SBJ/April 15 - 21, 2002/Opinion

Beane makes 'small ball' a big winner

In our dreams, most of us are George Steinbrenners, able to take our shopping lists into Neiman-Marcus and choose what we want, glancing at price tags only out of curiosity. When we wake up, though, we're Billy Beanes, strapped by a budget and hoping to find something we can afford at T.J. Maxx.

Thus, I think it's safe to say that outside of New York and its environs, there was joy in the land over the fact that in each of the last two baseball seasons, the Oakland A's, the team for which Beane shops, won more regular-season games than did the New York Yankees, Steinbrenner's team.

Yeah, the Yanks went further in the postseason, but so what? We bargain hunters will take what we can get.

Now a new campaign is upon us, and while the Yankees' major league-leading payroll of almost $126 million again is more than three times that of the A's 28th-ranked (of 30) $39.7 million, people no longer would be surprised if the Oaklanders gave them a run for their money in the victory column and made the playoffs for the third straight year.

"Winning as an underdog was fun, but we don't insist on that role," the A's general manager observes. "We take it as a compliment that people have come to expect good things from us."

Clearly, something is up in Oakland, and Beane has more than a little to do with it. The 40-year-old executive, who looks fit enough to grab a mitt and return to the utility-man career that sustained him in the bigs for six seasons before he joined the A's front office in 1990, has emerged as baseball's "small ball" champion, with the "small" standing for market size. His example might give hope to the clubs whose noses are pressed forlornly to the trophy-case glass because of the game's Dickensian economic setup, or to non-sports enterprises in similar straits.

Winning on the cheap in baseball requires good drafting and related good luck, and the A's have had both during Beane's five-season tenure as GM. The team's main strength is its trio of young, home-grown starting pitchers — Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito — whose combined 2002 salaries of $1,970,000 are more than $400,000 below the game's single-player average. The A's can get away with it because none of the three yet qualifies for the arbitration or free-agency processes that drive paychecks skyward.

Beyond that, though, calculation is required, and Beane has shown plenty in his trades and sifting of low-end free agents. Much of it is embodied in his organization's rules for evaluating talent. "Some teams can gamble on good athletes who might become good ballplayers, but we can't," he says. "Before we go after someone, we need proof of his productivity. We try to be very objective and very disciplined. We can't afford to be otherwise."

What the A's look for specifically are batters who can get on base and pitchers who can throw strikes; it's no accident that their 2001 edition led its league in walks and in fewest walks allowed. "The 'five-tool' position player or the veteran pitcher with overwhelming stuff will likely wind up elsewhere," he says. "We'll settle for the guy who does one thing well."

That the A's have gladly settled on Beane was evident in the off-season, when they extended his contract through 2008. He notes that that span will complete his daughter's high-school years, and while he's rooting for a revenue-sharing system that would increase his latitude ("we'd like to at least be in the running to keep our good young pitchers when they're able to move"), he says that, when it ends, he well might be looking for "new challenges."

Hey, who could blame him for dreaming he's George, the way the rest of us do?

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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