Monday, June 13, 2005

Where Have You Gone, Billy Beane?

By Bob Ekstrom

It's Saturday evening at the Coliseum, seasonably warm for October even as a nomadic chill mingles among this new generation of fan unaccustomed to pressure baseball. The hometown Oakland Athletics hold a two-games-to-none lead over the New York Yankees in this best-of-five 2001 ALDS, but trail 1-0 in the seventh. Excitement crests as Jeremy Giambi plods along the base paths, compliments of a Terrence Long double down the right field line.

When he rounds third base in methodical stride, we reach the High Water Mark of the Billy Beane Confederacy, for such diametric bedfellows as frugality and baseball success as fused by A's General Manager William Lamar Beane can only be described in such terms.

Baseball's winds of change brew a revolutionary of Billy Beane's caliber less frequently than El Niño brews a 25-year storm. When one does come along, he is usually received about as enthusiastically. Ask Branch Rickey, who brought us integration or Curt Flood, who damned the Reserve Clause. But Beane's well-timed entry has coincided with a Pollyanna yearning within the sport to believe that strategy and development still play a heavier hand in World Series titles than the almighty wallet.

In the four short years, it has taken to reach this pinnacle, Beane has delivered the A's from the 65-win basement of the AL West to their current foothold over the three-time defending champions on the doorsteps of fame which lies a mere 90 feet beyond.

Giambi lumbers toward a tie game as the go-ahead run moves into scoring position and Yankee ace Mike Mussina prepares for the manager's hook. Ninety feet away, as Yankee outfielder Shane Spencer digs Long's double out of the right field corner and airmails his throw over both the cut-off and backup, heading directly toward Ramon Hernandez, the A's on-deck hitter. More than 20 feet off the plate, the throw lacks sufficient accuracy to nail a Little-Leaguer, never mind a baseball professional.

Ah, Billy Beane, step into the limelight. Accept with grace the adoration that awaits you at night's end for your time is at hand.

Suddenly, the baseball gods who always delight in wreaking havoc on lowly man now awake. Ramon Hernandez sees Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter come into his periphery. Anticipating the potential for a cruel twist of fate, he desperately signals for Giambi to slide, then watches helplessly as Jeter races into baseball folklore and redirects the errant throw plateward where Giambi is tagged out. Giambi never notices Hernandez's antics. He never considers looking for a sign. Worst of all, he never acts on his own instincts.

He never slides.

The rest is in the Baseball Almanac. Mariano Rivera closes the game, the A's are out of the next night's contest by the second inning, and a cross-country flight waits to carry them to their Appointment in Samarra. The team that transformed baseball poverty into 102 regular-season wins and held command over a Yankee franchise with the then-highest payroll in the history of professional sports is now finished.

Alas, the baseball gods do not intend to dole their punishment so quickly. For Billy Beane, the iconoclastic heretic whose Moneyball doctrine is sacrilege to the game's time-honored methodology and its reverence for statistics, the gods have chosen a slower agony. After first stripping him of three stars, they bestow 103 wins and a 2-1 ALDS lead on next year's Athletics, only to snatch it away by guiding a Minnesota Twins comeback.

In perhaps their ultimate indulgence, they doom Billy to his own history in 2003 by again spotting him a two-games-to-none ALDS lead and again wiping it away with not one but two base-running blunders that prevent his A's from winning the clincher in Fenway Park. The Red Sox take that game in extra innings and the series in five games before paying their own final installment to the gods in Yankee Stadium later that month.

Indeed, one has to marvel at the fervor with which these gods have dispensed their justice. But what if their wrath were not a factor at all, if Billy's own hero complex and flawed analyses were far more causal to his club's autumn malaise? If that were true, we might conclude that Moneyball is nothing more than great theatre.

Well, the lights are dimming, the curtain rises. The last act is about to begin.

The national media has publicized the poverty-level budget to which Billy is encumbered — somewhat vociferously at times, but it is real nonetheless. A's payrolls have consistently ranked in the lowest quartile within Major League Baseball during Beane's administration. However, Coliseum attendance has risen 75% from an American-League low of 1.3 million in 1997 — the year before his arrival — to 2.2 million last year. Add to this the A's revenue-sharing proceeds and it seems quizzical that Beane has yet to convince ownership of the benefits of reinvesting their legacy on the field. Less is expected of those to whom little is given.

Other shallow-pocketed front offices have achieved more success than the Athletics — albeit for a shorter period — without the fanfare of Moneyball. The 2002 world-champion Anaheim Angels ranked 15th in player salaries among the 30 franchises, while the Minnesota Twins eliminated Oakland in the ALDS that same year on a scantly higher payroll. Only five teams paid less than the $49 million Florida doled out to its 2003 squad who beat the $153 million Yankees in the World Series. In 2004, the Twins won more games than the A's and disbursed $5.8 million less in the process. They made the playoffs on the 19th highest payroll in baseball, while Oakland lost a four-game Labor Day lead and 17 of its final 27 games.

Billy has built his formidable legend on identifying undervalued players. A closer look should be levied at his value system, which is the real soul of Moneyball. Its flaw is a near-exclusive dependency upon objective criteria in assessing players, an approach better suited as a stimulant for sabermetricians than as the building blocks for a 40-man roster that can lay it on the line in October.

Of course, autumn may as well be spring in Moneyball World where the intangible notion of clutch performance has no merit — and therefore is not demanded of players — simply because empirical data cannot validate it. Derek Jeter apparently always dives into foul territory to save a run or the seats to catch a pop-up regardless of the calendar or standings. Moreover, Billy's divining rod will leap from his hands when pointed at one-dimensional sluggers whose OPS put the Athletics into the postseason while their base-running and defense knock them out.

The other half of Billy's mystique is his ability to acquire desired players off-price. Although there's a presumption he has to, Beane has a proclivity to flip his coveted acquisitions into cash and compensatory draft picks. Michael Lewis exposed this in his 2003 best-seller, "Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game," which makes Billy look more a gamely businessman than a builder of championships. It's no wonder why Billy absolves every GM from any wrongdoing in the postseason, otherwise known as that contest of luck.

After a seven-year hiatus, Oakland again finds itself resident-in-chief of the AL West basement, the Prodigal Son who has returned after squandering his small window of opportunity in going five-and-out for four years running. Yet hundreds of baseball executives and millions in Baseball Nation continue slaughtering fatted calves in Mr. Beane's honor. Have we all imbibed of the Kool-Aid of the Underdog?

Some have, while others choose reticence over telling the Emperor he has no clothes. After all, thinking fans still realize baseball is played to win World Series, a goal that is more exhilarating to them than to accumulate victories as cheaply as possible.

Still yet, the savviest groups are the Imperial Court Weavers who stitched Emperor Billy's new threads. They hail from Baltimore and Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, places were baseball is played for keeps. A propped-up Billy Beane is testament to the "money-doesn't-matter" agenda they pedal, a perfect cover under which they sign Billy's players — Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Miguel Tejada — upon completion of an internship in Billy's farm system better known as the Oakland Triple-A's.

In bygone days, you could always monitor Billy Beane clear through the fifth game of the American League Division Series. Now, he only steps into the limelight in June and July for the amateur draft and trading deadlines. He'll see his shadow and winter will once again come six weeks early in Oakland.

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