The Billy Beane way still works for A’s, and team’s owner
As the calendar turned to September, with the Oakland Athletics in the heat of a pennant race, their general manager was half a world away.
Billy Beane was in Prague, and not on a scouting trip.
Baseball’s most unconventional operation has done it again. The A’s will be crowned champions of the American League West for the second consecutive year, perhaps Sunday.
Beane has run the A’s for 16 years. Oakland is about to win the AL West for the sixth time in his tenure. The Angels have won five times in that span, the Texas Rangers four times, the Seattle Mariners once.
You could write a book about his financial wizardry. The first five times Beane assembled the AL West champs, he did so with the lowest payroll in the division. This time, the A’s are paying about $62 million — the same as the Angels paid to win the World Series 11 years ago.
Look beneath the numbers, though, to the story of a general manager and his boss, neither of whom are concerned about appearances. In an era when owners tend to involve themselves in everything from player acquisitions to marketing campaigns to employee dress codes, Beane can show up for work in shorts, bring his dog to the office, or trade away half the roster.
As they say in Oakland: Just win, baby.
Beane could have left the A’s in 2005, when Lew Wolff became the managing partner. Wolff did not see why he needed to bring his own people, when the A’s already had good people.
He gave Mike Crowley, the team president, a 1% ownership stake. He gave Beane a 4% stake — worth about $20 million now, based on the most recent Forbes estimates of franchise values, and worth much more when the A’s get a new ballpark. Neither Beane nor Crowley has liability for any losses, Wolff said.
And, when Beane said he wanted to broaden his interests beyond baseball, Wolff said fine.
If Beane accepts a speaking engagement before business leaders thousands of miles away, even during the season, no problem. If he travels to Prague for a meeting of a corporate board of directors, as he did in this September pennant stretch, Wolff wishes him a safe flight and sends him a book about the local culture.
“That’s pretty unique in this game,” Beane said. “I don’t take it for granted that he allows me to do this.”
Said Wolff: “If you have really qualified people and nurture their image instead of asking them to subordinate it, you get a lot of good results.”
Wolff insists the A’s are better off for the insights Beane gets from investment bankers, and from data-driven experts in marketing, sales and human relations. The questions Beane and his staff might ask, Wolff said, are similar to ones executives at Procter & Gamble might ask.
“Everybody uses statistics and data,” Wolff said. “Every decision is subjective. The narrowing of the subjective gap is what I believe Billy and his people do as well as anyone I have ever come across.”
The past week was not the finest for Wolff. He would have been better served not to express his disappointment in the A’s small crowds. He has been the point man in the quest for a new ballpark for 10 years, without success. It is unproductive to tell fans for 10 years how badly the A’s need to get out of the Coliseum, then wonder aloud why fans do not come there.
Beane resents that Wolff has become something of a pincushion in Oakland.
“Some of the personal shots he has taken have been so far out of bounds,” Beane said. “I’m at a point in my career where I don’t need to score brownie points by saying nice things about my owner. But, in my opinion, I have the best owner in the game to work for.”
The A’s do not stuff revenue-sharing dollars into their pockets, but neither do they operate at a loss. Wolff gives Beane a budget, and autonomy to run the baseball operations as he sees fit.
That allowed Beane to trade the most cherished commodity in baseball — three All-Star pitchers, 27 or younger — in December 2011, without ownership or marketing blowback.
For starters Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez and closer Andrew Bailey, the A’s got pitchers Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and Ryan Cook, outfielder Josh Reddick, catcher Derek Norris — and pitcher Brad Peacock, later used in a package to acquire shortstop Jed Lowrie.
At the time, the A’s believed they were building the core of the club that soon would move into a new San Jose ballpark.
“For a couple of years, that certainly was the hope,” Beane said. “. . . We’re not really a franchise that can plan for the future. Our future is what it is: right here, right now.”
Beane could tear up this team too, maybe soon, lest the salaries outpace the revenues. “There is no doubt in our marketplace we’ll have a high turnover,” he said. “I don’t think there is any way around it.”
Before then, the A’s will step up to the table and take another roll at winning the World Series. In the six previous playoff appearances of the Beane regime — a wild card included — the A’s were ousted in the first round five times, swept in the league championship series the other time.
To Beane, that is nothing more than the vagaries of a short series, the random outcomes inherent in a small sample size. The A’s are about to win a division title, same as the Dodgers, and bring on the October crapshoot.
Skeptics say the A’s need to win in October to validate Beane’s success. The point of the game is not to put the most cost-effective team on the field, his critics say, but to win the World Series.
Said Beane: “I don’t care what people’s opinions are regarding whether our organization is successful. I don’t choose to engage in that debate.”
He has something else to do, somewhere in this wide world.
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