Back in 2007, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane was talking about his great sporting love – soccer.
He’d gone to the World Cup in Germany and really caught the bug. At the time, he claimed to be listening to as many as five hours of soccer podcasts a day – which is an awful lot for a guy running a $500-million business.
“I’ve become a rabid, passionate fan,” Beane said.
The conversation drifted to his professional aspirations in soccer and whether he was fully focused on his day job.
“I feel like we’ve got two GMs here anyway,” Beane shrugged, referring to his long-serving lieutenant, David Forst. Unprompted, he repeatedly praised Forst’s ability to run the A’s without him.
It was hard not to sense a weariness with the game of baseball. If so, it passed.
No executive in baseball – maybe in all of sport – seems so wired into the main source just now. While everyone else in the bigs quivers, waiting for that thing that will never come – the perfect deal – Beane is upending the accepted order. Again.
Popularized by Beane, the analytics faith movement is fundamentally conservative. It’s turned all baseball GMs into subsistence farmers. If the numbers of any trade don’t line up in a way that makes it plausible to suggest both sides won, the trade can’t get made. Taking a flier is the step that usually precedes getting fired. So nobody wants to take wild pokes any more. They’re obsessed with incremental gains, which are smart and boring.
The cult of the sports executive has never had more followers, but it’s sad sort of religion. There isn’t a lot of clapping and singing in that church.
Now I’m beginning to think that Beane spent the past decade conning his colleagues into adopting the chicken-hearted mentality of a technocrat. Just as he once fooled them into believing high-school players were too big a draft risk or that defence didn’t really matter. In both cases, once the market followed his lead, he reversed himself and reaped the rewards of being the only buyer left.
The only consistent approach in his career is inconsistency. So what’s happening now is a to-be-expected unforeseeable.
On Thursday, Beane dealt a year of all-star left fielder Yoenis Cespedes to the Boston Red Sox for two months of all-star pitcher Jon Lester. Everyone wanted to make that deal, including the Orioles. If the Jays make the playoffs this year, Paul Beeston and Alex Anthopoulos ought to send Beane a gift basket. And not one of the chintzy ones that’s one thin row of goodies propped on top of 10 pounds of straw. A good gift basket has layers.
Thanks in part to Beane, no one won the AL East on Thursday, while the Jays avoided losing it. That’s the bright side. The glass-half-empty take is that regardless of how the division shakes out, the Jays have zero chance of winning the American League. Not with both Lester and David Price (to the Tigers) making the richer richerest.
The Jays’ pitching can’t compete now, and will get markedly worse when they are robbed of the innings-capped contributions of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.
If they were serious about this year, the Jays needed to add an elite arm. That they didn’t signals they believe just squeaking into the playoffs will be enough for Toronto’s fans. They’re probably right.
They were also in the Lester sweepstakes in the same way they’re in on every single deal these days – they made a call. So, really, they weren’t in on it. One can only imagine how the rest of baseball must groan at the pointless tire-kicking that always follows the words “the Jays are on the phone.”
Temperamentally, Beane is the opposite of that notion. He wants to do deals. Constantly. He’s just never before done them at this level of risk.
He was the only one willing to dangle something Boston could not refuse – a right-handed power hitter in his prime who will put up gigantic numbers at Fenway.
Lester’s one of the five best starters in the game, but he’s due a huge, long-term deal in the off-season. Whatever he decides, Beane will already have decided for him.
There is currently no player on the A’s with a deal that lasts beyond 2016. The vast majority are only under contract for this year. Therefore, there is no world in which Beane re-signs Lester. The same is true of the A’s other big buy this summer, pitcher Jeff Samardzija, once he reaches free agency in the winter of 2015.
So after years spent being baseball’s transcendentalist, putting together very-good-but-not-quite-good-enough teams with the sporting equivalent of pin money, Beane has gone completely against type. Again.
This is his one shot. If it fails, the A’s go back to being good, but not great (proving there is some solace in being the team that succeeds by virtue of not failing).
In a just world, the A’s win the World Series. I’m not sure they deserve it, but Beane sure as hell does. That’s the only superlative that separates him from real consideration as the greatest GM in history.
Most people, having reached his position, would spend a career trying to consolidate their reputational gains. Instead, he keeps pushing his back out on the table. He is notoriously bored by the idea of himself.
As such, Beane is impossible to figure out. I’d wish there were more like him, but that would ruin the surprise of watching him continue to tilt against windmills he built himself.