This is the second installment in a five-part series on important off-field, non-baseball occurrences that helped to shape the current state of the Oakland Athletics organization. The other three partswill run weekly on the remaining Thursdays in January. Part one can be found here.
This week's event is "off-field," but only barely. In my opinion, the fourth-most important non-baseball event affecting the current state of the Oakland Athletics happened just before the beginning of the 1990 season, when Billy Beane walked off the baseball field and into the office of Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson to request a job as an advance scout. Despite the fact that he chose to scout in lieu of accepting reassignment to the A's minor-league camp as a 28-year-old, it was something of an unprecedented move for a man who still had a bit of upside as a player; the Mets would've made him the first overall pick in 1980 if he hadn't strongly indicated his desire to go to college.
That being said, there were plenty of early indications that Beane could prove a remarkable off-field talent. This 1990 feature in Sports Illustrated, for instance, has a few gems, including one straight from the mouth of the man himself:
People don't believe me," Beane says, "but I'm happier scouting than I ever was playing."
While happiness is at least a contributing factor to future success, this quote is a little more concrete.
"He was incredible," says A's shortstop Walt Weiss. "Every time we faced a young, unfamiliar pitcher, Tony [A's manager La Russa] would turn to Billy and ask, 'Do you know this guy?' He knew everybody. He'd tell us what a pitcher's tendencies were and what we could look for on certain counts."
So one thing led to another, and in only seven years, Beane rose to the top of Oakland's front office structure, eventually taking over for Sandy Alderson as Oakland's general manager at the end of the 1997 season. The improvement was instant — the A's won 65 games in 1997, 74 in 1998, 87 in 1999, and 91 in 2000.
We all know what happened next — Beane inspired a bestselling book and a feature Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt, and in the process eschewed decades of conventional baseball wisdom to build a juggernaut of past-their-prime veterans and no-name rookies that made four straight playoff appearances to kick off the millennium.
A phrase that left Pitt's mouth more than once in Moneyball — "how can you not get romantic about baseball?" — rings very true. Beane had defied all the odds and built a series out of contending teams using pieces straight from the scrap heap. Fans packed an outdated park to watch their team win 20 in a row and coast to four straight AL West Division Championships, and the magic was very much alive.
But in a practical sense, Beane may have saved an era for A's fans. It's so very easy to envision a scenario in which Beane hadn't ever ended up as GM, since so many dominos needed to fall just as they did. Beane could stuck out his playing career for a few more years, maybe making something of himself on the field. He could have succeeded John Elway on the gridiron in Palo Alto, and he could have accepted the an offer from the Boston Red Sox and their owner, John Henry, to become the highest-paid general manager in sports.
Somehow, Beane is still in Oakland, and he replicated some of the magic in the past two seasons. In 2012, he took a team expected by most to win somewhere between 60 and 70 games and innovated his way to a division championship. He did it again in 2013 against reloaded Anaheim and Texas squads.
Had Beane not been there first in the early 2000s and then again a decade later, with the lengthy playoff hiatus punctuated by a 2006 ALDS sweep of the Minnesota Twins, a generation of fans could have been lost to the Giants or to other sports, or to nothing. It's not rare to see teams with facilities, attendance, and management issues struggle for years with no end in site. Beane has kept the A's firmly on the map both through his newfound celebrity status and (primarily) the results his teams get.
Consider the misery the A's and their fans have experienced in their quest for a new ballpark, all of which has happened during Beane's tenure. While there's no way of knowing what could have been, had "Moneyball" never taken the baseball world by storm, that level of discontent could have spread to the on-field product as well. This could have been a lost generation, with subpar facilities, second-class status within the reason, and a crappy team to boot. But instead of a lost era or a generation of disinterested fans, Beane has made the early 2000s arguably the second renaissance of Oakland baseball, following two runs of three straight World Series appearances in 1972-74 and 1988-90.
Much of this is speculative, but there's little doubt that much of the credit for the organization's success since Alderson and the A's parted ways is due to Beane. And hey, even if it didn't change the organization's trajectory (I think it did) and allow the A's to remain competitive for the better part of my lifetime, Beane quitting baseball as a player still eventually inspired a damn good book.