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read the preface, Chapter 4: Field of Ignorance, and Chapter 2: How to Find a Ballplayer.

Chapter 4 describes the statistical revolution in baseball as begun by Bill James in the 1970s.

Chapter 2 introduces the main story that will be carried to the end of the book, which is the 2002 season of the Oakland A’s.

Billy Beane was the general manager (GM) of the Oakland A’s: as a GM, his job was to oversee the A’s major league and minor league teams, trade and acquire players. In the summer of 2002, Beane was talking to his team of talent scouts in preparation for the yearly amateur draft. Beane “was about to start an argument about how” the talent scouts did their jobs.

Briefly describe the traditional scouting method. What are the problems with this scouting method?

Briefly describe Paul DePodesta’s new scouting method. How does this method attempt to address the problems in the traditional scouting method?

Focusing on the 2002 amateur draft, how does Beane implement DePodesta’s new scouting method?

Use Kotter’s leading change model to present your analysis of the process and actions taken by Beane. Back up your analysis and diagnosis with specific references.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair
Game
Michael Lewis
For Billy Fitzgerald
I can still hear him shouting at me
Lately in a wreck of a Californian ship, one of the
passengers fastened a belt about him with two hundred
pounds of gold in it, with which he was found afterwards
at the bottom. Now, as he was sinking-had he the gold?
or the gold him?
—John Ruskin, Unto This Last
Preface
I wrote this book because I fell in love with a story. The story concerned a small group of
undervalued professional baseball players and executives, many of whom had been
rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned themselves into one of the most
successful franchises in Major League Baseball. But the idea for the book came well
before I had good reason to write it—before I had a story to fall in love with. It began,
really, with an innocent question: how did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the
Oakland Athletics, win so many games?
For more than a decade the people who run professional baseball have argued that the
game was ceasing to be an athletic competition and becoming a financial one. The gap
between rich and poor in baseball was far greater than in any other professional sport, and
widening rapidly. At the opening of the 2002 season, the richest team, the New York
Yankees, had a payroll of $126 million while the two poorest teams, the Oakland A’s and
the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, had payrolls of less than a third of that, about $40 million. A
decade before, the highest payroll team, the New York Mets, had spent about $44 million
on baseball players and the lowest payroll team, the Cleveland Indians, a bit more than $8
million. The raw disparities meant that only the rich teams could afford the best players. A
poor team could afford only the maimed and the inept, and was almost certain to fail. Or so
argued the people who ran baseball.
And I was inclined to concede the point. The people with the most money often win. But
when you looked at what actually had happened over the past few years, you had to
wonder. The bottom of each division was littered with teams—the Rangers, the Orioles,
the Dodgers, the Mets—that had spent huge sums and failed spectacularly. On the other
end of the spectrum was Oakland. For the past several years, working with either the
lowest or next to lowest payroll in the game, the Oakland A’s had won more regular season
games than any other team, except the Atlanta Braves. They’d been to the play-offs three
years in a row and in the previous two taken the richest team in baseball, the Yankees, to
within a few outs of elimination. How on earth had they done that? The Yankees, after all,
were the most egregious example of financial determinism. The Yankees understood what
New York understood, that there was no shame in buying success, and maybe because of
their lack of shame they did what they did better than anyone in the business.
As early as 1999, Major League Baseball Commissioner Allan H. (“Bud”) Selig had taken
to calling the Oakland A’s success “an aberration,” but that was less an explanation than an
excuse not to grapple with the question: how’d they do it? What was their secret? How did
the second poorest team in baseball, opposing ever greater mountains of cash, stand even
the faintest chance of success, much less the ability to win more regular season games than
all but one of the other twenty-nine teams? For that matter, what was it about baseball
success that resisted so many rich men’s attempt to buy it? These were the questions that
first interested me, and this book seeks to answer.
That answer begins with an obvious point: in professional baseball it still matters less how
much money you have than how well you spend it. When I first stumbled into the Oakland
front office, they were coming off a season in which they had spent $34 million and won
an astonishing 102 games; the year before that, 2000, they’d spent $26 million and won 91
games, and their division. A leading independent authority on baseball finance, a
Manhattan lawyer named Doug Pappas, pointed out a quantifiable distinction between
Oakland and the rest of baseball. The least you could spend on a twenty-five-man team
was $5 million, plus another $2 million more for players on the disabled list and the
remainder of the forty-man roster. The huge role of luck in any baseball game, and the
relatively small difference in ability between most major leaguers and the rookies who
might work for the minimum wage, meant that the fewest games a minimum-wage
baseball team would win during a 162-game season is something like 49. The Pappas
measure of financial efficiency was: how many dollars over the minimum $7 million does
each team pay for each win over its forty-ninth? How many marginal dollars does a team
spend for each marginal win?
Over the past three years the Oakland A’s had paid about half a million dollars per win.
The only other team in six figures was the Minnesota Twins, at $675,000 per win. The
most profligate rich franchises—the Baltimore Orioles, for instance, or the Texas
Rangers—paid nearly $3 million for each win, or more than six times what Oakland paid.
Oakland seemed to be playing a different game than everyone else. In any ordinary
industry the Oakland A’s would have long since acquired most other baseball teams, and
built an empire. But this was baseball, so they could only embarrass other, richer teams on
the field, and leave it at that.
At the bottom of the Oakland experiment was a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is
managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why. Understanding that he
would never have a Yankee-sized checkbook, the Oakland A’s general manager, Billy
Beane, had set about looking for inefficiencies in the game. Looking for, in essence, new
baseball knowledge. In what amounted to a systematic scientific investigation of their sport,
the Oakland front office had reexamined everything from the market price of foot speed to
the inherent difference between the average major league player and the superior Triple-A
one. That’s how they found their bargains. Many of the players drafted or acquired by the
Oakland A’s had been the victims of an unthinking prejudice rooted in baseball’s traditions.
The research and development department in the Oakland front office liberated them from
this prejudice, and allowed them to demonstrate their true worth. A baseball team, of all
things, was at the center of a story about the possibilities—and the limits—of reason in
human affairs. Baseball—of all things—was an example of how an unscientific culture
responds, or fails to respond, to the scientific method.
As I say, I fell in love with a story. The story is about professional baseball and the people
who play it. At its center is a man whose life was turned upside down by professional
baseball, and who, miraculously, found a way to return the favor. In an effort to learn more
about that man, and the revolution he was inspiring, I spent a few days with J. P. Ricciardi,
the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. Ricciardi had worked with Billy Beane in
Oakland, and was now having a ball tearing down and rebuilding his new team along the
same radical lines as the Oakland A’s. Ridiculed at first, Ricciardi had, by the time I met
him, earned the respect of even the crustiest of the old baseball writers. By the end of the
2002 season, the big fear in Toronto was that he would bolt town for the job that had been
offered to him to run the Boston Red Sox, who now said that they, too, wished to reinvent
their organization in the image of the Oakland A’s.
It was at a Red Sox game that I tried to tempt Ricciardi into a self-serving conversation.
Months before he had said to me, and with some insistence, that there was a truly
astonishing discrepancy between Billy Beane and every other general manager in the game.
He’d raised one hand as high as he could and lowered the other as low as he could and said,
“Billy is up here and everyone else is down here.” Now, as we sat watching the Boston
Red Sox lose to his brand-new Blue Jays, I asked Ricciardi if he was willing to entertain
the possibility that he was as good at this strange business of running a baseball team as
the man he’d left behind in Oakland. He just laughed at me. There was no question that
Billy was the best in the game. The question was why.
Chapter One: The Curse of Talent
Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.
—Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise
The first thing they always did was run you. When big league scouts road-tested a group of
elite amateur prospects, foot speed was the first item they checked off their lists. The
scouts actually carried around checklists. “Tools” is what they called the talents they were
checking for in a kid. There were five tools: the abilities to run, throw, field, hit, and hit
with power. A guy who could run had “wheels”; a guy with a strong arm had “a hose.”
Scouts spoke the language of auto mechanics. You could be forgiven, if you listened to
them, for thinking they were discussing sports cars and not young men.
On this late spring day in San Diego several big league teams were putting a group of
prospects through their paces. If the feeling in the air was a bit more tense than it used to
be, that was because it was 1980. The risks in drafting baseball players had just risen. A
few years earlier, professional baseball players had been granted free agency by a court of
law, and, after about two seconds of foot-shuffling, baseball owners put prices on players
that defied the old commonsensical notions of what a baseball player should be paid.
Inside of four years, the average big league salary had nearly tripled, from about $52,000
to almost $150,000 a year. The new owner of the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner,
had paid $10 million for the entire team in 1973; in 1975, he paid $3.75 million for
baseball’s first modern free agent, Catfish Hunter. A few years ago no one thought twice
about bad calls on prospects. But what used to be a thousand-dollar mistake was rapidly
becoming a million-dollar one.
Anyway, the first thing they always did was run you. Five young men stretch and canter on
the outfield crabgrass: Darnell Coles. Cecil Espy. Erik Erickson. Garry Harris. Billy Beane.
They’re still boys, really; all of them have had to produce letters from their mothers saying
that it is okay for them to be here. No one outside their hometowns would ever have heard
of them, but to the scouts they already feel like household names. All five are legitimate
first-round picks, among the thirty or so most promising prospects in the country. They’ve
been culled from the nation’s richest trove of baseball talent, Southern California, and
invited to the baseball field at San Diego’s Herbert Hoover High to answer a question: who
is the best of the best?
As the boys get loose, a few scouts chitchat on the infield grass. In the outfield Pat Gillick,
the general manager of the Toronto Blue jays, stands with a stopwatch in the palm of his
hand. Clustered around Gillick are five or six more scouts, each with his own stopwatch.
One of them paces off sixty yards and marks the finish line with his foot. The boys line up
along the left field foul line. To their left is the outfield wall off which Ted Williams, as a
high school player, smacked opposite field doubles. Herbert Hoover High is Ted
Williams’s alma mater. The fact means nothing to the boys. They are indifferent to their
surroundings. Numb. During the past few months they have been so thoroughly examined
by so many older men that they don’t even think about where they are performing, or for
whom. They feel more like sports cars being taken out for a spin than they do like young
men being tested. Paul Weaver, the Padres scout, is here. He’s struck by the kids’ cool.
Weaver has seen new kids panic when they work out for scouts. Mark McLemore, the
same Mark McLemore who will one day be a $3-million-a-year outfielder for the Seattle
Mariners, will vomit on the field before one of Weaver’s workouts. These kids aren’t like
that. They’ve all been too good for too long.
Darnell Coles. Cecil Espy. Erik Erickson. Garry Harris. Billy Beane. One of the scouts
turns to another and says: I’ll take the three black kids [Coles, Harris, Espy]. They’ll dust
the white kids. And Espy will dust everyone, even Coles. Coles is a sprinter who has
already signed a football scholarship to play wide receiver at UCLA. That’s how fast Espy
is: the scouts are certain that even Coles can’t keep up with him.
Gillick drops his hand. Five born athletes lift up and push off. They’re at full tilt after just a
few steps. It’s all over inside of seven seconds. Billy Beane has made all the others look
slow. Espy finished second, three full strides behind him.
And as straightforward as it seems—what ambiguity could there possibly be in a
sixty-yard dash?—Gillick is troubled. He hollers at one of the scouts to walk off the track
again, and make certain that the distance is exactly sixty yards. Then he tells the five boys
to return to the starting line. The boys don’t understand; they run you first but they usually
only run you once. They think maybe Gillick wants to test their endurance, but that’s not
what’s on Gillick’s mind. Gillick’s job is to believe what he sees and disbelieve what he
doesn’t and yet he cannot bring himself to believe what he’s just seen. Just for starters, he
doesn’t believe that Billy Beane outran Cecil Espy and Darnell Coles, fair and square. Nor
does he believe the time on his stopwatch. It reads 6.4 seconds—you’d expect that from a
sprinter, not a big kid like this one.
Not quite understanding why they are being asked to do it, the boys walk back to the
starting line, and run their race all over again. Nothing important changes. “Billy just
flat-out smoked ’em all,” says Paul Weaver.
When he was a young man Billy Beane could beat anyone at anything. He was so naturally
superior to whomever he happened to be playing against, in whatever sport they happened
to be playing, that he appeared to be in a different, easier game. By the time he was a
sophomore in high school, Billy was the quarterback on the football team and the high
scorer on the basketball team. He found talents in himself almost before his body was
ready to exploit them: he could dunk a basketball before his hands were big enough to
palm it.
Billy’s father, no athlete himself, had taught his son baseball from manuals. A career naval
officer, he’d spend nine months on end at sea. When he was home, in the family’s naval
housing, he was intent on teaching his son something. He taught him how to pitch: pitching
was something you could study and learn. Whatever the season he’d take his son and his
dog-eared baseball books to empty Little League diamonds. These sessions weren’t simple
fun. Billy’s father was a perfectionist. He ran their pitching drills with military efficiency
and boot camp intensity.
Billy still felt lucky. He knew that he wanted to play catch every day, and that every day,
his father would play catch with him.
By the time Billy was fourteen, he was six inches taller than his father and doing things
that his father’s books failed to describe. As a freshman in high school he was brought up
by his coach, over the angry objections of the older players, to pitch the last varsity game
of the season. He threw a shutout with ten strikeouts, and went two for four at the plate. As
a fifteen-year-old sophomore, he hit over .500 in one of the toughest high school baseball
leagues in the country. By his junior year he was six four, 180 pounds and still growing,
and his high school diamond was infested with major league scouts, who watched him hit
over .500 again. In the first big game after Billy had come to the scouts’ attention, Billy
pitched a two-hitter, stole four bases, and hit three triples. Twenty-two years later the
triples would remain a California schoolboy record, but it was the way he’d hit them that
stuck in the mind. The ballpark that day had no fences; it was just an endless hot tundra in
the San Diego suburbs. After Billy hit the first triple over the heads of the opposing
outfielders, the outfielders played him deeper. When he hit it over their heads the second
time, the outfielders moved back again, and played him roughly where the parking lot
would have been outside a big league stadium. Whereupon Billy hit it over their heads a
third time. The crowd had actually laughed the last time he’d done it. That’s how it was
with Billy when he played anything, but especially when he played baseball: blink and you
might miss something you’d never see again.
He encouraged strong feelings in the older men who were paid to imagine what kind of pro
ballplayer a young man might become. The boy had a body you could dream on.
Ramrod-straight and lean but not so lean you couldn’t imagine him filling out. And that
face! Beneath an unruly mop of dark brown hair the boy had the sharp features the scouts
loved. Some of the scouts still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s
face not only his character but his future in pro ball. They had a phrase they used: “the
Good Face.” Billy had the Good Face.
Billy’s coach, Sam Blalock, didn’t know what to make of the scouts. “I’ve got this
first-round draft pick,” he says, “and fifteen and twenty scouts showing up every time we
scrimmage. And I didn’t know what to do. I’d never played pro ball.” Twenty years later
Sam Blalock would be selected by his peers as the best high school baseball coach in the
country. His teams at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego would produce so many
big league prospects that the school would come to be known, in baseball circles, as “The
Factory.” But in 1979 Blalock was only a few years into his job, and he was still in awe of
Major League Baseball, and its many representatives who turned up at his practices. Each
and every one of them, it seemed, wanted to get to know Billy Beane personally. It got so
that Billy would run from practice straight to some friend’s house to avoid their incessant
phone calls to his home. With the scouts, Billy was cool. With his coaches, Billy was cool.
The only one who ever got to Billy where he lived was an English teacher who yanked him
out of class one day and told him he was too bright to get by on his athletic gifts and his
charm. For her, Billy wanted to be better than he was. For the scouts—well, the scouts he
could take or leave.
What Sam Blalock now thinks he should have done is to herd the scouts into a corner and
tell them to just sit there until such time as they were called upon. What he did, instead,
was whatever they wanted him to do; and what they wanted him to do was trot his star out
for inspection. They’d ask to see Billy run. Sam would have Billy run sprints for them.
They’d ask to see Billy throw and Billy would proceed to the outfield and fire rockets to
Sam at the plate. They’d want to see Billy hit and Sam would throw batting practice with
no one there but Billy and the scouts. (“Me throwing, Billy hitting, and twenty big league
scouts in the outfield shagging flies,” recalls Blalock.) Each time the scouts saw Billy they
saw only what they wanted to see: a future big league star.
As for Billy—Sam just let him be. Baseball, to Blalock’s way of thinking, at least at the
beginning of his career, was more of an individual than a team sport, and more of an
instinctive athletic event than a learned skill. Handed an athlete of Billy’s gifts, Blalock
assumed, a coach should just let him loose. “I was young and a little bit scared,” Blalock
says, “and I didn’t want to screw him up.” He’d later change his mind about what baseball
was, but he’d never change his mind about Billy’s talent. Twenty-two years later, after
more than sixty of his players, and two of his nephews, had been drafted to play pro
baseball, Blalock would say that he had yet to see another athlete of Billy’s caliber.
They all missed the clues. They didn’t notice, for instance, that Billy’s batting average
collapsed from over .500 in his junior year to just over .300 in his senior year. It was hard
to say why. Maybe it was the pressure of the scouts. Maybe it was that the other teams
found different ways to pitch to him, and Billy failed to adapt. Or maybe it was plain bad
luck. The point is: no one even noticed the drop-off. “I never looked at a single statistic of
Billy’s,” admits one of the scouts. “It wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Billy was a five-tool
guy. He had it all.” Roger Jongewaard, the Mets’ head scout, says, “You have to understand:
we don’t just look at performance. We were looking at talent.” But in Billy’s case, talent
was a mask. Things went so well for him so often that no one ever needed to worry about
how he behaved when they didn’t go well. Blalock worried, though. Blalock lived with it.
The moment Billy failed, he went looking for something to break. One time after Billy
struck out, he whacked his aluminum bat against a wall with such violence that he bent it
at a right angle. The next time he came to the plate he was still so furious with himself that
he insisted on hitting with the crooked bat. Another time he threw such a tantrum that
Blalock tossed him off the team. “You have some guys that when they strike out and come
back to the bench all the other guys move down to the other end of the bench,” says
Blalock. “That was Billy.”
When things did not go well for Billy on the playing field, a wall came down between him
and his talent, and he didn’t know any other way to get through the wall than to try to
smash a hole in it. It wasn’t merely that he didn’t like to fail; it was as if he didn’t know
how to fail.
The scouts never considered this. By the end of Billy’s senior year the only question they
had about Billy was: Can I get him? And as the 1980 major league draft approached, they
were given reason to think not. The first bad sign was that the head scout from the New
York Mets, Roger Jongewaard, took a more than usual interest in Billy. The Mets held the
first overall pick in the 1980 draft, and so Billy was theirs for the taking. Word was that the
Mets had winnowed their short list to two players, Billy and a Los Angeles high school
player named Darryl Strawberry. Word also was that Jongewaard preferred Billy to
Strawberry. (He wasn’t alone.) “There are good guys and there are premium guys,” says
Jongewaard. “And Billy was a premium premium guy. He had the size, the speed, the arm,
the whole package. He could play other sports. He was a true athlete. And then, on top of
all that, he had good grades in school and he was going with all the prettiest girls. He had
charm. He could have been anything.”
The other bad sign was that Billy kept saying he didn’t want to play pro baseball. He
wanted to go to college. Specifically, he wanted to attend Stanford University on a joint
baseball and football scholarship. He was at least as interested in the school as the sports.
The baseball recruiter from the University of Southern California had tried to talk Billy out
of Stanford. “They’ll make you take a whole week off for final exams,” he’d said. To which
Billy had replied, “That’s the idea, isn’t it?” A few of the scouts had tried to point out that
Billy didn’t actually play football—he’d quit after his sophomore year in high school, to
avoid an injury that might end his baseball career. Stanford didn’t care. The university was
in the market for a quarterback to succeed its current star, a sophomore named John Elway.
The baseball team didn’t have the pull that the football team had with the Stanford
admissions office, and so the baseball coach asked the football coach to have a look at
Billy. A few hours on the practice field and the football coach endorsed Billy Beane as the
man to take over after John Elway left. All Billy had to do was get his B in math. The
Stanford athletic department would take care of the rest. And it had.
By the day of the draft every big league scout had pretty much written off Billy as
unobtainable. “Billy just scared a lot of people away,” recalls scout Paul Weaver. “No one
thought he was going to sign.” It was insane for a team to waste its only first-round draft
choice on a kid who didn’t want to play.
The only one who refused to be scared off was Roger Jongewaard. The Mets had three
first-round picks in the 1980 draft and so, Jongewaard figured, the front office might be
willing to risk one of them on a player who might not sign. Plus there was this other thing.
In the months leading up to the draft the Mets front office had allowed themselves to
become part of a strange experiment. Sports Illustrated had asked the Mets’ general
manager, Frank Cashen, if one of the magazine’s reporters could follow the team as it
decided who would become the first overall draft pick in the country. The Mets had shown
the magazine their short list of prospects, and the magazine had said it would be
convenient, journalistically, if the team selected Darryl Strawberry.
Strawberry was just a great story: a poor kid from the inner-city of Los Angeles who didn’t
know he was about to become rich and famous. Jongewaard, who preferred Billy to
Strawberry, argued against letting the magazine become involved at all because, as he put
it later, “we’d be creating a monster. It’d cost us a lot of money.” The club overruled him.
The Mets front office felt that the benefits of the national publicity outweighed the costs of
raising Darryl Strawberry’s expectations, or even of picking the wrong guy. The Mets took
Strawberry with the first pick and paid him a then fantastic signing bonus of $210,000. The
Blue jays took Garry Harris with the second pick of the draft. Darnell Coles went to the
Mariners with the sixth pick, and Cecil Espy to the White Sox with the eighth pick. With
their second first-round draft pick, the twenty-third overall, the Mets let Roger Jongewaard
do what he wanted, and Jongewaard selected Billy Beane.
Jongewaard had seen kids say they were going to college only to change their minds the
minute the money hit the table. But in the weeks following the draft he had laid a hundred
grand in front of Billy’s parents and it had done nothing to improve the tone of the
discussion. He began to worry that Billy was serious. To the chagrin of Billy’s mother, who
was intent on her son going to Stanford, Jongewaard planted himself in the Beane
household. That didn’t work either. “I wasn’t getting the vibes I would like,” Jongewaard
now says. “And so I took Billy to see the big club.”
It was 1980. The Beane family was military middle class. Billy had hardly been outside of
San Diego, much less to New York City. To him the New York Mets were not so much a
baseball team as a remote idea. But that summer, when the Mets came to San Diego to
play the Padres, Jongewaard escorted Billy into the visitors’ clubhouse. There Billy found
waiting for him a Mets uniform with his name on the back, and a receiving party of players:
Lee Mazzilli, Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman. The players knew who he was; they came
up to him and joked about how they needed him to hurry up and get his ass to the big
leagues. Even the Mets’ manager, Joe Torre, took an interest. “I think that’s what turned
Billy,” says Jongewaard. “He met the big league team and he thought: I can play with these
guys.” “It was such a sacred place,” says Billy, “and it was closed off to so many people.
And I was inside. It became real.”
The decision was Billy’s to make. A year or so earlier, Billy’s father had sat him down at a
table and challenged him to arm-wrestle. The gesture struck Billy as strange, unlike his
father. His father was intense but never physically aggressive. Father and son wrestled:
Billy won. Afterward, his father told Billy that if he was man enough to beat his father in
arm-wrestling, he was man enough to make his own decisions in life. The offer from the
Mets was Billy’s first big life decision. Billy told Roger Jongewaard he’d sign.
What happened next was odd. Years later Billy couldn’t be sure if he dreamed it, or it
actually happened. After he told the Mets he planned to sign their contract, but before he’d
actually done it, he changed his mind. When he told his father that he was having second
thoughts, that he wasn’t sure he wanted to play pro ball, his father said, “You made your
decision, you’re signing.”
In any case, Billy took the $125,000 offered by the Mets. He appeased his mother (and his
conscience) by telling her (and himself) he would attend classes at Stanford during the
off-season. Stanford disagreed. When the admissions office learned that Billy wouldn’t be
playing sports for Stanford, they told him that he was no longer welcome in Stanford’s
classrooms. “Dear Mrs. Beane,” read the letter from the Stanford dean of admissions, Fred
A. Hargadon, “we are withdrawing Billy’s admission…I do wish him every success, both
with his professional career in baseball and with his alternate plans for continuing his
education.”
Just like that, a life changed. One day Billy Beane could have been anything; the next he
was just another minor league baseball player, and not even a rich one. On the advice of a
family friend, Billy’s parents invested on their son’s behalf his entire $125,000 bonus in a
real estate partnership that promptly went bust. It was many years before Billy’s mother
would speak to Roger Jongewaard.
Chapter Two: How to Find a Ballplayer
Years later he would say that when he’d decided to become a professional baseball player,
it was the only time he’d done something just for the money, and that he’d never do
something just for the money ever again. He would never again let the market dictate the
direction of his life. The funny thing about that, now he was running a poor major league
baseball team, was that his job was almost entirely about money: where to find it, how to
spend it, whom to spend it on. There was no more intensely financial period in his life than
the few weeks, just after the regular season opened, leading up to the amateur draft. There
was also no time that he found more enjoyable. He didn’t mind living with money at the
center of his life, so long as he was using it on other people, and not having it used on him.
He began that day in the summer of 2002 facing a roomful of his scouts. Billy Beane, now
in his fortieth year on earth and his fifth as the Oakland A’s general manager, had changed.
He’d lost the ramrod posture of his youth. The brown mop of hair had thinned, and been
trained, poorly, to part. Otherwise the saggings and crinklings of middle age were barely
discernable on him. The difference in Billy wasn’t what had happened to him, but what
hadn’t. He had a life he hadn’t led, and he knew it. He just hoped nobody else noticed.
The men in this room were the spiritual descendants of the older men who had identified
Billy Beane, as a boy of sixteen, as a future baseball superstar. Invisible to the ordinary fan,
they were nevertheless the heart of the game. They decide who gets to play and, therefore,
how it is played. For the first time in his career Billy was about to start an argument about
how they did what they did. Calling them in from the field and stuffing them into a dank
room in the bowels of the Coliseum for the seven days before the draft had become
something of an Oakland custom. It was the point of the exercise that was about to change.
A year ago, before the 2001 draft, the goal had been for the general manager of the
Oakland A’s and his scouts to come to some mutually satisfying decision about who to
select with the top picks. Billy had allowed the scouts to lead the discussion and influence
his decisions. He had even let the scouts choose a lot of their own guys in higher rounds.
That changed about five seconds after the 2001 draft, which had been an expensive disaster.
The elite players that Billy and the scouts had discussed in advance had been snapped up
by other teams before the A’s turn came to make their second and final first-round draft
pick. All that remained were guys the scouts loved and Billy knew next to nothing about.
In the confusion, Grady Fuson, the A’s soon to be former head of scouting, had taken a
high school pitcher named Jeremy Bonderman. The kid had a 94-mile-per-hour fastball, a
clean delivery, and a body that looked as if it had been created to wear a baseball uniform.
He was, in short, precisely the kind of pitcher Billy thought he had trained his scouting
department to avoid.
It was impossible to say whether Jeremy Bonderman would make it to the big leagues, but
that wasn’t the point. The odds were against him, just as they were against any high school
player. The scouts adored high school players, and they especially adored high school
pitchers. High school pitchers were so far away from being who they would be when they
grew up that you could imagine them becoming almost anything. High school pitchers also
had brand-new arms, and brand-new arms were able to generate the one asset scouts could
measure: a fastball’s velocity. The most important quality in a pitcher was not his brute
strength but his ability to deceive, and deception took many forms.
In any case, you had only to study the history of the draft to see that high school pitchers
were twice less likely than college pitchers, and four times less likely than college position
players, to make it to the big leagues. Taking a high school pitcher in the first round—and
spending 1.2 million bucks to sign him—was exactly the sort of thing that happened when
you let scouts have their way. It defied the odds; it defied reason. Reason, even science,
was what Billy Beane was intent on bringing to baseball. He used many unreasonable
means—anger, passion, even physical intimidation—to do it. “My deep-down belief about
how to build a baseball team is at odds with my day-to-day personality,” he said. “It’s a
constant struggle for me.”
It was hard to know what Grady Fuson imagined would happen after he took a high school
pitcher with the first pick. On draft day the Oakland draft room was a ceremonial place.
Wives, owners, friends of the owners—all these people who made you think twice before
saying “fuck”—gathered politely along the back wall of the room to watch the Oakland
team determine its future. Grady, a soft five foot eight next to Billy’s still
dangerous-looking six foot four, might have thought that their presence would buffer
Billy’s fury. It didn’t. Professional baseball had violently detached Billy Beane from his
youthful self, but Billy was still the guy whose anger after striking out caused the rest of
the team to gather on the other end of the bench. When Grady leaned into the phone to take
Bonderman, Billy, in a single motion, erupted from his chair, grabbed it, and hurled it right
through the wall. When the chair hit the wall it didn’t bang and clang; it exploded. Until
they saw the hole Billy had made in it, the scouts had assumed that the wall was, like their
futures, solid.
Up till then, Grady had every reason to feel secure in his job. Other teams, when they
sought to explain to themselves why the Oakland A’s had won so many games with so little
money, and excuse themselves for winning so few with so much, usually invoked the A’s
scouting. Certainly, Grady could never have imagined that his scouting department was on
the brink of total overhaul, and that his job was on the line. But that was the direction
Billy’s mind was heading. He couldn’t help but notice that his scouting department was the
one part of his organization that most resembled the rest of baseball. From that it followed
that it was most in need of change. “The draft has never been anything but a fucking
crapshoot,” Billy had taken to saying, “We take fifty guys and we celebrate if two of them
make it. In what other business is two for fifty a success? If you did that in the stock
market, you’d go broke.” Grady had no way of knowing how much Billy disapproved of
Grady’s most deeply ingrained attitudes—that Billy had come to believe that baseball
scouting was at roughly the same stage of development in the twenty-first century as
professional medicine had been in the eighteenth. Or that all of Billy’s beliefs, at the
moment of Jeremy Bonderman’s selection, acquired a new intensity.
On the other hand, Grady wasn’t entirely oblivious to Billy’s hostility. He had known
enough to be uncomfortable the week before the draft, when Billy’s assistant, Paul
DePodesta, had turned up in the draft room with his laptop. Paul hadn’t played pro ball.
Paul was a Harvard graduate. Paul looked and sounded more like a Harvard graduate than
a baseball man. Maybe more to the point, Paul shouldn’t have even been in the draft room.
The draft room was for scouts, not assistant general managers.
It was Paul’s computer that Grady dwelled upon. “What do you need that for?” Grady
asked Paul after the meeting, as if he sensed the machine somehow challenged his
authority. “You’re sitting over there with your computer and I don’t know what you’re
doing.”
“I’m just looking at stats,” said Paul. “It’s easier than printing them all out.”
Paul wanted to look at stats because the stats offered him new ways of understanding
amateur players. He had graduated from college with distinction in economics, but his
interest, discouraged by the Harvard economics department, had been on the uneasy border
between psychology and economics. He was fascinated by irrationality, and the
opportunities it created in human affairs for anyone who resisted it. He was just the sort of
person who might have made an easy fortune in finance, but the market for baseball
players, in Paul’s view, was far more interesting than anything Wall Street offered. There
was, for starters, the tendency of everyone who actually played the game to generalize
wildly from his own experience. People always thought their own experience was typical
when it wasn’t. There was also a tendency to be overly influenced by a guy’s most recent
performance: what he did last was not necessarily what he would do next. Thirdly—but
not lastly—there was the bias toward what people saw with their own eyes, or thought they
had seen. The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw,
and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the
illusion to the reality. There was a lot you couldn’t see when you watched a baseball game.
For Billy Beane, it was a little different, a little less cerebral and a little more visceral.
Billy intended to rip away from the scouts the power to decide who would be a pro
baseball player and. who would not, and Paul was his weapon for doing it.
Grady did not know about that. Grady had ignored Paul’s prodding to scout the players his
computer flushed out. Paul had said the scouts ought to go have a look at a college kid
named Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis was a fat third baseman who couldn’t run, throw, or field.
What was the point of going to see that? (Because, Paul would be able to say three months
later, Kevin Youkilis has the second highest on-base percentage in all of professional
baseball, after Barry Bonds. To Paul, he’d become Euclis: the Greek god of walks.) Grady
and his scouts had ignored Paul when he said they ought to check out a college pitcher
named Kirk Saarloos. Saarloos was a short right-hander with an 88-mile-per-hour fastball.
Why waste time on a short right-hander? (Because, Paul would be able to say less than a
year later, Saarloos is one of only two players from the 2001 draft pitching in the big
leagues.)
Raw violence had gotten Grady’s attention. It was only baseball tradition that allowed
scouting directors and scouts to go off and find the ballplayers on their own without
worrying too much about the GM looking over their shoulders. And if there was one thing
Grady knew about Billy, it was that he could give a fuck about baseball tradition. All Billy
cared about was winning. A few days after the 2001 draft—with Billy away and still not
speaking to him—Grady crept into Paul’s’ office. In conciliatory tones, he allowed as how
he still needed to sign a pitcher to fill out the A’s rookie league roster in Arizona. There
was this kid Paul had mentioned who, along with Youkilis and Saarloos, Grady had
ignored. David Beck was his name. Beck had gone completely undrafted. Thirty big league
teams, each with fifty draft picks, had passed on him. Oddly enough, Paul’s computer had
spit out Beck’s name only because one of Beck’s teammates at Cumberland University in
Tennessee, a big kid with a 98-mile-per-hour fastball, had made everyone’s list as a
potential first-round draft pick. Paul had noticed that on the same pitching staff as this
consensus first-round pick was this complete unknown, a six foot four lefthander, who had
even better numbers than the first rounder. A lower earned run average, fewer home runs
allowed, more strikeouts, and fewer walks per nine innings. And Paul just wondered:
maybe the kid had something going for him that the scouts were missing.
He was left wondering. Months passed without any word of Beck from the scouting
department. Paul finally asked Grady about him. And Grady said, “Oh yeah, I forgot, I’ll
have one of the scouts go have a look.” But he didn’t do it, at least not seriously. When
Paul asked again, Billy Owens, the A’s scout responsible for covering Tennessee
grudgingly came back to him with the word that Beck was “a soft tosser.” Soft tosser was
scouting code for not worth my time. Paul still had the impression that no one had bothered
to scout David Beck.
When he came to see Paul after the draft, Grady was in a different mood about David Beck.
Should we sign your guy? he asked.
What guy? asked Paul. He’d forgotten about Beck.
Beck, said Grady.
Grady, he’s not my guy, said Paul. I just asked you to check him out.
Grady was eager to make peace with the front office, and he thought he could do it by
throwing Paul a bone. He ran off and signed David Beck, sight unseen. A few days later,
Beck reported for duty at the A’s training facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. Most of the scouts,
and Paul, happened to be there when Beck warmed up in the A’s bullpen. It was one of the
most bizarre sights any of them ever had seen on a pitcher’s mound. When the kid drew
back his left arm to throw, his left hand flopped and twirled maniacally. His wrist might as
well not exist: at any moment, it seemed, his hand might disengage itself and fly away. The
kid was double-jointed, maybe even crippled. At that moment David Beck ceased to be
known to the scouts as David Beck and became, simply, “The Creature.” A scout from
another organization came right up to Billy Owens, chuckling, and asked how he came to
sign The Creature. Billy O pointed over to Paul and said, “I didn’t sign him. Paul made me
do it.”
Whereupon The Creature went out and dominated the Arizona rookie league. He and his
Halloween hand and his 84-mph fastball shut down the opposition so completely that the
opposition never knew what happened. In the short season The Creature pitched eighteen
innings in relief, struck out thirty-two batters, and finished with an earned run average of
an even 1.00. He was named the closer on the rookie league All-Star team.
The Creature was the first thing to come out of Paul’s computer that the A’s scouting
department signed. There were about to be a lot more. The 2002 draft was to be the first
science experiment Billy Beane performed upon amateur players.
It wasn’t quite ten in the morning and everyone in the draft room except the Harvard
graduates had a lipful of chewing tobacco. The snuff rearranged their features into masks
of grim determination. Anyone whose name wasn’t two syllables, or didn’t end in a vowel
or a spitable consonant, has had it changed for the benefit of baseball conversation. Ron
Hopkins is “Hoppy,” Chris Pittaro is “Pitter,” Dick Bogard is “Bogie.” Most were former
infielders who had topped out someplace in the minor leagues. A handful actually made it
to the big leagues, but so briefly that it almost hadn’t happened at all. John Poloni had
pitched seven innings in 1977 with the Texas Rangers. Kelly Heath had played second
base in the Royals organization, and had exactly one major league at bat, in 1982, after the
Royals regular second baseman, Frank White, decided in the middle of a game that his
hemorrhoids were bothering him. As one of the other scouts put it, Kelly was the only
player in history whose entire big league career was made possible by a single asshole.
Chris Pittaro had played second base for the Tigers and Twins. Back in 1985, during
Pitter’s rookie year, Detroit’s manager Sparky Andersen was quoted saying Pitter “has a
chance to become the greatest second baseman who ever lived.” It hadn’t turned out that
way.
All of them had lived different versions of the same story. They were uncoiled springs,
firecrackers that had failed to explode. The only bona fide big league regular in the room
was Matt Keough, who’d won sixteen games for the A’s in 1980. In his rookie year, 1978,
he’d pitched in the All-Star Game. Matty, as he is known, easily was the most detached of
the group. He had the air of a man taking a break from some perpetual Hawaiian vacation
of the soul to stop by and chat with his old buddies. The rest of them weren’t like that.
There was no avoiding just how important the 2002 amateur draft was for the future of the
Oakland A’s. The Oakland A’s survived by finding cheap labor. The treatment of amateur
players is the most glaring of the many violations of free market principles in Major
League Baseball. A team that drafts and signs a player holds the rights to his first seven
years in the minor leagues and his first six in the majors. It also enjoys the right to pay the
player far less than he is worth. For instance, the Oakland A’s were able to pay their
All-Star pitcher Barry Zito $200,000 in 2000, $240,000 in 2001, and $500,000 in 2002
(when he would win the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the American League)
because they had drafted him in 1999. For his first three years of big league ball, Zito was
stuck; for his next three years he could apply for salary arbitration, which would bump him
up to maybe a few million a year but would still keep him millions below the $10-$15
million a year he could get for himself on the open market. Not until 2007, after he had
been in the big leagues for six years, would Barry Zito, like any other citizen of the
republic, be allowed to auction his services to the highest bidder. At which point, of course,
the Oakland A’s would no longer be able to afford Barry Zito. That’s why it was important
to find Barry Zito here, in the draft room, and obtain him for the period of his career when
he could be paid the baseball equivalent of slave’s wages.
This year was the best chance they might ever have to find several Barry Zito’s. In 2001,
the A’s had lost all three of their top free agents to richer teams. First baseman Jason
Giambi had left for the Yankees for $120 million over seven years. Outfielder Johnny
Damon had gone to the Red Sox for $32 million over four years. Closer Jason Isringhausen
had signed with the Cardinals for $28 million over four years. The $33 million the three
players would make each year was just $5 million less than the entire Oakland team. The
rules of the game granted the A’s the first-round draft picks of the three teams that had
poached their top talent, plus three more “compensation” picks at the end of the first round.
Together with their own first round pick the A’s had, in effect, seven first-round draft picks.
In the history of the draft going back to 1965 no team had ever held seven first-round picks.
The question for Billy Beane was what to do with them. What he wasn’t going to do with
them was what Grady had done last year, or what old baseball men had done with them for
the past thirty-seven years. “You know what?” Billy said to Paul, before the draft-room
meetings. “However we do it we’re never going to be more wrong than the way we did it
before.”
Already the scouts had whittled, or thought they had whittled, the vast universe of North
American amateur baseball down to 680 players. They’d pasted all the names onto little
magnetic strips. They now had one week to reduce that pile of magnetic nameplates to
some kind of order. They would do this, more or less, by a process of elimination. Erik
would read a kid’s name off a sheet. The scout who knew the kid then offered up a brief,
dispassionate description of him. Anyone else who had seen the kid play might then chime
in. Then the floor was open for general discussion, until everyone was satisfied that enough
had been said.
They begin that first morning by weeding out the pile. Some large number of amateur
ballplayers were, for one reason or another, unworthy of serious consideration.
“Lark,” says Erik, for instance. Erik is Erik Kubota, the new young scouting director Billy
hired to replace Grady. Erik used a giant wad of Copenhagen to disguise the fact that he
was a brainy graduate of the University of California Berkeley, whose first job with the
Oakland A’s had been as a public relations intern. That Erik had never played even high
school ball was, in Billy Beane’s mind, a point in his favor. At least he hasn’t learned the
wrong lessons. Billy had played pro ball, and regarded it as an experience he needed to
overcome if he wanted to do his job well. “A reformed alcoholic,” is how he described
himself.
Lark is a high school pitcher with a blazing fastball. He’s a favorite of one of the older
scouts, who introduces him in a language only faintly resembling English. “Good body, big
arm. Good fastball, playable slider, so-so change,” he says. “A little funk on the backside
but nothing you can’t clean up. I saw him good one day and not so good another.”
“Any risk he’ll go to college?” asks Erik.
“He’s not a student type,” says the older scout. “I’m not sure he’s even signed with a
college.”
“So is this guy a rockhead?” asks Pitter. Pitter (Chris Pittaro) is a graduate of the
University of North Carolina who roomed with Billy when they both played for the
Minnesota Twins and who Billy had long ago identified as a person willing to rethink
everything he learned, or thought he had learned, playing baseball.
“Ah,” says the older scout, thinking about how to address the question. It’s possible for a
baseball player to be too stupid for the job. It’s also possible for him to be too smart. “He
may be too smart,” is a phrase that will recur several times over the next week.
“He’s a confident kid. But—”
“But,” says Erik.
“There might be some, uh, family issues here,” says the old scout. “I heard the dad had
spent some time in prison. Porno or something.”
No one on either side of the room seems to know what to make of that. You can see thirty
men thinking: is porno a crime?
“Can he bring it?” someone finally asks. The air clears.
“I can see this guy in somebody’s pen throwing aspirin tablets someday,” says the older
scout. “The guy has a cannon.” This old scout is pushing fifty-five but still has a lean
quickness about him, as if he hadn’t completely abandoned the hope that he might one day
play the game. The old scout likes high school kids and refuses to apologize for that fact.
“I’m worried about the makeup,” says someone.
“What does his profile say?” asks someone else.
A young man sits quietly off to one side at the room’s lone desktop computer. He punches
a few keys. He’s looking for Lark’s results on the psychological test given by Major League
Baseball to all prospects.
“Not good,” he says, at length. “Competitive drive: one out of ten. Leadership: one out of
ten. Conscientiousness: one out of ten.” He keeps on reading down the list, but no matter
what the category the kid’s score is always the same.
“Shit,” Bogie finally says, “does he even have a two in anything?” Bogie is the oldest scout.
In 1972, scouting for the Houston Astros, Bogie administered what he believes to have
been the first ever baseball psychological test, to a pitcher named Dick Ruthven. (He
passed.)
“Bad makeup,” says someone else and no one disagrees.
The scouts used several catch phrases to describe what they need to avoid. “Rockhead”
clearly isn’t a good thing to be, but the quality can be overcome. “Soft” is also fairly
damning—it connotes both “out of shape” and “wimp”—but it, too, is inconclusive. “Bad
makeup” is a death sentence. “Bad makeup” means “this kid’s got problems we can’t afford
to solve.” The phrase signaled anything from jail time to drinking problems to severe
personality disorders. Whenever a player is convicted of “bad make-up” another young
man, reaches into a cardboard box for a tiny magnetized photograph of a former A’s
employee named Phil Milo. Milo had worked as one of Billy Beane’s assistants for a brief
spell and in that time offended pretty much everyone in the organization. When I ask Paul
how it was possible for one man to personify so many different personality disorders, Paul
says, “Put it this way. On the day I was hired, Milo came over to meet me. The first thing
out of his mouth was, ‘I got to be honest with you. I’m really not pleased we hired you.'”
Milo was just that kind of guy.
During the first few days of the draft meetings the tiny photos of Phil Milo fly like confetti.
And the conversations that ended with Milo’s picture plastered beside a prospect’s name
told you something: not just what baseball men distrusted in a player’s character, but how
little they really knew the people they were about to rain money on.
A high school pitcher:
“Where’s he going to college?” asks Billy, idly.
“He’s not,” says the scout who knows him best. “He’s a Christian kid and he was given a
free ride to UC Irvine. Coach set him up with a couple of his players. Took him to a party
and all it was was drinking. Kid was offended and he left and said, ‘I’m not going to
school.'”
“Oh, then he’ll fit right into pro ball, won’t he?” says Billy.
“Put a Milo on him,” says Erik.
A collegiate right-handed pitcher:
“He’s a cocky guy,” says Matt Keough, who is arguing on the pitcher’s behalf. “He’d shove
it up your ass. And taunt you. So you hate the guy. He’s had a couple of ejections.”
“But no drugs?” asks Erik.
“No drugs,” says Matty, then thinks about it. “There are rumors of some hash.”
An old scout laughs. “Corned beef hash?”
“It’s unsubstantiated,” Matty protests.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, ” says another old scout.
Erik looks up: “Is he the guy who was selling wacky tobacky in high school?”
“Hell,” says Matty, now genuinely indignant. “That was three years ago!”
Everyone groans. “Put a Milo on him, ” says Erik, and spits tobacco juice.
A power-hitting outfielder:
“I’m not sure he wants to sign. He said he’d like to go to law school. ”
“Law school?”
“He’s getting pressure from his girlfriend, I think.”
“He’s looking for love, it sounds like.”
“Put a Milo on him. ”
Another collegiate left-handed pitcher:
“The guy’s got no grades, ” says a scout.
“You mean bad grades?” asks another.
“No, I mean no grades, ” says the first.
“How can a guy have no grades at Chico State?” asks the other.
“He really has no desire at all to be in college,” says the first scout, almost admiringly.
“This guy was designed to play ball. ”
“I’m not really jazzed about a guy who has no desire whatsoever to go to college, ” says
Billy. “That’s not a badge of honor.”
“Put a Milo on him.”
Billy doesn’t interfere much in the search for bad makeup, and Paul says nothing at all. The
meetings, from their point of view, are all about minimizing risk. They can’t afford to have
guys not work out. There’s no point in taking risks on players temperamentally, or legally,
unsuited to pro ball. At one point Billy looks up and asks, “Who’s that fucking guy we took
last year we had to release because he robbed a bank?” The others are too absorbed in
weeding out the bad makeup to reply, or to even consider how remarkable the question is.
Most of the first few days were devoted to culling the original pile of 680 players. Other
than an excessive affection for one’s girlfriend, or a criminal record, or other signs of bad
makeup, there were just two reasons why the Oakland A’s did not waste further time on a
player. One was age: with rare exceptions the new scouting directors toss all high school
players immediately onto the dumping ground, leaving the younger scouts who spent their
days following them wondering why they bothered. The other is what is delicately known
in the draft room as “expectations.”
“What are his expectations?” Erik Kubota asks, of a promising college pitcher.
The scout who knows him best says, “His dad said, and I quote, ‘$4.2 million is a good
place to start.'”
“Put him over there,” Erik will say. When his name is tossed onto the dump heap nobody
in the front office cares.
By the end of the third day the scouts have organized the players into two groups: the
prospects not worth considering further, and everyone else. The second group, maybe four
hundred players, they parse further by position. They’ll rank 120 right-handed pitchers;
they’ll list 37 catchers, 1 through 37, and 94 outfielders, 1 through 94. But before they do,
they turn their attention from eliminating players to selecting them. Billy’s already made it
clear that this year he has only a secondary interest in pitchers. The past few years he has
stocked up on arms. It’s the bats he needs. On the white board closest to Billy, the “Big
Board,” there was space for sixty players. Only one slot had been filled, the first:
SWISHER
Nick Swisher, a center fielder from Ohio State. For the past six months, Billy’s been sure
about Swisher, and he knows he won’t get the slightest disagreement from his scouts.
Swisher is a rare point of agreement between Paul’s computer and the internal compass of
an old baseball guy. He has the raw athletic ability the scouts adore; but he also has the
stats Billy and Paul have decided matter more than anything: he’s proven he can hit, and hit
with power; he drew more than his share of walks.
Oddly enough, Billy has never actually seen Swisher play. He had wanted to fly across the
country to watch a few of Swisher’s games, but his scouting department told him that if he
did, word would quickly spread to the rest of Major League Baseball that Billy Beane was
onto Nick Swisher, Swisher’s stock would rise, and the odds that he’d still be around when
the A’s made this first pick—the sixteenth of the draft—would plummet. “Operation
Shutdown,” the scouts called their project to keep Billy as far away from Swisher as they
could.
Operation Shutdown has had some perverse effects. One of them is to lead Billy to speak
of Swisher in the needy tone of a man who has been restrained for too long from seeing his
beloved. Swisher is his picture bride.
“Swisher is noticeable, isn’t he?” says Billy, hoping to hear more about what Swisher looks
like. How Swisher really is.
“Oh, he’s noticeable,” says an old scout. “From the moment he gets off the bus he doesn’t
shut up.”
“His background is interesting,” says Billy. “His dad was a major league player. That’s
huge. A great chip in his favor. Those guys succeed.” (Swisher’s dad is Steve Swisher, who
caught for the Cubs, Cardinals, and Padres.)
“He does have a presence,” agrees an old scout.
“Did Operation Shutdown work?” asks Billy.
“Too well,” says an old scout. “Guy from the White Sox called me yesterday and said he
knows you must be in love with Swisher because you haven’t been to see him.”
Billy laughs. “Out of this room, Swisher is hush-hush,” he says.
The conversation turns from Nick Swisher, and the moment it does it becomes contentious.
Not violently so—these are people with an interest in getting along. The tone of the
conversation is that of a meeting in a big company that has just decided to drop a product
line, or shift resources from marketing to R&D. Still, it’s a dispute with two sides riven by
some fundamental difference. The two sides are, on the one hand, the old scouts and, on
the other, Billy Beane. The old scouts are like a Greek chorus; it is their job to underscore
the eternal themes of baseball. The eternal themes are precisely what Billy Beane wants to
exploit for profitby ignoring them.
One by one Billy takes the names of the players the old scouts have fallen in love with, and
picks apart their flaws. The first time he does this an old scout protests.
“The guy’s an athlete, Billy,” the old scout says. “There’s a lot of upside there.”
“He can’t hit,” says Billy.
“He’s not that bad a hitter,” says the old scout.
“Yeah, what happens when he doesn’t know a fastball is coming?” says Billy.
“He’s a tools guy,” says the old scout, defensively. The old scouts aren’t built to argue; they
are built to agree. They are part of a tightly woven class of former baseball players. The
scout looks left and right for support. It doesn’t arrive.
“But can he hit?” asks Billy.
“He can hit,” says the old scout, unconvincingly.
Paul reads the player’s college batting statistics. They contain a conspicuous lack of extra
base hits and walks.
“My only question is,” says Billy, “if he’s that good a hitter why doesn’t he hit better?”
“The swing needs some work. You have to reinvent him. But he can hit.”
“Pro baseball’s not real good at reinventing guys,” says Billy.
Whatever happened when an older man who failed to become a big league star looks at a
younger man with a view to imagining whether he might become a big league star, Billy
wanted nothing more to do with it. He’d been on the receiving end of the dreams of older
men and he knew what they were worth. Over and over the old scouts will say, “The guy
has a great body,” or, “This guy may be the best body in the draft.” And every time they do,
Billy will say, “We’re not selling jeans here,” and deposit yet another highly touted player,
beloved by the scouts, onto his shit list. One after another of the players the scouts rated
highly vanish from the white board, until it’s empty. If the Oakland A’s aren’t going to use
their seven first-round draft picks to take the players their scouts loved, who on earth are
they going to take? That question begins to be answered when Billy Beane, after tossing
another name on the slag heap, inserts a new one:
TEAHEN
The older scouts lean back in their chairs, spittoons in hand. Paul leans forward into a
laptop and quietly pulls up statistics from college Web sites. Erik Kubota, scouting director,
holds a ranked list of all the amateur baseball players in the country. He turns many pages,
and passes hundreds and hundreds of names, before he finds Teahen. “Tell us about
Teahen,” says Billy.
Mark Teahen, says Erik, is a third baseman from St. Mary’s College just down the road in
Moraga, California. “Teahen,” says Erik. “Six three. Two ten. Left right. Good approach to
hitting. Not a lot of power right now. Our kind of guy. He takes pitches.”
“Why haven’t we talked about this guy before?” asks the old scout.
“It’s because Teahen doesn’t project,” says Erik. “He’s a corner guy who doesn’t hit a lot of
home runs.”
“Power is something that can be acquired,” says Billy quickly. “Good hitters develop
power. Power hitters don’t become good hitters.”
“Do you see him at third base or shortstop?” asks another old scout, like a prosecuting
attorney leading a witness.
“Let’s forget about positions and just ask: who is the best hitter?” says Billy.
Paul looks up from his computer. “Teahen: .493 on base; .624 slug. Thirty walks and only
seventeen strikeouts in one hundred ninety-four at bats.” It’s hard to tell what the scouts
make of these numbers. Scouts from other teams would almost surely say: who gives a shit
about a guy’s numbers? It’s college ball. You need to look at the guy. Imagine what he
might become.
Everyone stares silently at Teahen’s name for about thirty seconds. Erik says, “I hate to say
it but if you want to talk about another Jason Giambi, this guy could be it.” Giambi was a
natural hitter who developed power only after the Oakland A’s drafted him. In the second
round. Over the objections of scouts who said he couldn’t run, throw, field, or hit with
power. Jason Giambi: MVP of the American League in 2000.
More silence. Decades of scouting experience are being rendered meaningless. “I hate to
piss on the campfire,” one of the scouts finally says, “but I haven’t heard Teahen’s name
once all year. I haven’t heard other teams talking about him. I haven’t heard his name
around here all year. It wasn’t like this guy was a fifty-five we all liked.” The scouts put
numbers on players. The numbers are one of the little tricks that lend scouting an air of
precision. A player who receives a “55” is a player they think will one day be a regular big
league player.
“Who do you like better?” asks Billy.
The old scout leans back in his chair and folds his arms. “What about Perry?” he says.
“When you see him do something right on a swing, it’s impressive. There’s some work that
needs to be done. He needs to be reworked a bit.”
“You don’t change guys,” says Billy. “They are who they are.”
“That’s just my opinion,” says the old scout, and folds his arms.
Once Teahen has found his slot high up on the Big Board, Billy Beane takes out a Magic
Marker and writes another name:
BROWN
The four scouts across from him either wince or laugh. Brown? Brown? Billy can’t be
serious.
“Let’s talk about Jeremy Brown,” Billy says.
In moving from Mark Teahen, whoever he is, to Jeremy Brown, whoever he is, Billy
Beane, in the scouting mind, had gone from the remotely plausible to the ridiculous.
Jeremy Brown made the scouting lists, just. His name appears on the last page; he is a
lesser member of the rabble regarded by the scouts as, at best, low-level minor league
players. He’s a senior catcher at the University of Alabama. Only three of the old scouts
saw him and none of them rated him even close to a big leaguer. Each of them has about a
thousand players ranked above him.
“Jeremy Brown is a bad body catcher,” says the most vocal of the old scouts.
“A bad body who owns the Alabama record books,” says Pitter.
“He’s the only player in the history of the SEC with three hundred hits and two hundred
walks,” says Paul, looking up from his computer.
It’s what he doesn’t say that is interesting. No one in big league baseball cares how often a
college players walks; Paul cares about it more than just about anything else. He doesn’t
explain why walks are important. He doesn’t explain that he has gone back and studied
which amateur hitters made it to the big leagues, and which did not, and why. He doesn’t
explain that the important traits in a baseball player were not all equally important. That
foot speed, fielding ability, even raw power tended to be dramatically overpriced. That the
ability to control the strike zone was the greatest indicator of future success. That the
number of walks a hitter drew was the best indicator of whether he understood how to
control the strike zone. Paul doesn’t say that if a guy has a keen eye at the plate in college,
he’ll likely keep that keen eye in the pros. He doesn’t explain that plate discipline might be
an innate trait, rather than something a free-swinging amateur can be taught in the pros. He
doesn’t talk about all the other statistically based insights—the overwhelming importance
of on-base percentage, the significance of pitches seen per plate appearance—that he uses
to value precisely a hitter’s contribution to a baseball offense. He doesn’t stress the
importance of generalizing from a large body of evidence as opposed to a small one. He
doesn’t explain anything because Billy doesn’t want him to. Billy was forever telling Paul
that when you try to explain probability theory to baseball guys, you just end up confusing
them.
“This kid wears a large pair of underwear,” says another old scout. It’s the first time in two
days that this old scout has spoken. He enjoys, briefly, the unusual attention accorded the
silent man in a big meeting. The others in the room can only assume that if the scout was
moved to speak it must be because he had something earth-shatteringly important to say.
He doesn’t.
“Okay,” says Billy.
“It’s soft body,” says the most vocal old scout. “A fleshy kind of a body.”
“Oh, you mean like Babe Ruth?” says Billy. Everyone laughs, the guys on Billy’s side of
the room more happily than the older scouts across from him.
“I don’t know,” says the scout. “A body like that can be low energy.”
“Sometimes low energy is just being cool,” says Billy.
“Yeah,” says the scout. “Well, in this case low energy is because when he walks, his thighs
stick together.”
“I repeat: we’re not selling jeans here,” says Billy.
“That’s good,” says the scout. “Because if you put him in corduroys, he’d start a fire.”
Clutching Jeremy Brown’s yellow nameplate, Billy inches toward the Big Board with the
“Top 60” names on it. The scouts shift and spit. The leading scouting publication, Baseball
America, has just published its special issue devoted to the 2002 draft, and in it a list of the
top twenty-five amateur catchers in the country. Jeremy Brown’s name is not on the list.
Baseball America has more or less said that Jeremy Brown will be lucky to get drafted.
Billy Beane is walking Jeremy Brown into the first five rounds of the draft.
“Billy, does he really belong in that group?” asks the old scout plaintively. “He went in the
nineteenth round last year and he’ll be lucky to go there this year.” The Red Sox had
drafted Brown the year before, and Brown had turned down the peanuts they’d offered and
returned to the University of Alabama for his senior year. It was beginning to look like a
wise move.
The older scouts all share their brother’s incredulity. One of them, the fat scout, when he
returned from the trip Billy made him take to the University of Alabama, called Billy and
told him that he couldn’t recommend drafting Jeremy Brown. Period. There were fifteen
hundred draft-eligible players in North America alone that he would rather own than this
misshapen catcher. Like all the scouts, the fat scout had the overriding impression that
Brown was fat and growing fatter. He had the further impression that Brown didn’t look all
that good when he did anything but hit. “Behind the plate he’s not mobile,” the fat scout
now says. “His throws are all slingshot throws.” Throws from catchers with a slinging
motion tend not to follow a straight line but to tail off toward the first-base side of second
base.
Billy takes a step toward the Big Board, sticks Brown’s name onto the top of the Big
Board’s second column, the seventeenth slot, and says, “All right, push him down, guys.”
Jeremy Brown is now a high second-round, or even low first-round, draft pick. If baseball
scouts were capable of gasping, these men would have gasped. Instead, they spit tobacco
juice into their cups. That was the moment when the scouts realized just how far Billy
Beane was willing to go to push his supposedly rational and objective view of things.
“Come on, Billy,” the vocal scout says.
“Finding a catcher who can hit—there’s not one of them out there who can hit,” says Billy.
“This guy can hit.”
Erik looks across the table and says, “This guy’s a senior with, like, a huge history.”
The scouts don’t see the point of history. In their view history isn’t terribly relevant when
you’re talking about kids who haven’t become who they will be.
“Come on,” says Erik, “you guys have all played with guys who were bad bodies and good
baseball players.”
“Yeah,” says Billy. “I played with Pitter.” Everyone laughs, even Pitter. “Another thing
about Brown,” says Billy; “he walks his ass off.”
“He’s leading the country in walks,” says Paul. Walks!
“He better walk because he can’t run,” says one of the scouts.
“That body, Billy,” says the most vocal old scout. “It’s not natural.” He’s pleading now.
“He’s got big thighs,” says the fat scout, thoughtfully munching another jumbo-sized
chocolate chip cookie. “A big butt. He’s huge in the ass.”
“Every year that body has just gotten worse and worse and worse,” says a third.
“Can he hit, though?” asks Billy Beane.
“Wanna hear something,” says Paul, gazing into his computer screen at the University of
Alabama Web site. “In the past two years: 390 at bats; 98 walks; 38 Ks. Those numbers are
better than anyone’s in minor league baseball. Oh yeah, 21 jacks.” Jacks are home runs. So
are dongs, bombs, and big flies. Baseball people express their fondness for a thing by
thinking up lots of different ways to say it.
The fat scout looks up from his giant chocolate chip cookie and seeks to find a way to get
across just how unimpressed he is. “Well,” he says, exaggerating his natural drawl, “I
musta severely unnerestimated Jeremy Brown’s hittin’ ability.”
“I just don’t see it,” says the vocal scout.
“That’s all right,” says Billy. “We’re blending what we see but we aren’t allowing ourselves
to be victimized by what we see.”
This argument had nothing to do with Jeremy Brown. It was about how to find a big league
ballplayer. In the scouts’ view, you found a big league ballplayer by driving sixty thousand
miles, staying in a hundred crappy motels, and eating god knows how many meals at
Denny’s all so you could watch 200 high school and college baseball games inside of four
months, 199 of which were completely meaningless to you. Most of your worth derived
from your membership in the fraternity of old scouts who did this for a living. The other
little part came from the one time out of two hundred when you would walk into the
ballpark, find a seat on the aluminum plank in the fourth row directly behind the catcher,
and see something no one else had seen—at least no one who knew the meaning of it. You
only had to see him once. “If you see it once, it’s there,” says Erik. “There’s always been
that belief in scouting.” And if you saw it once, you, and only you, would know the
meaning of what you saw. You had found the boy who was going to make you famous.
Billy had his own idea about where to find future major league baseball players: inside
Paul’s computer. He’d flirted with the idea of firing all the scouts and just drafting the kids
straight from Paul’s laptop. The Internet now served up just about every statistic you could
want about every college player in the country, and Paul knew them all. Paul’s laptop didn’t
have a tiny red bell on top that whirled and whistled whenever a college player’s on-base
percentage climbed above .450, but it might as well have. From Paul’s point of view, that
was the great thing about college players: they had meaningful stats. They played a lot
more games, against stiffer competition, than high school players. The sample size of their
relevant statistics was larger, and therefore a more accurate reflection of some underlying
reality. You could project college players with greater certainty than you could project high
school players. The statistics enabled you to find your way past all sorts of sight-based
scouting prejudices: the scouting dislike of short right-handed pitchers, for instance, or the
scouting distrust of skinny little guys who get on base. Or the scouting distaste for fat
catchers.
That was the source of this conflict. For Billy and Paul and, to a slightly lesser extent, Erik
and Chris, a young player is not what he looks like, or what he might become, but what he
has done. As elementary as that might sound to someone who knew nothing about
professional baseball, it counts as heresy here. The scouts even have a catch phrase for
what Billy and Paul are up to: “performance scouting.” “Performance scouting,” in
scouting circles, is an insult. It directly contradicts the baseball man’s view that a young
player is what you can see him doing in your mind’s eye. It argues that most of what’s
important about a baseball player, maybe even including his character, can be found in his
statistics.
After Billy said what he had to say about being “victimized by what we see,” no one knew
what to say. Everyone stared at Jeremy Brown’s name. Maybe then they all understood that
they weren’t here to make decisions. They were here to learn about the new way that
decisions were going to be made.
“This is a cutting-edge approach we’re taking this year,” says Erik, whose job, it is
increasingly clear, is to stand between Billy and the old scouts, and reconcile the one to the
other. “Five years from now everyone might be doing it this way.”
“I hope not,” says Paul. He doesn’t mean this in the way that the old scouts would like him
to mean it.
“Bogie,” says Erik, calling across the table on the vast moral authority of the oldest scout
of all, Dick Bogard. “Does this make sense to you?” Erik adores Bogie, though of course
he’d never put it that way. When Erik announced he wanted to leave the A’s advertising
department and get into the baseball end of things, even though he himself had never
played, Bogie not only did not laugh at him; he encouraged him. “My baseball father,” Erik
called Bogie.
Bogie is not merely the oldest of the scouts; he is the scout who has worked for the most
other teams. He is a walking map of his own little world. In spite of his age, or maybe
because of it, he knows when an old thing has died.
“Oh definitely,” says Bogie, motioning to Paul’s computer. “It’s a new game. Years ago we
didn’t have these stats to look up. We had to go with what we saw.”
“Years ago it only cost a hundred grand to sign them,” says Erik.
The other older scouts are unmoved. “Look,” says Erik, “Pitter and I are the ones that
people are going to say, ‘What the hell were you doing? How the hell could you take
Brown in the first round?”‘
No one says anything.
“The hardest thing,” says Billy, “is there is a certain pride, or lack of pride, required to do
this right. You take a guy high no one else likes and it makes you uncomfortable. But I
mean, really, who gives a fuck where guys are taken? Remember Zito? Everyone said we
were nuts to take Zito with the ninth pick of the draft. And we knew everyone was going to
say that. One fucking month later it’s clear we kicked everyone’s ass. Nobody remembers
that now. But understand, when we stop trying to figure out the perception of guys, we’ve
done better.”
“Jeremy Brown isn’t Zito,” says one of the scouts. But he is. A lot of people in the room
have forgotten that the scouting department hadn’t wanted to take Barry Zito because Barry
Zito threw an 88-mph fastball. They preferred a flamethrower named Ben Sheets. “Billy
made us take Zito,” Bogie later confesses.
“Let me ask you this,” says Billy. “If Jeremy Brown looked as good in a uniform as
Majewski [a Greek Kouros who played outfield for the University of Texas], where on this
board would you put him?”
The scouts pretend to consider this. Nobody says anything so Pitter says it for them: “He’d
be in that first column.” A first-round pick.
“You guys really are trying to sell jeans, aren’t you?” says Billy. And on that note of
affectionate disgust, he ends the debate. He simply takes Jeremy Brown’s nameplate and
moves him from the top of the second column on the Big Board to the bottom of the first,
from #17 to #15. Jeremy Brown, whose name had somehow failed to turn up on Baseball
America’s list of the top twenty-five amateur catchers, who serious scouts believed should
never be a pro baseball player, is now a first-round draft choice of the Oakland A’s.
“Since we’re talking about Brown anyway,” says Paul, which wasn’t exactly true, since the
scouts were now distinctly not talking about Brown, “there’s a list of hitters I want to talk
about. All of these guys share certain qualities. They are the eight guys we definitely want.
And we want all eight of these guys” He reads a list:
Jeremy Brown
Stephen Stanley
John Baker
Mark Kiger
Shaun Larkin
John McCurdy
Brant Colamarino
Brian Stavisky
All eight are college players. Most of them are guys the scouts either did not particularly
like, or, in a few cases, don’t really know. A young man rises to put their names on the
board. Paul quickly organizes them, like a dinner guest who has spilled his wine and hopes
to clean it up before the host notices. When he’s finished, the board is a market but from a
particular point of view, that of a trader who possesses, or believes he possesses, superior
knowledge.
With that, the coup was complete. Paul’s list of hitters were distinctly not guys the scouts
found driving around. They were guys Paul found surfing the Internet. Some of the names
the older scouts do not even recognize. The evaluation of young baseball players had been
taken out of the hands of old baseball men and placed in the hands of people who had what
Billy valued most (and what Billy didn’t have), a degree in something other than baseball.
“There’s some serious on-base percentage up there,” says Billy. No one else says anything.
The room is filled with silence.
“We got three guys at the top of the board that no one has ever heard of,” Pitter finally says,
with just a trace of pride.
“There isn’t a board in the game that looks like this one,” agrees Bogie.
Bogie brought into the draft room something unique: vast experience to which he had no
visceral attachment. He’d been in the game for nearly fifty years. He’d seen a lot, perhaps
everything, and he was willing to forget it, if asked. As it happened, one of the things he
had seen, back in 1980, was a high school game in San Diego. That was the year that the
Mets took Darryl Strawberry with the first overall pick in the draft. But that year there was
another high school player, who, in his ability to conjure fantasies in the baseball scouting
mind, rivaled Strawberry. Bogie had gone to see him at the behest of the Houston Astros.
Great body, plus wheels, plus arm, good instincts, and the ability to hit the ball over light
towers. To top it off, he’d scored higher than any other prospect on the psychological tests.
Bogie had phoned Houston and told the front office that he had found a better prospect
than Darryl Strawberry: Billy Beane.
When asked which player, on the Oakland A’s draft board, most resembled the young Billy
Beane, Bogie said, “Shit, man. There is no Billy Beane. Not up there.” When asked why,
he’d said, “Billy was a guy you could dream on,” and left it to you to understand that Billy
Beane, the general manager, had just systematically eliminated guys “you could dream on.”
But when asked what became of those still unforgotten dreams, Bogie hesitated. He looked
over and met the eye of the grown-up Billy Beane.
“That’s enough!” said Billy. He’d only been pretending not to listen. Bogie just smiled,
shrugged, and said no more.
Chapter Three: The Enlightenment
The Mets had had only the greatest expectations of him. They’d wanted to hold a big press
conference in Dodger Stadium to announce his signing. Billy asked them not to. He had a
claustrophobic unease with ceremony of any kind, and a press conference was nothing but
a ceremonial event. It’d make him feel trapped. Plus he didn’t want to make a big deal
about becoming a pro baseball player. It was less a decision to celebrate than a vaguely
uncomfortable fact to get his mind around. The Mets failed to consider the cause or
implications of his reticence. In the belief that Billy was more ready for pro ball than
Darryl Strawberry, they sent Strawberry to the low-level rookie team with the other high
school kids and Billy to the high-level rookie team, in Little Falls, New York, with the
college players. Little Falls, New York, could not have felt farther from San Diego,
California. His teammates might as well have been a different species than the high school
kids he was used to playing with. They had hair on their backs and fat on their stomachs.
They smoked before games and drank after them. A few had wives. And all of the pitchers
had sliders.
The Mets were betting that Billy was better equipped than Strawberry to deal with the
pressures, and inevitable frustrations, that went with playing against much older players.
Roger Jongewaard, the Mets’ head scout, fully expected Billy to rocket through the minors
and into the big leagues well ahead of Strawberry. The Mets scouting department had
badly misjudged Billy’s nature. They had set him up to fail. If there was one thing Billy
was not equipped for, it was failure. He didn’t even begin to know what to make of a stat
sheet at the end of his first short season in high-level rookie ball that showed him
hitting .210. He didn’t know how to think of himself if he couldn’t think of himself as a
success. When the season ended he returned home, enrolled in classes at the University of
California at San Diego, and forgot that he played baseball for a living. He didn’t so much
as pick up a bat or a glove until spring training the following March. That in itself should
have been an ominous sign, but no one was looking for ominous signs.
The next year went well enough for him—he was, after all, Billy Beane—and by the
summer of 1982 he had been promoted to the Mets’ Double-A team in Jackson, Mississippi.
He played left, Strawberry played right, and the whole team played the field. For a lot of
the players it was their first exposure to the Southern female—the most flagrant cheater in
the mutual disarmament pact known as feminism. Lipstick! Hairdos! Submissiveness!
Baseball was a game but chasing women was a business, in which Billy Beane was
designed to succeed without even trying. Billy had the rap. Billy, said his old teammate J.
P. Ricciardi, “could talk a dog off a meat wagon.” Billy was forever having to explain to
another teammate of his, Steve Springer, that when you’d just met some girl, what you
didn’t do was tell her you played pro ball. It wasn’t fair to her; you had to give the girl a
chance to turn you down. Billy’s way of giving her a chance was to tell her that what he
did for a living was collect roadkill off local highways. Springer didn’t have Billy’s
awesome God-given ability with women; he thought he needed the Mets to stand a chance;
and this need of his led to one of those great little moments that make even the most dismal
minor league baseball careers worth remembering. They were leaving one of the local
burger joints when two pretty girls called after them, in their fetching drawls: “You boys
Yankees?” Springer turned around and said, “No, we’re the Mets.”
Off the field Billy was Billy; on the field Billy was crumbling. The only thing worse than
an ambivalent minor league baseball player was an ambivalent minor league baseball
player with a terror of failure, forced to compare himself every afternoon to Darryl
Strawberry. “People would look at Billy and Darryl and think about the untapped potential
that might be brought out of them,” recalls Jeff Bittiger, who was the ace of the staff on the
same team. “They weren’t just supposed to be big leaguers. They were supposed to be big
league all-stars.” That year Strawberry would be named the most valuable player in the
Texas League. Billy would hit only .220. Often they’d hit third and fourth in the lineup,
and so Billy spent a lot of hours in the outfield dwelling on Strawberry’s heroics and his
own failure. “That was the first year I really questioned if I’d made the right decision to
sign,” Billy said.
Darryl Strawberry presented one kind of problem for Billy; Lenny Dykstra presented
another, perhaps even more serious one. Billy and Lenny lived together and played side by
side in minor league outfields for nearly two years, beginning in 1984. In the spring of that
year both were invited to the Mets’ big league spring training camp. With Strawberry now
a fixture in the Mets’ right field, the talk in the minors was that Billy was being groomed to
replace George Foster in left, and Lenny was supposed to replace Mookie Wilson in center.
Lenny thought of himself and Billy as two buddies racing together down the same track,
but Billy sensed fundamental differences between himself and Lenny. Physically, Lenny
didn’t belong in the same league with him. He was half Billy’s size, and had a fraction of
Billy’s promise—which is why the Mets hadn’t drafted him until the thirteenth round.
Mentally, Lenny was superior, which was odd considering Lenny wasn’t what you’d call a
student of the game. Billy remembers sitting with Lenny in a Mets dugout watching the
opposing pitcher warm up. “Lenny says, ‘So who’s that big dumb ass out there on the hill?’
And I say, ‘Lenny, you’re kidding me, right? That’s Steve Carlton. He’s maybe the greatest
left-hander in the history of the game.’ Lenny says, ‘Oh yeah! I knew that!’ He sits there for
a minute and says, “So, what’s he got?’ And I say, ‘Lenny, come on. Steve Carlton. He’s got
heat and also maybe the nastiest slider ever.’ And Lenny sits there for a while longer as if
he’s taking that in. Finally he just says, ‘Shit, I’ll stick him.’ I’m sitting there thinking, that’s
a magazine cover out there on the hill and all Lenny can think is that he’ll stick him.”
The point about Lenny, at least to Billy, was clear: Lenny didn’t let his mind screw him up.
The physical gifts required to play pro ball were, in some ways, less extraordinary than the
mental ones. Only a psychological freak could approach a 100-mph fastball aimed not all
that far from his head with total confidence. “Lenny was so perfectly designed, emotionally,
to play the game of baseball,” said Billy. “He was able to instantly forget any failure and
draw strength from every success. He had no concept of failure. And he had no idea of
where he was. And I was the opposite.”
Living with Lenny, Billy became even less sure that he was destined to be the star
everyone told him he would be. He began, in the private casino of his mind, to hedge his
bets. He told teammates he might quit baseball and go back to college and play football.
He might enter politics; everyone said he’d be good at it. He took to reading some
nights—a radical idea for a minor league baseball player—to compensate for the formal
education he now realized he wasn’t getting. Lenny would come home and find Billy
curled up in a chair with a book. “He’d look at me,” recalls Billy, “and say, ‘Dude, you
shouldn’t be doing that. That shit’ll ruin your eyes.’ Lenny’s attitude was: I’m going to do
nothing that will interfere with getting to the big leagues, including learning.” Maybe more
to the point, Lenny—a thirteenth-round draft pick!—hadn’t the slightest doubt that he was
going to make it to the big leagues and make it big. “I started to get a sense of what a
baseball player was,” Billy said, “and I could see it wasn’t me. It was Lenny.”
That thought led to another: I’m not sure I like it here. Before Billy was sent back to the
minor leagues in the first cuts of 1984 spring training, he was confronted by the Mets’ big
league manager, Davey Johnson. Johnson told Billy that he didn’t think he, Billy, really
wanted to play baseball. “I didn’t take it as a criticism,” said Billy. “I took it as ‘I think he’s
right.’ I was so geared to going to college. I was sort of half in and half out.”
The half that was in stayed in. He didn’t quit baseball. He kept grinding his way up through
the minor leagues, propelled by his private fears and other people’s dreams. The difference
between who he was, and who other people thought he should be, grew by the day. A lot
of people who watched Billy Beane play still thought what J. P. Ricciardi thought when he
played with Billy that first year in Little Falls. “He was so physically gifted that I thought
he would overcome everything,” said Ricciardi. “I remember coming home from that first
season and telling my friends, ‘I just played with this guy who you gotta see to believe. He
isn’t like other animals.'” Teammates would look at Billy and see the future of the New
York Mets. Scouts would look at him and see what they had always seen. The hose. The
wheels. The body. The Good Face.
Billy was smart enough to fake his way through his assigned role: young man of promise.
“Billy never looked bad, even when he struggled, ” recalls the scout who had signed him,
Roger Jongewaard. “He was the most talented player I ever played with,” says Chris
Pittaro, who made it to the big leagues with the Tigers and won a World Series with the
Twins. “He had the ability to do things in a game that ninety-five percent of the people in
the big leagues could not do in practice because they didn’t have the physical ability. There
aren’t many plays I remember from fifteen years ago but I remember some of Billy’s. We
were in Albuquerque in ’87 [in Triple-A ball] and Billy made this play in right field. He
had to run up and down over the bullpen mound to make a catch, and then throw a tagging
runner out at the plate. I remember being astonished—first of all, that he even got to the
ball. Second, that he ran up and down a pitcher’s mound at full speed without breaking
stride. Third, that he even thought to make that throw. Speed. Balance. Presence of mind. I
think that the runner when he found the ball waiting or him was more surprised than
anybody.”
Billy could run and Billy could throw and Billy could catch and Billy even had presence of
mind in the field. Billy was quick-witted and charming and perceptive about other people,
if not about himself. He had a bravado, increasingly false, that no one in a fifty-mile radius
was ever going to see through. He looked more like a superstar than any actual superstar.
He was a natural leader of young men. Billy’s weakness was simple: he couldn’t hit.
Or, rather, he hit sometimes but not others; and when he didn’t hit, he unraveled. “Billy
was of the opinion that he should never make an out,” said Pittaro. “Relief pitchers used to
come down from the bullpen to watch Billy hit, just to see what he did when he struck
out.” He busted so many bats against so many walls that his teammates lost count. One
time he destroyed the dugout toilet; another time, in a Triple-A game in Tacoma, he went
after a fan in the stands, and proved, to everyone’s satisfaction, that fans, no matter what
challenges they hollered from the safety of their seats, were better off not getting into
fistfights with ballplayers. From the moment Billy entered a batter’s box he set about
devouring himself from the inside until, fully self-consumed, he went looking around him
for something else to feed his rage. “He didn’t have a baseball mentality,” said Jeff Bittiger.
“He was more like a basketball or a football player. Emotions were always such a big part
of whatever he did. A bad at bat or two and he was done for the third and fourth at bats of
the game.”
Yet even inside the batter’s box, where he came unglued in a matter of a few seconds, Billy
enjoyed sensational success. In 1983, in response to his special inconsistency against
right-handed pitching, Billy played around with switch-hitting. Who tried hitting from the
wrong side of the plate for the first time in his life in Double-A ball? Nobody. And yet by
the middle of the Double-A season, against pitchers with big league stuff, Billy was
hitting .300 left-handed. Then he slumped, and lost his nerve. He went back to hitting
exclusively right-handed.
In late 1984, Billy and Lenny both came up for a few weeks at the end of the season. Billy
got his first big league hit off Jerry Koosman—who immediately picked him off first base.
It was funny; it was also sad. Just as the game seemed willing to bend to his talent, it
snapped back, and took whatever it had just given him away. In late 1985, Lenny was
brought up for good to the big league team—for which Darryl Strawberry already had hit
more than seventy home runs. Lenny played center, Strawberry played right, Billy played
the guy who never made it out to left field. The next year Lenny hit critical home runs in
the NLCS and the World Series, and wrote a book about them, in which he mentioned that
it should have been Billy Beane, not he, who became the big league star. (Lenny didn’t
read books; he wrote them.)
Rather than make Billy a big leaguer, the Mets traded him to the Minnesota Twins. The
Twins in 1986 had a new manager, Ray Miller, who announced that Billy Beane would be
his starting left fielder. Billy immediately went out and hurt himself in spring training, but
when he came back he was, for the first time in his big league career, sent out to left field
as a regular rather than a substitute. That day the Twins were in Yankee Stadium facing
Ron Guidry. Billy went five for five off Guidry, with a home run. Then he went hitless the
next two nights and found himself written out of the Twins’ starting lineup—for good, as it
turned out. Billy understood, or said he did. The team was losing and Ray Miller was new,
and feeling pressure to play veterans.
For the next three and a half seasons Billy was up and down between Triple-A and the big
leagues, with the Twins, the Detroit Tigers, and, finally, the Oakland A’s. Inside the batter’s
box he struggled to adapt, but every change he made was aimed more at preventing
embarrassment than at achieving success. To reduce his strikeouts, he shortened his swing,
and traded the possibility of hitting a home run for a greater likelihood of simply putting
the ball in play. He crouched and hunched in an attempt to hit like a smaller man. He might
have struck out less than he otherwise would have done, but at the cost of crippling his
natural powers. Eight years into his professional baseball career he was, in some ways, a
weaker hitter than when he was seventeen years old.
At least, when it counted. When it didn’t count—when he didn’t think about it—anything
could happen. One afternoon during Billy’s one-month stint with the Detroit Tigers, he was
asked by the general manager, Bill Lajoie, to come out to Tiger Stadium on an off-day.
Lajoie called in a few scrubs to help with the rehabilitation of a pitcher named Walt Terrell.
Terrell, who had been injured, was about to reenter the Tigers’ starting rotation. Before that
happened the pitching coach wanted Terrell to throw a simulated game. Billy was expected
to stand in the box, as a foil.
Once they’d taken the field there was just one thought on everyone’s mind: was Terrell his
old self? Billy sat and watched Terrell dispatch a couple of hitters. He was indeed his old
self. When Billy’s turn came to hit, nobody was paying him any attention. All eyes were on
Terrell. Nobody much cared whether Billy Beane struck out or hooted at the moon. He
couldn’t fail. He became, for a moment, a boy playing a game. While the coaches and the
GM scrutinized their precious pitcher, Billy took the first pitch he liked and launched a
major league fastball into the upper deck of Tiger Stadium.
There was a new thought on everyone’s mind: who the fuck did that?
Billy was no longer ignorable. The GM, Lajoie, came over to him. Billy, you looked like a
different guy. The stance, the attitude—everything was different. Why don’t you do that all
the time? By now everyone knew that Billy was the guy destined for the Hall of Fame who
never panned out. “He was still at an age where he might have developed further as a
player,” said Lajoie. The GM thought there was hope; the GM really didn’t understand.
Nobody understood. Inside a batter’s box, during a baseball game, Billy was no longer able
to be himself. Billy was built to move: inside a batter’s box he had to be perfectly still.
Inside a batter’s box he experienced a kind of claustrophobia. The batter’s box was a cage
designed to crush his spirit.
In his last three a…
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