Sometimes, you read something, and you can’t help but be irritated. This happens to me often. I know it shouldn’t but it does. It really bugs me when the article of my irritation comes from a site or publication I actually like. This is what happened when I read Fire Brand of the American League’s post titled The Day Billy Beane Backed out of Boston.
Now, for those of you who know me, I’m a huge fan of Billy Beane. No, he’s not really my hero. Seriously, he’s not. I do have a great deal of respect for him. When he took over as General Manager of the Oakland A’s in 1998, he was armed with a tiny payroll and a team full of replacement level players. Rather than just lay down on the tracks, and the big market teams to roll over the A’s, Beane started looking for creative and innovative ways to create a winning team. Using statistical analysis as his guide, Beane challenged baseball’s long held conventional wisdoms on run production and run prevention, and found more efficient and productive ways producing wins. Furthermore, he uncovered inefficiencies in baseball’s marketplace, and used that knowledge to build playoff caliber teams on the cheap. Between 1999 and 2006, Beane’s Athletics put up a 751-544 record with four AL West championships and one Wild Card. All of this was done while maintaining a payroll that was stuck in the bottom quartile of the league. Eventually, other teams caught on—especially after the release of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, which I highly recommend you read. Now, nearly every team has an advanced statistical analysis department. His philosophy and business model proved that small market teams could win consistently despite the constraints of their small payrolls. Beane was/is a revolutionary in a world where change is often glacial.
Fire Brand’s Darryl Johnston starts out with an interesting enough premise. What would’ve happen if Billy Beane had not backed out of his four year deal with the Red Sox back in 2002? It’s an interesting idea. Then, he goes to a place that’s littered with perception and assumption rather than reality:
“How would you feel if Beane could have resisted the alluring-draw of Oakland’s concrete jungle and $40 million dollar payroll? Would life as a Red Sox fan be good right now? Beane signed a deal and backed out at the last minute because he wanted to stay near his daughter and ex-wife. But some wondered if he didn’t just chicken out.
Landing Beane appeared to be a coup until the turnabout occurred. At the time, I don’t think anyone ever though there was such thing as a ‘sure’ thing with Boston Red Sox. It had become a common occurrence to stand at the edge of victory only to see it crumble horrifically by the wayside. It was an underlying psychology of the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ and Larry Lucchino watched it happen right in front of his eyes. Beane would not take the money and he ran back to the Oakland where things were safe for him.”
While it might be an understatement to say that Beane has never been comfortable with the concept of personal failure, I think it’s a bit insulting to make the claim that Beane “ran away” from Boston out of fear. Yes, Boston is a high pressure baseball town. Yes, the so-called “Curse of the Bambino” (compliments to Dan Shaughnessy aka Curly Haired Boyfriend) was in full swing. Yes, the risk of Beane being unsuccessful was greater due to Boston’s financial advantages. None of these things can be denied. That said, there’s an argument to be made that Beane actually faced greater challenges by going back to Oakland. Beane had to prove that he could replicate his success year after year, because everyone was claiming the A’s on-field success a fluke—including the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Furthermore, in the wake of Moneyball’s initial release, all of Beane’s secrets were public knowledge. He became vulnerable, which reduced his margin of error in Oakland. Beane would not have been as vulnerable had he chosen to sign with the big market Boston Red Sox. Armed with a higher payroll, Beane would’ve been afforded the ability to take a couple of extra risks that he would’ve deemed prohibitive in Oakland due to their much smaller payroll.
Lastly, Johnston seems to be have gotten his timeline mixed up.
"In Oakland, Beane’s legacy is a free roll. Success using his ‘advanced’ statistical metrics with limited dollars adds to his legend and brilliance. Moneyball lives on."
Moneyball wasn’t released until after Beane declined the Red Sox’s offer to become their GM. Therefore, he wasn’t protecting his legacy. Why? His legacy didn’t really come into existence until after the book came out. Yes, in the post-Moneyball era, Beane’s legacy is a free roll—now. If he was to repeat the same situation next week, only this time with the Cubs, then I can see how one might believe that Beane is more concerned with preserving his legacy than taking on a new challenge. But to claim that Beane purposely “ran” from Boston because he was trying to protect a legacy that did not yet exist is a little ridiculous. Beane chose to stay in Oakland because he loved his job with the A’s, and wanted to stay close to his daughter. There’s something respectable about a man that puts his long-term happiness ahead of personal achievements.