Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A’s Await Film, But Without the Ending They Wanted

[Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press]
The Oakland teams Billy Beane built a
decade ago went toe to toe with the Yankees
and the Red Sox in the postseason.

By Tyler Kepner, New York Times
August 23, 2011

The Oakland Athletics close their home schedule Sept. 22, and the next day they open their run in theaters everywhere. The movie version of “Moneyball,” about the rise of the A’s under Billy Beane, will depict a moment in time that is much different from today. Its inspiration will watch in that context.

“I’ve seen a couple of cuts, and there is a bit of nostalgia about it,” Beane said on the phone this week. “I forgot some of the guys on that team. It’s been a while.”

[Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia Pictures]
Brad Pitt, left, with the actor Jonah Hill, plays
Athletics General Manager Billy Beane in “Moneyball,”
the new film based on Michael Lewis's book.
Beane is still the Athletics’ general manager, and he speaks somewhat reluctantly about the movie, other than to acknowledge there are worse things in life than having Brad Pitt play you on film. He says he does not want to distract from his job, which has become far more challenging than it was from 2000 through 2003, when the A’s made the playoffs each season.

The version that held on for a 6-5 win arrived at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night is still 15 games out of first place in the American League West. Competitive for two months, the A’s collapsed under the weight of injuries to their rotation. This will almost surely be their fifth season in a row without reaching the postseason.

“Billy was on to something, and it worked pretty well, so much so that other teams caught onto it,” said Craig Breslow, the Yale-educated Oakland reliever who has read the Michael Lewis book that inspired the movie.

“For a while, it was a market inefficiency. Certain players were undervalued, and Billy could identify them, the guys who projected well. Now, we’re obviously not going to be able to outbid some of the other teams that are using those same metrics. Now guys that hit home runs and get on base a lot cost $20 million a year. Where’s the next place to look?”

That is the question Beane struggles to solve. The subtitle of Lewis’s masterpiece was “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” and in Oakland’s case, the game is even less fair than it was before.

Since the 2002 season depicted in the book, every team that has wanted a new stadium has gotten or is getting one, except the Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays. The A’s are blocked from moving to San Jose because of the San Francisco Giants’ territorial rights; the planned Cisco Field in Fremont, Calif., fell through; and there seems to be no viable option for staying in Oakland.

It makes one wonder if Beane, signed through 2014, would be intrigued by another general manager’s job, like the one now open with the Chicago Cubs.

“You’re never going to have equilibrium in terms of revenues everywhere,” Beane said. “But, listen, we’re all competitive, so it certainly gets frustrating. Just being able to carve out a future for the franchise has been most frustrating. Because of the venue situation, it’s hard to put together a business plan beyond the next fiscal year.”

Of course, the A’s have faced a cash-flow problem for years. In the first scene depicted in a “Moneyball” trailer, Pitt-as-Beane revels in it. “There are rich teams, there are poor teams,” he says, before admonishing his staff. “We’ve got to think different.”

By challenging traditional scouting methods and recognizing the value of digging deeper into statistics, the 2002 A’s found useful players to surround a nucleus of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Miguel Tejada and Barry Zito. They won 103 games and the A.L. West.

Beane was sharp enough to apply some of the premises percolating for years in the minds of analysts like Bill James — and Lewis was perceptive enough to notice. Beane has been criticized for cooperating with Lewis, for spilling his secrets. But there was probably no stopping the information revolution in baseball. Executives were bound to get wiser.

“There are a lot of smart guys running teams now, and a lot of the guys who are smart also have a lot of money,” Beane said. “That’s a pretty tough combination to go against. We’ve all started valuing the same things.

“Clubs like us and Minnesota used to place really high value on young, inexperienced players. Now teams at the top of the food chain are doing the same thing, and it’s really hard to find trade partners. So it usually comes down to money. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is actually greater today. The window for small-market clubs is shorter and shorter.”

The A’s finished .500 last season, anchored by their rotation. But free-agent hitters like Adrian Beltre and Lance Berkman declined Beane’s offers, and through Monday, Oakland’s offense had outscored only one other A.L. team, Seattle. Injuries claimed starters Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden months ago.

So the A’s forge on, desperate for direction. With more money to spend on collecting and analyzing data, Beane said, perhaps the A’s could spot and exploit the next undervalued commodity. Instead, they are reduced to taking fliers. They spent $10 million last season for Ben Sheets, hoping he could find his inner ace. He blew out his elbow. In 2008, they spent $4.25 million on Michael Ynoa, a 16-year-old pitcher from the Dominican Republic. He pitched nine innings in rookie ball before having reconstructive elbow surgery.

“Sometimes, you’re relegated to buying that lottery ticket,” Beane said. “Anybody will tell you that the lottery is not a great way to invest your money. But sometimes, you don’t have a lot of options.”

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