How the Athletics built a winner
Despite stadium, payroll and fan base challenges, Oakland is thriving on the field
The closing scene of "Moneyball" is beautiful filmmaking. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane has a decision to make. The Boston Red Sox have offered him $12.5 million, but leaving Oakland would mean his relationship with his daughter would never be the same. Beane pops a CD of her singing into his car stereo and drives across what you assume is the Bay Bridge, and the movie fades to black.
As the music plays, we learn Beane turned down the Red Sox job and stayed in Oakland. The Red Sox won the World Series two years later using many of the same principles championed in Oakland. And "Billy is still trying to win the last game of the season."
That's it. No mention -- despite the film's 2011 release date -- that the A's went on to make the playoffs again in 2006 despite giving away all their trade secrets to the rest of baseball in Michael Lewis' book that inspired the movie. No mention of the change in ownership in 2005 that transferred power to Lew Wolff and John Fisher.
Competitive edge is fleeting. As soon as you think you've got it, it's probably already passed you by. That keeps us on our toes.” -- A's GM Billy Beane
And no earthly idea that the Athletics would keep right on winning far more than their payroll suggests they should for the next decade despite a billion-dollar arms race in the American League West the A's were bystanders to.
You see, "Moneyball" the movie might have been a nice cinematic event. But in real life, there were never any final scenes or closing credits. There was an evolution. And it happened in part because the team's new owners did something almost as revolutionary in their field as Beane did in his. They gave him a piece of ownership and made him a part of them.
"It was the smartest thing I've ever done," Wolff says of the decision to give Beane a 4 percent ownership stake and team president Michael Crowley 1 percent. "He's a business voyeur.
"A lot of owners wouldn't do it, but I don't believe changing management is the key to somebody catching a ball any better."
No, what Wolff believes in is that feeding someone's ego isn't necessarily a bad thing. That if you give smart, talented people space to grow, they'll grow. And then eventually, that growth is what will separate the organization from the competition in a statistically significant way.
"It's not only a great personal touch, but it's also a brilliant business move," Beane said. "It's a great incentive for an employee when you're vested into the business, and you're obviously going to make decisions to help keep us healthy."
More than that, though, it invigorated Beane intellectually. It pushed him to refine and evolve the concepts that turned the 2002 team -- and later all of baseball -- on its head. It got him to think about business as well as baseball, which in turn, made him think about baseball differently.
When we spoke this week, he called in from a speaking engagement at Goldman Sachs' corporate office in New York.
"Lew recognized that I was somewhat intellectually restless anyway, and this was a great way for personal and professional growth for me," Beane said. "I think he recognized early on that I'm physically and mentally hyperactive."
Beane says this in his typically self-effacing way, then laughs to underscore the point. But there's no concealing the secret sauce embedded within that statement.
"Competitive edge is fleeting," Beane says. "As soon as you think you've got it, it's probably already passed you by. That keeps us on our toes. We know someone out there is doing something better, wiser and smarter. So there's always a certain amount of intellectual insecurity that we have."
That insecurity can be a powerful, creative force. But to follow to where your instincts are guiding you, it helps to have some pretty good job security. You know, like owning a piece of the team.
"It's kind of like when a president gets a second term, he can finally go out and do some things without worrying about being re-elected," Beane joked.
Beane was kidding, but not everyone was laughing when he pulled off one of his more daring moves in 2011, trading promising 26-year-old lefty Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for four prospects.
"I had one grandson who wouldn't talk to me for a month after we traded Gio," Wolff said. "But we'd had a meeting in early spring training that I sat in on where Billy and David Forst and Farhan Zaidi met with the coaches to discuss what we were doing, and they really set in motion a plan.
"It was so interesting. Somebody sitting there who wasn't comfortable with the way we operate would say, 'This is nuts!' But I thought it was pretty cool."
Wolff thought it was cool because he made his money in real estate by envisioning what something could eventually be worth, not what it looked like at first glance. Location was the most valuable thing. You hire good contractors and architects to take care of the rest.
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The type of vision and smarts Beane and his staff had was the most valuable asset the A's had going for them when Wolff and Fisher purchased the franchise in 2005 for $180 million. The rest of the deal had flaws. The A's played in an aging, decrepit stadium that was neither hospitable nor profitable. They had one of the smaller local corporate bases in the majors, no marketable superstar players, and no real ability to retain the young players who might eventually grow into them.
All those challenges remain nine years later despite Wolff's constant clamoring to resolve the stadium issue. Yet the A's keep on winning in spite of them. This year's AL West title marks their third playoff appearance in nine years and second in a row.
"He's been a wonderful owner in a very difficult situation," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. "It's a great story. I give Lew credit and the Fishers credit and Billy Beane. Last year was amazing, and this year is even more amazing.
"I'm proud of them. It's been an incredible success story against difficult odds."
A long-term relationship
Selig, of course, is both the reason Wolff is in baseball and one of the reasons the Athletics' stadium issue remains unresolved.
They were fraternity brothers at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1950s and rib each other all these years later.
"Bud was the president," Wolff said. "Bud's always the president."
Said Selig: "My mother was looking at some of our fraternity pictures, and there's this nice picture, except this one guy with his back facing the camera," Selig said, telling the story with gusto. "There's 100 people facing the camera and smiling and one guy with his back. My mother said to me, 'Who is this guy?' And I said, 'That's Lew Wolff.' And she said, 'Buddy, let me tell you right now, 'He'll never amount to a row of pins.'"
In 2002, Selig recruited Wolff -- who had made a fortune in real estate and owned stakes in the St. Louis Blues and Golden State Warriors over the years -- to join the A's. He was to focus on solving the stadium issue.
"The only concentration was how to do it in Oakland," Wolff said. "People like to forget how much time we spent trying to do it in Oakland. The local press likes to say we didn't try -- totally wrong."
Next the attention turned to the nearby East Bay city of Fremont, where the A's bought up $80 million of property on a site they thought could be developed into a stadium. The project eventually fizzled, and the A's were stuck with the property. Wolff says they have held on to it long enough for the value to have come back enough that they can resell it at a loss of $25 million or so.
After that, the A's turned their attention to San Jose and secured a naming rights deal on a state-of-the-art 34,000-seat stadium with technology company Cisco.
One problem: The A's previously had surrendered the territorial rights to the San Jose market to the San Francisco Giants (without compensation, when they needed support to build their new ballpark). The Giants aren't about to give those rights back without a hefty settlement.
Selig appointed a committee to study the situation more than four years ago. In the meantime: San Jose lost patience and filed an antitrust lawsuit against MLB, against Wolff's wishes; conditions at the O.co Coliseum have deteriorated; and the Athletics' fan base has grown so annoyed and weary of everyone involved that attendance has dwindled.
While the lawyers spar and the committee studies, Wolff is making alternative arrangements. He said this week that he's willing to extend the team's lease with the O.co Coliseum another five years with three one-year options "at three times higher than what we've been paying" with enough upfront money "so they can improve the Coliseum a little bit."
But this is not a long-term solution, and everyone involved knows it.
"I don't say this lightly. We know that the present stadium they play in is outdated and has all kinds of problems," Selig said. "Nobody is more aware of that than I am. I've had a committee studying it, and I know it's taken a long time. It's tried a lot of people's patience, but it's a very difficult situation, with very complex issues. But we'll work our way through this because we need to find a solution."
Selig said it's a priority for him to do so before he leaves office after next season.
But, of course, it's been a priority for Selig and Wolff for more than a decade already, yet still nothing has been resolved. Wolff has never hidden his frustration.
"Bud is, to put it mildly, deliberative," Wolff said. "They [the committee members] have spent four-and-a-half years seeing if I missed anything in Oakland or Fremont, and they have come up with nothing.
"We're following a process that may seem excruciating, but it's fair. This is what the commissioner of baseball does. He's made baseball better. He's leaving it a lot better than he found it. And he's leaving us a lot better than we found it."
The fact that this story is about the A's making the playoffs for the second year in a row despite having a $62 million payroll in a division loaded with baseball's nouveau riche, and not the embarrassing incident in June when a heavy rainstorm caused a raw sewage leak at the Coliseum that flooded both clubhouses is really something.
Now, if a heavy rainstorm causes something like that in the playoffs, every story will be about that. But, for the moment, all that just goes into the pile of "challenges" the A's have overcome this season -- and every other season since baseball's financial landscape started shifting in the mid-'90s.
Wolff and Beane brushed aside questions about what a new, cutting-edge ballpark would do for the franchise. Of course it would strengthen their business and help them compete with their rivals year in and year out.
"Our goal, ultimately, would be if parents bought their kids a jersey with the name on the back, it would actually last for a few years," Beane joked.
He jokes because nothing he or Wolff says at this point is going to matter much to the process. Selig holds those keys, and everyone involved has to trust he'll wrangle the rest of the owners to resolve the issue before he leaves office.
Although Selig might be moving slower than Wolff would like, his history suggests that he does get there eventually. Both men recalled the story of how a then 20-something Selig sequestered the members of their fraternity in a room and wouldn't let anybody leave until an African-American football player named Charlie Thomas was accepted into the fraternity.
He was the first African-American to join any fraternity at Wisconsin. It was 1955. One year after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that integrated public schools.
"That meeting could be going on today," Wolff said. "Bud wasn't letting anyone out until Charlie was in that fraternity. That was probably a precursor to the way he operates. That was the seed of what this man was like."
So yes, Wolff has faith his old college buddy will get this done. And Selig, likewise, has faith that Wolff will be a good citizen until he does.
"Lew is one of those owners, who, right from the start, knew that the best interests of baseball were the most important thing," Selig said. "We may have an issue where we disagree from time to time, but never is he anything but cooperative relative to the greater good of the game."
So, for now, the issue is tabled.
The playoffs beckon, and we're back to the closing scene of the movie again, where "Billy is still trying to win the last game of the season."
Doing that one day would be the final flourish on a great baseball legacy. Proof that thinking differently and having the courage to follow those convictions can win it all. But also evidence that trust matters a whole lot, too.
Wolff trusted Beane, so Beane could trust himself and his instincts. It has pushed them all far beyond the place where Hollywood left off.
"We have to take risks," Beane said. "Because there has to be some difference between how we run our business and how everybody else does. Otherwise, we'd finish where our payroll says we should."
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