When is the last time you can say that an offseason with the Oakland A's wasn't interesting? I can't remember. This offseason has been no different with the team first firing Ken Macha, announcing plans to move to Fremont, a very thorough search for a new manager leading to the hiring of Bob Geren, the loss of Frank Thomas to a team that plays on an artificial surface, the signing of Mike Piazza and the loss of Barry Zito. It's been a wild one for the team that was one of baseball's final four teams standing in 2006.
So you know that Billy Beane would just have a lot of interesting things to say about all that has gone down since the 2006 season came to a rapid close at the hands of the Detroit Tigers.
I sat down with Beane last week in his office in Oakland for one of our chats and what follows is the first part of our discussion.
Blez: What was your reaction to last season and the ultimate result?
Billy Beane: We were all pleased especially if you look at it in hindsight, particularly with what we went through with the injuries. It was an unbelievable year when you look at the sheer number of injuries and the fact that we accomplished what we did. I think one of the reasons we were able to overcome it was because the year before (2005) the injuries, and the Angels had a lot to with it, prevented us from winning the division. I think last year we had a tougher injury year but because of the depth of club we were able to overcome it. We got beat by Detroit who was a buzzsaw in that ALCS, but we were the same thing with Minnesota. So in hindsight we were very pleased with what happened.
Blez: It must've been nice to finally dispatch that huge first round monkey off your backs. The organization has received quite a bit of criticism because of the failure to close out a series.
Beane: It's just noise that we just kind of ignored any way. I've always said that in a five-game series, randomness will come into play. It's not always that the best team wins. You could make the argument last year, and I'm not sure that I would make it, but that Minnesota was a better team than we were. But we beat Santana the first game, got a bit of momentum going and we wound up winning three games. But I'm not going to sit here and tell you for sure that we were a better team than the Minnesota Twins. That's just the nature of the playoff system. I think the guys were determined to make sure that that wasn't a story that could be written again. And they went out and got the job done. I think they were thinking about it more than I was, and I'm the one, along with Eric (Chavez) and Z (Barry Zito), who was here the whole time. They were determined to not let that become the story. As for our feeling, we believe that if you get there enough times, you're going to get through it eventually.
Blez: Did getting that close to the World Series make you that much hungrier to get there and win it?
Beane: You never know when you're going to be back there again and I've been around long enough to at least enjoy it and recognize the opportunity. But even when you're in the ALCS and you have four games to win, it still feels like a long way away. You don't really feel when you're in the intensity of it all that you're that close because it's a very intense time. Jumping back, I remember in the late 80s and early 90s when I was in the organization, it seemed automatic that we were going to go to the playoffs. Then we went through that period during the 90s when I thought, "Gee, I wish I would've enjoyed that a little more because it doesn't seem like we're going to get back there for a while." And we didn't get back there for a while. So I've consciously made it a point to just enjoy the postseason and at that point there isn't a whole lot of manipulating or things that you can do that are really going to change the outcome. There's no sense in worrying about it then, so I've just made a point to enjoy it.
Blez: Would you call winning the World Series your greatest motivator?
Beane: I don't look at things that way. We all have a motivation to win the World Series because you want to be the best that given year and be crowned the Champions. I don't view it as a pursuit, you know sort of like Les Miserables and Javert. It's the culmination of a lot of work and in many cases, many years of work. I think each individual year you make that your goal and if you don't make it, you take a step back and say, "How do we put ourselves in the position to have that opportunity every year?" The point is if you're there every year, eventually you're going to win.
Blez: You mentioned the series against the Tigers. I felt as though the Tigers changed their fundamental batting approach and sort of gave the A's a taste of their own approach in being very patient with our starters. The Tigers weren't exactly known to be patient hitters.
Beane: I think that's exactly what they did. They were coming off a pretty emotional win against the Yankees and they had a very talented team. They were swinging the bats kind of like when we played the Reds back in the `90 World Series. They had a lot of self-confidence and when they got down a run or two it didn't seem to bother them. We caught them at a bad time. The better team won that series and that needs to be said. I don't think anyone should've walked away thinking, oh we should've won that series. We got boat-raced. I think it hurt emotionally when we lost Ellie (Mark Ellis). You might say that's one second baseman who is hitting late in the order, but the team had overcome so many injuries and it was finally starting to feel good about itself in getting through that Minnesota series. And then to know that a guy like Mark, who is more important than just the position he plays and where he hits in the order, but just a part of the fabric of this team. We were scrambling to find guys as we had guys hurt at the end of the year. We lost three middle infielders in the course of a couple of weeks. That emotionally had an impact on the guys.
Blez: Obviously two big reasons for the success in 2006 were the contributions of Barry Zito and Frank Thomas and now they're both gone. How does the 2007 team make up for the loss of those two key cogs?
Beane: If you are going to look at it in a linear fashion, losing both those guys is going to be tough. We were able to overcome a guy like Rich Harden's injury by having a guy like Barry there. The hope is that Rich is healthy and he takes Barry's production. In Frank's case, as we went into last season, Frank was sort of the cherry on top that if he was healthy we thought he'd be a protective component of this club and would fit in nicely. As it turned out, Frank carried us. Because of all the injuries we needed him. The way I look at replacing Frank's production is having a lot of the guys healthy. For example, having Bobby Crosby healthy, Chavy was banged up all season long. We signed Mike Piazza to come in. We don't expect Mike to come in and duplicate Frank's numbers, but we're hoping he won't have to. Milton (Bradley) was hurt a lot and just by the virtue of having some of these guys return to production and health, we hope that will make up for a lot of it. That being said, we won't have the depth that we had the previous year. If we didn't have Frank, we don't win it. But going into the season, we weren't counting on Frank hitting 39 homers and doing what he did. Health on the position players side and health on the pitching side, then Rich can take over for Barry and just slot right in there. Then Joe Kennedy will just slot right into that fifth spot.
Blez: I'll come back to the health topic in a second, but what led to the decision to let Ken Macha go?
Beane: He had some great success here. I don't really desire to rehash it or get back into it, but I just felt like it was time for us to make a change. When that happens and the team has a lot of success, there will be a lot of articles written. By and large, I've tried to keep it to a minimum. Basically I decided it was time to make a change. I prefer to keep it that way. You can't argue with the success that Ken had while he was here. He had four very successful years. But at this point we felt it was just better to pursue another direction.
Blez: Change almost for the sake of change?
Beane: That's probably a little too simple, but this isn't an indictment on Ken. We just felt like at this point forward, this would be a better option for us. I believe Ken will manage in the major leagues again as he's had too much success to not get that opportunity. Change is a part of things that go on here.
Blez: Was it a decision that would've been made no matter how the A's did in the playoffs?
Beane: There's probably no sense in speculating on what if scenarios as it's probably not fair. We're moving forward and Ken will get the opportunity to move forward with his career. I guess I'll refer to your answer in that I felt like it was time for a change and time will tell whether it was a good decision or not.
Blez: You went through a very exhaustive search for a new manager after Ken was let go. Many in the media speculated that it was only for show because you knew that you wanted to hire Bob Geren all along. How do you respond to that criticism?
Beane: I don't because I don't care and I don't really read a lot of it. We have made it pretty clear how we were going to conduct the search. It was on our timetable not on some other individuals' timetable. That certainly wasn't the case. We were very happy with the process and didn't feel like it was very exhaustive, just planned out. We didn't even start the process until a full week after the ALCS. We weren't going to just run out and start interviewing guys. The season is a long and exhausting time for all. The idea that we were just going to pop in on Tuesday and starting interviewing wasn't something that was going to happen. I can say this with total candor; every guy that we interviewed could've gotten hired. We would've been happy with any of those guys. Buddy Black got hired in San Diego. Buddy Black was a great interview. We weren't going to interrupt our process and not do it justice by virtue of the fact that maybe someone was going to get hired.
Blez: That was actually my next question. Losing people like Ron Washington during the process must've been frustrating, did you ever consider speeding things up?
Beane: Ron was going to get that opportunity regardless. If I sped it up just for that reason, then the whole process in itself becomes a joke. If that would've been the case then you could've made an accusation the other way in that you sped it up just to get the candidate you wanted. That would've been inconsistent. Three guys who were involved in our process got hired, if you include Bob, Trey Hillman had just won the Japanese Series. I'm not sure we could've had a better group of guys. Each of the guys had his own strengths, but we could've taken any of the guys and been happy.
Blez: That's a nice segue way to my next question. A good number of A's players and fans were openly rooting for Ron Washington to get the job. What made Geren your guy over all the other candidates, especially someone who many of players were openly asking for in Wash?
Beane: For good reason, the public accolades that Ron received were well deserved. We had two candidates internally and it was never at a point where one was chosen over the other. You have to understand that we weren't at the end of the two-week process and we weren't at a point where we had two guys that we were making the decision on. At that point, Ronnie had been offered the Texas job. I think that's accolades for Ron that's well-deserved and we chose a great guy to interview.
Blez: But what makes Bob Geren THE guy over all the other guys?
Beane: As far as preparation, more so than any manager I've been around when they've been hired as I wasn't here when Tony (LaRussa) was hired, Bob has the background that you want. He's managed in the minor leagues longer than anyone on our staff, even more so than when Kenny came in and took over. He's a former major player, so he has credibility there. He was a catcher, which is, and I don't believe that a certain position makes you better, but some would say that many catchers make good managers. Joe Torre is one example. He has great communication skills and has a tremendous amount of passion and energy. He's got a good relationship with the players as well. And as I said before, if at the end of the day we're left with two internal candidates, we couldn't have made a bad decision.
Blez: What kind of manager will Bob Geren be?
Beane: At the risk of redundancy, the first thing that comes to mind with Bob is that he's a great communicator. He's got a lot of energy. I think his ability to relate and communicate to players will be his biggest asset.
Blez: Many have speculated that this could be a difficult position for Geren because you two have such a close relationship. Do you think this will be a challenge for the two of you when he does things on the field that you might not approve of?
Beane: That's a bit contradictory because in the past we've been accused of not getting along with the managers. So I'm not sure exactly which way people are looking for it to be. Quite frankly, if you think that there's not a manager/GM relationship that exists out there with other organizations in the game, you're kidding yourself. At some point if you scanned all 30 teams, in many cases there is a friendship bond formed along the way. I've said this many times, I've got a lot of good friends and most of them I wouldn't hire as my manager. Bob probably should've been in the major leagues sooner than he was. The fact that I have known him a long time probably hindered him a little bit. To me it's completely contradictory, one minute the front office doesn't get along with the manager, the next he gets along too well with the manager. Which way do you want it? Second to Bob, I've known Ron Washington for 22 years. We were teammates and I was one of the guys who brought him here when Art (Howe) was here. Where's the happy medium there? If anything it should lead to us having very good communication with ourselves and that position. The other thing too is Bob's relationship with David (Forst) who is a critical member of this franchise and also the minor league staff is very, very good.
Blez: You talked about how the media is on you no matter which way you go. The media often paints you as making the on-the-field decisions any way. How do you react to that perception?
Beane: (Laughing) I actually take it as a compliment. One time this summer I was accused of being detached and another time I was accused of micromanaging. The ability to do all those things I take as a supreme compliment. That would be an inaccurate statement, but it would make no sense to run around defending it. The most important job I have is to run this business in a sound way, which we have, and to win games. That's the end game here. The defense is maybe if we didn't have any input maybe we would've won more games. I don't know.
Blez: One more thing about the coaching staff. This is something like the fourth hitting coach in five years...or something like that. What do you look for in a hitting coach and is it a problem that the A's haven't been able to retain some consistency at that position?
Beane: It's probably the most difficult position. It helps having a guy who has played in the big leagues. You have to be a psychologist and understand hitting mechanics. You kind of have to encompass all of those things to be successful. It's a difficult spot. Each case is individual. We thought Gerald (Perry) did a really good job last year, but losing Gerald is more a case of him having an existing close relationship with Lou Piniella. We weren't looking to make a change there but the relationship with Lou was there and it was closer to his (Perry's) home. That was understandable. Gerald did a great job for us and I don't think we were unhappy with him at all. Each case that we had has its own individual story.
Blez: What are your thoughts on the new hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo?
Beane: He was very impressive. It was funny cause over that month as we were talking to managerial candidates it started to look like if Lou got that Cubs job, Gerald might be leaving to go there. We kept hearing his (Van Burkleo's) name come up from people who didn't know each other. As we were putting together a list of potential hitting instructors, we put his name on the list because we'd heard his name in several different places who all rave about this guy. So I knew the first indication that we'd hit on something when I called Assistant GM Ken Forsch and I said, "Ken, I'd like to ask for permission to speak to Ty Van Burkleo for our major league hitting job." He just groaned like I was afraid you were going to say that. To me that was a validation of what their own organization thought about him and the last time that someone had that reaction when I called to ask about another person is when John Hart had that reaction when I called about Paul DePodesta. His reaction and John's and the fact that Paul ended up being as great as he was, I figured we hit on the right guy.
Coming tomorrow: Beane talks about all of the uncertainty surrounding the 2007 squad and tackles the all-important health questions.