Congratulations to the Writers Guild of America for negotiating a fair deal. Now that the strike has officially ended, it’s worth tying my hobby (baseball writing) to my sometimes-career (feature film development).
There’s an argument to be made that the San Francisco Giants are simply in the second act of a three-act rebuild, and, uh, I guess I’m gonna make it right now. In case you’re unfamiliar with the three act structure of a movie (via Studiobinder.com):
This isn’t a post intended to get into the plusses and minuses of this structure or if every exception disproves its broader utility; there are useful variations, too. Syd Field’s screenwriting book ditches the rising/falling action of the above graphic (again via Studiobinder.com):
And Shakespeare, who wrote the movies of his time, employed a six-act structure, which actually maps to screenplays a bit better, ultimately, and it’s why TV episodes can tell a satisfying story in just an hour.
Graphic by StoryboardThat.com linked via Vox.com article
I don’t think the Giants have any diagram like these up in a conference room or anything like that, but when you get right down to a screenplay as a document, it really is just a detailed road map. You might’ve even heard or read somewhere that scripts are a “blueprint.” That’s an idea that gets used a lot because scripts really do provide the various departments with the instructions for their work. But don’t get lost here by conflating the two: a script is not a story. I’m saying the Giants are in the second act of a story. Let’s map the Giants’ rebuild to the traditional Three Act Structure.
First thing’s first: the 107-win season was a pitch deck. Not a trailer. Not a prequel. Not a reboot. Not an alternate universe. It was simply a proof of concept put together by some people who are great at Photoshop and After Effects and cobbled together existing footage to create something that could convince studios to invest; or, in this case, fans.
With that important point out of the way, let’s breakdown this rebuild story:
Act One: The players but not the system (2019)
This is a very classic setup. The first five pages are the “fixed action” — the world of the story. The Giants were a championship team with many players and the manager from that era. Everyone thought the Giants were a great franchise and after a disastrous 2017 and an historic collapse in September 2018 people were in shock. That’s when we hit the “inciting incident” (usually page 5) where something happens that changes the world.
If we’re casting Farhan Zaidi as our lead character, then the fixed world for him is his success as a man who talked his way into the baseball industry and road a wave of success. Now he has the chance to leave a safe harbor where he’s comfortable for a new challenge: the stinky poopy butt-ass Giants franchise. He’s probably hired by page 10.
Then we spend the next 15-20 pages of him meeting all the relevant personnel of this franchise he’s now about to lead, formulating a strategy for the future in collaboration with a group that’s a mix of the old guard and his new people, even fast-forwarding through his first year at the helm: last hurrah, end of an era, but with some margin moves just to let everyone know he’s there.
He’s working to get future Hall of Famer Buster Posey on board with his scheme, same as Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford. Sure, there’s some friction working with Bruce Bochy and certainly with former GM Brian Sabean haunting the halls, but this act is literally a setup wherein we meet all the key players before Zaidi’s system is established.
That’s because he needs his man. The Mercutio to his Romeo. So, the end of act one — which should be thought of as a point of no return for the character, literally a decision that pushes the main character out of the world they know — comes with the hiring of Gabe Kapler. The first step in getting the players he needs for his program. That’s because of what Act Two is all about...
Act Two: The system but not the players (2020, 2022-2023, ?)
Here’s where the story gets cooking. Act twos usually start off with the optimized version of the movie’s premise. I think Iron Man’s first act ends with his first successful test of the suit so Act Two kicks off with him being Iron Man, eventually leading to the first obstacle. Moneyball’s first act ends with “Billy Beane” hiring “Peter Brand” to bring a new thought process to an old system.
Side note: that hiring scene haunts me to this day because it’s done as a phone call and Peter’s voice on the other end of the line winds up being a literalization of that voice in Billy’s head that confirms his fear: he has no value. “I’d have taken you in the ninth round. No signing bonus.” Who doesn’t have a Peter Brand in their head telling them they suck?
But this is about Act Two! And here we are. Zaidi is free of some legends, some contracts (goodbye Madison Bumgarner) — he’s free to remake the team in his image. BUT THEN — a pandemic! Shortended season! How do you work around it? Double down on the system.
Act twos are all about the premise being challenged by obstacles. Hopefully, those obstacles feel organic to the world that’s been established in the beginning of Act One, and I think that’s true in reality. The Dodgers are a battleship. The Giants are a rotted dingy. It’s an unintentional Major League situation where the team intends to win but doesn’t have the resources to compete, that’s how much stronger the competition is — they’re just richer.
But the system seems like it could work! The past couple of seasons have proven the effectiveness of both platoons and bullpen games. Now, how effective is up for debate. Certainly, results suggest that they’ve been less helpful as the season has progressed, but that just goes back to the bottom line of the team needing some talent.
When you look back through the years you see obstacle after obstacle, affirming the Act Two-ness of it all: COVID-19, Buster’s retirement, Belt’s health, LaMonte Wade Jr.’s health, getting played by Aaron Judge, the bad luck with Carlos Correa’s physical, the Cruise sponsorship, Larry Baer, and on and on and on.
In every Act Two there’s a midpoint, which is an escalation of the premise to, effectively, a second point of no return. After the midpoint we get some more obstacles until there’s an “all hope is lost moment,” or the night is darkest just before the dawn. It’s when the story has to take one more turn — literally, a decision that pushes the main character out of the world they’ve known, the one they created from that first choice to end Act One. Could that mean firing Gabe Kapler? Could that mean swining a big trade? Could that mean landing Shohei Ohtani? Well, probably not that last one. Leave deus ex machina to the Ancient Greeks (or the most recent episode of Ahsoka).
No, a more logical endpoint for an Act Two is after the “all hope is lost” moment a regrouping or deliberation — What do I do now? In North by Northwest, it’s when Roger decides to rescue Eve. I think this is the point in the story where the Giants might be.
Act Three: The system and the players (?)
This is the promise of the premise. A simple harmony.
I don’t think the Giants are here yet. Act Threes can best be described as “I love it when a plan comes together.” It’s not just the details of the plan, though, it’s the character bringing into the mix everything they’ve learned over the course of the story. USC teaches its screenwriting students how to write scripts that best reflect the Hollywood system, and their line is, “Screenplays are nothing more than setups and payoffs.” Introduce an idea in act one? Revisit and add or reinterpret it in act two, then bring it to a logical conclusion in act three. A character have a desire or need in act one? Revist and add or reinterpret it in act two, then give it to them or have them reject it in act three. The example they hold up as a perfect screenplay is Back to the Future.
This offseason might be a great time to get a sense of what the Giants actually want. How many everyday players do they want? Do they even want them? What about starting pitchers? How many? Can they achieve this number in an offseason? The past two seasons have shown they don’t have the personnel to pull off their plan to the level of success they desire. If the last two seasons have been the setup, what would a payoff look like?
Any piece of art or teambuilding that we’ve seen that appears effortless has been the result of so much work. So much human effort. Trial and error. Thinking and rethinking. That’s what Moneyball the movie elides. By virtue of Bobby Evans’ reign of terror, the Giants were bereft of projectable future talent. Zaidi has had to rebuild the Baseball Operations Department in order to rebuild the major league roster. The graduated prospects are a win for the system, but the quality of play — and even their projectability based on the data gathered by their play — leaves a lot to be desired, outside of maybe Patrick Bailey*.
I think the Giants are still in Act Two. They’ve crossed the midpoint and I think the Carlos Correa debacle was their “all hope is lost” moment. Their acquisitions after the fact and the turd of a 2023 season would seem to be their deliberation phase. That’s what I hope, anyway, because it means we’re on the verge of Act Three.