear of her.) So my girlfriend named her Frida, after the painter Frida Kahlo. It was perfect.
Frida was not a particularly dynamic dog at age 12. Her favorite pastime was to wander around a pungent patch of grass that overlooked the San Francisco Bay that was frequented by so many other dogs that we dubbed it “the poop knoll.” If you threw her a toy, she’d look at you like you were an idiot, as if to say, “What the hell I am supposed to do with this squeaking spheroid if I cannot consume it for sustenance?” She growled at strangers. She growled at other dogs. She growled at friends sometimes. She urinated and defecated in all the wrong places. She slept with her tongue hanging out, like an aspirant Michael Jordan. Her sole motivating factor in life was food. One day, I led her around the room with a piece of cheese in my hand, and she began barking more excitedly than she had since we met her. She would do that for hours, if she could. We called it “Chase the Treat.”
One thing you learn when you have a dog is that they are all entirely unique. And all utterly strange. And it is odd how often their difficulties and neuroses seem to mirror your own difficulties and neuroses, and it is wild how often their odd predilections and enjoyments also seem to wind up mirroring your own. “She doesn’t really do much,” my girlfriend’s brother said upon meeting her, and that only led me to love her more.
Moneyball is not really a baseball movie. It’s a movie about a man who challenges the entrenched ideas of the establishment. It is about a man who sees something worthwhile in flawed athletes who are otherwise viewed as as castoffs. As mutts. Pitchers with side-armed deliveries that make no logical sense; career catchers who are wedged in to the lineup at first base. Aging veterans whose careers are considered over.
But it is also a movie about a man trying to chase away his own failures: Most notably, a divorce and a disappointing baseball career. That he does all of this in the Bay Area, I would like to think, is not entirely a coincidence: Long before the tech-bros took over the culture and the housing prices soared, the Bay Area was the place you came to reinvent yourself, to challenge the status quo, to do things your own way, to embrace who you really were. It was a place for lost dogs of all kinds. Including me.
When I moved to San Francisco not long after Moneyball’s release, I had no intent of reinventing myself. But then came my own divorce, and the repeated collapse of the journalism industry under the weight of the Internet (particularly when it came to the sort of long-form work that had been my strength). I was forced to re-examine who I was, and what mattered to me, and how I wanted to live the second half of my life. I was truly lost; for a couple of years there, I felt as if I was wandering the streets entirely on my own. But man, did I love walking the streets of San Francisco, absorbing the city’s fickle weather, contemplating its deeply rooted problems, studying its fascinating history. Then I met a girl and I met a dog, and everything changed.
There it is. The trite and sentimental part.
And maybe I’m overstating things. Maybe Moneyball is just a goddamn baseball movie. But to me, Moneyball is about reinvention. It is about facing our failures and our tragedies and our weaknesses and using them to make ourselves stronger. And those are things we’re all confronting these days, as we emerge, exhausted, into a brand new world.
We’re saying goodbye to Frida at a strange time, at the exact moment when my girlfriend and I will be fully vaccinated, as we stumble out of one of the darkest and most contentious periods in American history with no real clue of what might come next. There is so much to mourn, as this recent This American Life episode makes clear; there is so much baggage that we’ll have to parse as we attempt to plow forward with our lives. And there is, it would seem, a desire to reinvent so many elements of our society that have proved utterly dysfunctional at least over the past four years, if not since the founding of America itself.
They say when grieving that you should not minimize your loss in comparison to others. Still, I’m a rational human being. I know that losing a 17-year-old dog who spent her first 12 years on the street is a loss worth mourning, but it is not a tragedy. A tragedy is what happened to Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, whose teenaged daughter recently died in a car accident. I cannot imagine that kind of pain and loss, just as I cannot imagine the kind of pain and loss that comedian Rob Delaney describes in that This American Life episode, upon losing his two-year-old child to a brain tumor—just as I cannot imagine what it must have been like this past year for the thousands of people who lost loved ones without even being able to spend their final moments with them.
But I guess what I’m trying to say, very clumsily, is that we’ve all been forced to come to terms with suffering in some way this past year. Unless you’re a sociopath, this year has heightened your sense of your own fragility. And in the midst of all this emotion, we’ve all had to re-examine what exactly it is we’re going to value in the short time we actually exist on this earth.
It’s true: Frida didn’t really do much. Especially these past couple of years. But she didn’t have to do much. There was no reason she should still have been here at all; her ongoing survival was in itself a miracle. She was a mutt who suddenly served a purpose, because we saw the value in her. Turned out she was a market efficiency that no one realized how to take advantage of; you merely had to alter the way you viewed her strengths, and in so doing, just by watching her sit there and roll on her belly for dinner and sniff grass and roam around the kitchen floor for hours in search of a single crumb and occasionally chase a pigeon twice her size, she would allow you re-evaluate your entire outlook on life.
There is a scene at the end of Moneyball that might have veered into the trite and sentimental with lesser writers and with a lesser director and with lesser actors, but here, it does not. It culminates with the line, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
I suppose the same goes for dogs. Even old and misshapen and irascible dogs. That dog was there as I climbed into the rebuilt second half of my life. And I always knew that she wouldn’t be here for long. But it was long enough.
This newsletter is a perpetual work in progress. Thoughts? Ideas for future editions? Contact me via twitter or at michaeliweinreb at gmail, or leave a comment below. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please subscribe and/or share it with others.