In thirty years, the Oakland Athletics, the team with the most mercurial roster in baseball, have had exactly two general managers, Sandy Alderson, hired in 1983, and Billy Beane, hired to replace him after the 1997 season. Alderson and Beane are friends, and indirect rivals, certainly. One is regarded as the mentor, the other, the protégé.
I can’t imagine any other franchise in the modern era having two brighter, more accomplished General Managers. But have you ever wondered about the effect the two had on each other’s performance? How do their personalities, careers, and accomplishments compare? It is said that Beane still seeks the counsel of Alderson who is 14 years his senior. But I wonder, in this era, perhaps it should be the other way around.
It’s easy to forget Alderson because he left the Athletics in the last millennium, well before this website even existed. He had arrived in the organization in 1981, hired by his former law partner, Roy Eisenhardt, to be the A’s General Counsel. (Eisenhardt had been hired by his father-in-law, Walter Haas, Jr. to be the A’s President when Haas had taken over the team.)
Quick! Who was General Manager when Alderson first joined the A’s? None other than the original Billy, Billy Martin! Hah! Martin had been hired as field manager in 1980, promoted to General Manager in 1981, and then quickly canned following the disastrous 1982 season (68 wins, 94 losses). Can you imagine the management chaos left over after a dissolute, combative maniac like Billy Martin?
Eisenhardt needed to restore order and there was only one man for the job, Sandy Alderson.
Everything about Alderson suggests discipline. He was raised in a military family. His dad, John Alderson, was a fighter pilot who had served tours of duty in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. (In fact, both Aldersons, son and Dad, served in Vietnam.) He was admitted to Dartmouth College on an ROTC scholarship, then served his hitch in Vietnam as a 2nd Lieutenant with the Marines. In 1976, he got his J.D. from Harvard Law School and joined the San Francisco law firm of Farella, Braun and Martel. That was where he met Eisenhardt. Alderson is cool and buttoned-down, not flashy but everybody knows when he’s in the room. A classic, credentialed system guy, Alderson was trained to be your better.
Surveying the mess Billy Martin had left behind, Alderson probably felt like Hercules tasked to clean out the Augean stables. It didn’t help that he had only the baseball experience of a casual spectator.
"Sandy didn’t know shit about baseball," says Harvey Dorfman, the baseball psychologist Alderson more or less invented. "He was a neophyte. But he was a progressive thinker. And he wanted to understand how the game worked. He also had the capacity to instill fear in others." [from "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis.]
Fortunately, Alderson had an advantage in his battle to impose order: Wally Haas had lots of dough and was willing to spend it on the A’s.
Knowing the value of good research and analysis, Alderson overhauled the A’s intelligence systems. "Alderson hadn’t started out to reexamine the premises of professional baseball but he wound up doing it anyway." Michael Lewis wrote. Through analysis of historical baseball data, Alderson was the one who discovered runs scored correlated more closely to on-base and slugging percentage, not team batting average. By testing various hypotheses, Alderson proved that, in many instances, bunting, stealing, and the hit-and-run were pointless exercises, even destructive. "I figured out that managers do all this shit because it is safe," Alderson said to Lewis. "They don’t get criticized for it."
Of course, Alderson could do little with his insights because the A’s were rolling in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Wally Haas operated the team as a community entertainment trust, and he was prepared to subsidize the team’s financial losses like the philanthropist he was. During most of Alderson’s era, the A’s were never starved for player payroll. Indeed, in 1991, the A’s had the highest payroll in baseball. They were competing against the Candlestick Giants and their attendance was consistently two million-plus, hitting a peak of 2.9 million in 1990. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Under Alderson, the A’s drafted phenomenally well (the Bash Brothers, Terry Steinbach, Walt Weiss, etc.) while acquiring some amazing talent (Tony LaRussa, Rickey Henderson, Dave Henderson, Bob Welch, Dennis Eckersley, Dave Stewart, etc.). As history notes, the A’s won four division titles in a row (1988-1991), three American League pennants, and one (sigh) World Series championship.
Oh yeah, there was one other notable accomplishment by Alderson, perhaps his finest: In 1993, he promoted Billy Beane from advance scout to Assistant General Manager.
The unusual pairing of Alderson and Beane had begun in 1990 when Beane walked off the playing field and asked Alderson to hire him as a scout. "I didn’t think there was much risk in making him an advance scout," Alderson recalled to Michael Lewis, "because I didn’t think an advance scout did anything." Three years later, Beane was officially Alderson’s right-hand man. I believe the five-year apprenticeship he served (1993-1998) gave him the foundation he needed for later success. But the experience may have stymied him, too.
Other people are often, mistakenly, credited for things Alderson did. The movie, "Moneyball," suggested the Paul DePodesta character, Peter Brand, was responsible for focusing the A’s on statistical analysis. Not even close. It was Alderson. (Alderson was DePodesta before anyone ever heard of DePodesta.) It was Alderson, the credentialed outsider, who introduced Beane, the failed insider, to the Bill Jamesian world of analytics. And it was Alderson who imposed the ruthless, top-down, organizational hitting philosophy.
To aid him in determining the most efficient way to hire baseball players, Alderson commissioned a pamphlet written by Eric Walker, a former aerospace engineer. In so many words, Walker stated the most important trait a baseball player could have is an ability not to make an out, since outs were in such limited supply. On-base percentage is just a measure of how well a hitter avoids outs.
Walker said fielding mattered only five percent of the time. Pitchers were the most important factor in winning, along with hitters who could avoid making outs. Pitching was fairly valued by the market, but hitting, and particularly high OBP, was undervalued.
In 1995, when the A’s ownership changed from the Haas family to Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann, Alderson unleashed his inner-Marine. He created an exacting, uniform system of training and evaluation for every level of the organization. He felt the system was the star. Improve the system and you improve the results on the field.
It was Alderson who actively sought to diminish the status of the on-field manager. Lewis reported Alderson’s rhetorical question: "In what other business do you leave the fate of the organization to a middle manager?" He cut LaRussa some slack, in deference to his success and celebrity. Once LaRussa bolted for St. Louis, however, Alderson quickly stuffed the field manager genie back in the bottle. He hired Art Howe to implement the front office strategy on the field.
(I have read several interviews in which LaRussa has disparaged the A’s under Beane for disrespecting the importance of the field manager. Tony, I have some news for you! Beane learned that from your old mate, Sandy Alderson! And here’s another shock for you: The "Moneyball" movie made up a lot of that conflict Beane supposedly had with Howe. Hollywood, Tony, is quite a bit less than meets the eye.)
In 1998, Sandy Alderson’s ambition got the better of him and he departed for the Commissioner’s office to impose order on the umpires, which he did. (In 1999, when the umpires union promised to walk off the job and tried to intimidate Alderson with an ultimatum, he said coolly, "It is either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted." The umpires never knew what hit them.) It was generally thought that Alderson was grooming himself to be Commissioner of baseball. That possibility died when Bud Selig kept extending his tenure.
The era of Beane had begun. The thing about running a Sandy Alderson system is it really, really helps if you are Sandy Alderson. Billy Beane is not. Alderson is a guy undeterred by doubt. Beane was defined by his doubt, at least, as a player. Alderson is a master of the finite; Beane is the man of the infinite quest. Can you imagine Alderson pulling a tantrum and destroying a dugout with a baseball bat? Conversely, can you imagine Alderson ever mustering the flim-flam necessary to pull off the Ricardo Rincon deal in 2002?
Beane was l’enfant terrible. At an early age, Beane had been a STAR ballplayer. Alderson, from an early age, was trained to be part of a system. The problem with stars is nobody says, "NO!" to them. (Remember, not even Beane’s parents said, "No, don’t sign that Mets contract." They deferred to their son, the star.) The problem in Alderson’s system environment is, everybody says "No" to you, unless you happen to be the general. Acts of artistic initiative are not tolerated.
And that’s how Alderson’s systems may have stymied Beane. It was Marine rigid. Everything Beane knew about the front office he learned under Alderson. Alderson had mentored him, given him his opportunities. Maybe it was Beane’s loyalty and respect for Alderson, plus his inexperience with any other management system, that led him to suppress his own talent and personality in service of Alderson's system.
Not only were their personalities different, their management challenges differed as well. Alderson had to achieve field excellence while imposing discipline on a chaotic organization. But he had the financial resources to do what he wanted. Beane’s management problem was to win in the era of little-or-no-money ball. I have often wondered, could Alderson have achieved what Beane has, given the limitations Beane has had to respect? I don’t know. But Alderson could only take three years of the Schott-Hofmann ownership. He only lasted four years as the San Diego GM, and now he is with the Mets. We’ll see.
Beane bristled, and yet flourished, for eight years under Schott and Hofmann. And he’s gotten even better under the benign strictures of Lew Wolff and John Fisher. Certainly, Alderson had the greater on-field success, three World Series, one title. Beane’s teams have yet to win "The Big One," as his detractors are fond of saying.
For me, a big part of the pleasure of watching Beane over the years is seeing him grow into his job. Beane’s longevity in a small market has allowed him to do things even Alderson could not have envisioned. Beane has had time and a long enough rope to learn from his mistakes.
Beane has built far more flexibility into the A’s system. In constructing the 2012 A’s, Beane demonstrated a mastery of team-building the big money teams can only envy from afar. In hiring and extending Bob Melvin, Beane seems to have learned a lesson about field managers that Alderson probably never would have tolerated.
Beane finally seems to have found his métier. His dugout-destroying days seem to be long gone. Just remember the Grant Desme episode. Desme, as you know, was the A’s top outfield prospect who quit baseball in 2010 to become priest. I still remember the wailing and rending of garments on this website over that decision. The nerve of this kid!
Beane, however, was okay with Desme’s choice. Why? In 1990, Beane did the same thing. He walked away from baseball, not into a Catholic monastery, but into the A’s front office (which may be the same thing for Beane.) And he did it for the same reason as Desme did, to find peace.
So Beane understood the difference between a desertion and a calling. When Desme broke the news of his departure, Beane simply congratulated him and calmly said, "I look forward to hearing your first homily." [Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports, 9-27-12]
For the record, the A’s dugout breathed a sigh of relief.
Alderson and Beane, thirty years and counting. Without those two, the A’s would not be what they are. Beane himself once described the A’s mission: "We’ve always been obsessed in Oakland with not being the cute small market story that came and went.
All I can say is, so far, so good.