Everybody remembers this scene from the movie, "Moneyball." The Billy Beane/Brad Pitt character counsels the Jonah Hill/Peter Brand/Paul DePodesta character on how to break the news to a player who has just been cut or traded.
Beane: "They're professional ballplayers. Just be straight with them. No fluff, just facts. ...Would you rather get a bullet to the head or five to the chest and bleed to death?
Brand: "Are those my only two options?"
Ryan Christenson, the manager of the Stockton Ports, the A's Single-A affiliate, has a special interest in that scene. In 2001, he was the player traded by Beane. One season after producing decent numbers as the Oakland Athletics centerfielder (.248/.349/.737), Ryan was DFA'd then traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Rob Ryan in one of history's few Ryan-for-Ryan swaps. So, naturally, I ask him, ‘Which option did you prefer?"
"A bullet to the head," he says without hesitation. "I was always the last guy to make the team and the first one cut. I never took it personally. I understood the business."
For a guy who has taken several bullets during his career, Ryan looks remarkably healthy these days. And why not? Billy traded him but he ended up playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks who went on to win the World Series. True, Ryan was a role player, still nursing a head wound (if you're paying attention to the imagery of this story) but he ended up with a World Series ring. Not bad therapy.
Ryan was a superior athlete whose career was constantly short-hopped by injury. He played college ball at Pepperdine University where he made his bones near the mean streets of Malibu, California. After that harrowing experience, he was drafted in 1995, in the 10th round by the Oakland Athletics. But he got hurt and his pro career stalled briefly.
"I had a surgery in 1995 and didn't really make it back until mid-season of 1996," Ryan remembers. "The next year, 1997, I hit all three levels. I started in Visalia (then Single-A), then I went to Huntsville (Alabama, then Double-A) for about a month and a half. I finished up the year in Edmonton (Alberta, Canada, then Triple-A)."
He hit the Bigs in 1998 and stuck until his afore-mentioned, bullet-riddled exit. After the Dbacks, Ryan caught on with the Brewers, then the Rangers in 2003. In 2004, he signed a free-agent contract with the Florida Marlins but didn't play. Again, injury was a factor.
"My knee was pretty busted up," Ryan says. "That year, Dr. (Lewis) Yokum performed the micro-fracture surgery. He told me, straight up, there was a pretty good chance I would not play again."
Pow! A bullet to the knee!
By 2005, Ryan was finished. After a year of rehab, he decided to forego the grind of pro baseball and give real life a chance. He completed his business degree at Pepperdine and worked a couple years as a mortgage banker. As someone once asked, though, "How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they have seen Broadway?"
That was an apt question for Banker Christenson. Processing mortgage loans has a way of making the monotonous grind of baseball seem almost enticing. An old hitting coach of Ryan's, Pete Berrios, started a sports training academy in Atlanta and invited Ryan to join the enterprise as, of all things, a hitting instructor. He was there for five years while he learned the fundamentals of hitting he never grasped as a player. The experience also instilled in him coaching skills that he valued. But, let's face it, flipping balls to kids and working with amateur travel team players starts to feel as stale as the mortgage business after a while. It was not enough to keep him down on the farm.
Ryan's renewed yearning for pro baseball led him to apply for coaching positions in MLB. He got nowhere fast. Then Keith Lieppman, the A's Director of Player Development, and the legendary Grady Fuson, now Beane's Special Assistant, expressed an interest. There was an opening for a manager of the Beloit (WI) Snappers, the Athletics' low-A minor affiliate, and...pow! Faster than a speeding bullet, Ryan became a manager.
After a winning season in Beloit in 2013, Ryan was promoted to the Stockton Ports. (Ryan will be Guest-of-Honor at the Athletics Nation Day post-game reception on June 8 in Stockton.) So his career is clearly on the mend. He is managing the most talent-laden team in the A's minor league system and he is a former centerfielder managing the No. 2 prospect in the A's system, 19-year-old Billy McKinney, a centerfielder. Ah, the symmetry of it all!
"Billy has so many things he's dealing with as a Number One pick," Ryan says. "He's right out of high school, suddenly playing a 140-game schedule. He's been thrown right into High-A level competition. He's done a phenomenal job of handling the circumstances.
"He has the athletic ability to play centerfield. He moves well. He's gotten to a lot of balls in the gap I didn't expect him to get to, and he seems to get good jumps. The biggest negative about him is his ability to control the running game. Sometimes he will try to gun down a runner at third instead of throwing to second base to keep the double play in order."
I can name at least a dozen major league outfielders who have the same problem.
Of greatest importance, McKinney must learn to deal with The Grind, the minor league grind then, presumably, the Major League Grind. I interviewed Ryan before the first of a three-game set in San Jose against the Single-A Giants. I had assumed the team would be staying in a hotel in San Jose for the duration, but no! Each day, the Ports hopped a bus in Stockton around mid-day, rode two hours to Silicon Valley, arrived at 2:30pm for a 7pm game, warmed up, played, then climbed back on the bus for the two-hour commute back to Stockton where they arrived around midnight!
Grind? What grind?
"The minor leagues rarely change," Ryan says. "The one major difference is there are some nice ballparks in the minors now. Other than that, the minor leagues are the same. You're on the bus, learning how to grind out a season. A minor leaguer has to learn how to maintain a routine and keep himself in the present."
When Ryan first came up to the Show, Sandy Alderson had instituted a rigorous emphasis on on-base percentage in the A's minor league system. I ask Ryan if that focus still exists. "It's all about reaching first base." Ryan explains. "It doesn't matter how you get there. After that, it's a matter of scoring runs. That hasn't changed."
"When Moneyball first came out and the concept became trendy," Ryan remembers, "everybody thought the focus for the A's was to draw a walk. That wasn't the case. The walk was just the result of working the count to get your pitch. If you got something to hit on the first pitch, you were allowed to swing. But the idea was always to find the right strike to hit."
He teaches that as manager but he doesn't use a lot of sabermetrics. "I don't use a lot of statistical analysis to manage at this level," he says. "In the major leagues, they will use it a lot more to gain matchup advantages, but here, we're all about player skill development. My job is to get the players out on the field and get them 500 at-bats. I don't care who they get them against."
Ryan has been impressed by the way the A's train their coaches, managers and training staff. "Keith Lieppman gives us off-season reading to digest," he explains. "Each coach is assigned a specific topic or chapter to present. Then, every morning during Spring Training, our first hour is spent discussing that subject among ourselves. It can be a tough room sometimes. If you open yourself up, you have to be able to take it just as you would in the clubhouse. You have to develop a thick skin and a sense of humor. Quickly."
I ask Ryan to name the best manager he has encountered in his career. "Usually, the question is phrased, ‘Who's the biggest jerk you've met?'" Ryan says. "Fortunately, I haven't worked with that many jerks. My first manager was Art Howe. I learned the importance of composure from him. I played for Buck Showalter. He's accused of being a control freak but I learned a lot about preparedness from him. Ron Washington was my favorite coach. He has the ability to communicate with every single player in a fun, firm, straight-forward way."
Ryan is one of the few people on earth who knows both Art Howe and Grady Fuson, real guys who were turned into cartoons by the dramatic whims of Hollywood. Since we started this story with a movie vignette, I decided to ask Ryan his opinion of their portrayals in "Moneyball." He is clearly perturbed.
"Maybe there was some behind-the-scenes stuff I wasn't aware of, and I know the screenwriters needed villains for the story," he says. "But those people on screen were not the guys I know."
Pow! I wonder which option Hollywood screenwriters prefer, one to the head or five to the chest?
[Meet Ryan Christenson at Athletics Nation Day in Stockton on June 8. This is the last chance to RESERVE YOUR SEATS by sending Jerry "EBHI" Brewer an email at ANMeetup@gmail.com.]