The Billy Beane way still works for A's, and team's owner
As the calendar turned to September, with the Oakland Athletics in the heat of a pennant race, their general manager was half a world away.
Billy Beane was in Prague, and not on a scouting trip.
Baseball's most unconventional operation has done it again. The A's will be crowned champions of the American League West for the second consecutive year, perhaps Sunday.
Beane has run the A's for 16 years. Oakland is about to win the AL West for the sixth time in his tenure. The Angels have won five times in that span, the Texas Rangers four times, the Seattle Mariners once.
You could write a book about his financial wizardry. The first five times Beane assembled the AL West champs, he did so with the lowest payroll in the division. This time, the A's are paying about $62 million — the same as the Angels paid to win the World Series 11 years ago.
Look beneath the numbers, though, to the story of a general manager and his boss, neither of whom are concerned about appearances. In an era when owners tend to involve themselves in everything from player acquisitions to marketing campaigns to employee dress codes, Beane can show up for work in shorts, bring his dog to the office, or trade away half the roster.
As they say in Oakland: Just win, baby.
Beane could have left the A's in 2005, when Lew Wolff became the managing partner. Wolff did not see why he needed to bring his own people, when the A's already had good people.
He gave Mike Crowley, the team president, a 1% ownership stake. He gave Beane a 4% stake — worth about $20 million now, based on the most recent Forbes estimates of franchise values, and worth much more when the A's get a new ballpark. Neither Beane nor Crowley has liability for any losses, Wolff said.
And, when Beane said he wanted to broaden his interests beyond baseball, Wolff said fine.
If Beane accepts a speaking engagement before business leaders thousands of miles away, even during the season, no problem. If he travels to Prague for a meeting of a corporate board of directors, as he did in this September pennant stretch, Wolff wishes him a safe flight and sends him a book about the local culture.
"That's pretty unique in this game," Beane said. "I don't take it for granted that he allows me to do this."
Said Wolff: "If you have really qualified people and nurture their image instead of asking them to subordinate it, you get a lot of good results."
Wolff insists the A's are better off for the insights Beane gets from investment bankers, and from data-driven experts in marketing, sales and human relations. The questions Beane and his staff might ask, Wolff said, are similar to ones executives at Procter & Gamble might ask.
"Everybody uses statistics and data," Wolff said. "Every decision is subjective. The narrowing of the subjective gap is what I believe Billy and his people do as well as anyone I have ever come across."