Beane seeks delayed gratification
PHOENIX – He checks the standings every day. Billy Beane surfs the box scores, listens to a few podcasts and sponges every last iota of knowledge the world has to offer on his favorite sport.
Then he starts to think about baseball.
Yes, the Oakland Athletics’ general manager, the man forever gilded a genius by the book “Moneyball” and one of the national pastime’s brightest minds, has himself a full-blown addiction to soccer, perhaps the least American of sports. The infatuation began a few years ago, grew like Audrey Jr. and landed him consulting jobs with a handful of European clubs as well as a string-tugging gig with MLS’ expansion San Jose Earthquakes.
If Beane’s double-dipping begs an explanation, well, don’t expect a satisfactory one: He was bored with baseball. Though ludicrous it may seem, Beane always has thrived on the challenge more than the achievement itself, and while watching the A’s win year after year earlier this decade fulfilled the team’s goal, it didn’t always bring Beane the same kind of satisfaction as constructing the winner.
The timing, then, was fortuitous: Just as Beane’s influence in soccer was welling, the A’s were in need of rebuilding. And in baseball, there is no greater challenge, no more gratifying endeavor – nothing so perfect to reinvigorate Beane.
“This,” Beane says, “is the fun part about this job for me.”
He’s sitting in the A’s offices. Paul DePodesta, his former top lieutenant and supporting actor in “Moneyball,” is visiting, as his team, the San Diego Padres, just took a pummeling from Oakland. Beane’s current No. 2, the brilliant David Forst, bounces around the office. Beane remains tall, lean and tan, earlier in life the archetypal ballplayer and today the executive example. He smiles a lot. The wear of his 10-week-old twins, Brayden and Tinsley, doesn’t show around his eyes.
“The one thing about building with young players and creating something is that there’s something really idealistic about it, something pure,” Beane says, sounding more paternal than general managerial. “It transcends any generation. When you’re winning, you want to stay healthy during spring training. When you’re rebuilding, you take satisfaction out of every game.”
Beane needs a clone or two to catch all the action around A’s camp. One minute he watches outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, the chief of six prospects acquired in the deal for Dan Haren. The next he ambles over to see left-hander Gio Gonzalez and right-hander Fautino De Los Santos, the prizes in the trade of Nick Swisher to the White Sox. And then it’s off to left-hander Brett Anderson (Haren deal), center fielder Ryan Sweeney (Swisher) or whoever else in Oakland’s suddenly replenished farm system tickles his fancy that day.
He wants to know the kids because he plans on seeing them for far longer than a few years. The A’s could break ground by the end of the season on Cisco Field, owner Lew Wolff’s long-sought-after stadium in Fremont, Calif., due to open about the time De Los Santos and Anderson arrive. Money should pour in.
And from there? Well, it’s gives other GMs the quivers: Billy Beane with a decent payroll.
“The unique thing about this time is that there might not have to be a next time around,” he says. “For the first time since I’ve been here, we might be able to create something where we’re adding to the core for the next decade as opposed to tearing it down or constantly playing this shell game.
“I’ve known for the last 10, 11 years that when a guy got to the big leagues, he was going to be here no longer than three to six years. We lost players in their prime. This time, there is some realistic optimism that if Carlos Gonzalez, at 22, is in the big leagues, he may still be with us at 32.”
An energy surrounds Beane, like the A’s, all of a sudden, look as deliciously malleable as the day they hired him. Beane has lasted more than 10 years, the third-longest tenure in the game. He took Boston’s GM job for about 12 hours and decided it wasn’t right, leaving $12.5 million on the table. He returned to Oakland a hero, destined to do what no other GM could: win a championship with revenue streams that are more like dried-up tributaries.
He hasn’t. So the “Moneyball” critics fill up on that fuel and drive it down to E, certain that the tenets of the book – misinterpreted as an edict on the importance of statistics and more a treatise on how Beane took advantage of market inefficiencies – are wrong. Never mind the playoff runs on pennies or Beane’s ability to rebuild on the fly. Jeremy Brown, the fat catcher whom the A’s drafted in the first round against all traditional scouting conventions, retired this offseason with 10 major-league at-bats to his name.
And they celebrated, the ones who think Beane is pompous, his style jaded, his effect ruinous to the game, blissfully unaware that their criticisms only preserve the book’s legacy and enhance Beane’s.
“It’s been the best business and life experience I could have had,” says Beane, who still hasn’t read the book cover to cover. “The fact that we’re sitting here five years later and still talking about it, the relevancy is out there and in the business.”
Beane uses the word business a lot. It always weasels its way into his life. He started off just a player before running the A’s. He loved soccer before he set out to fix the radical inefficiencies in transfer fees. Businesses need projects.
Did Beane ever take on one with this incarnation of the A’s. If he triumphs, it will be his greatest yet. If he fails? Well, that’s not in the plans.
Because Billy Beane, more and more, is starting to think about baseball again. And we all know what happens when he does that.