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Where has the old Billy Beane gone?

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Crowley, Wolff, and Beane
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

How’s this off-season working for you? Lew Wolff is gone. Mike Crowley is gone. The A’s stink. We A’s fans require something outrageous to power us through our winter of discontent. So, where the heck is Billy Beane?

I don’t know about anybody else but I yearn for the golden age of chaotic team turnover. When was that, 18 months ago? Seems like 18 centuries ago. I have no stomach for this bottom-dwelling franchise gradualism. Slow and steady may be more productive but it sure as hell ain’t entertaining. I would rather watch Clay Wood fertilize the Coliseum grass.

We denizens of Athletics Nation need to feast on speculation and recrimination. Unfortunately, all the A’s are serving these days is quinoa and Brussel sprouts. This is intolerable. As Otter said in Animal House, “This situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part!”

Billy Beane was once just the man to do it. He used to entertain us, enrage us, enrich us. No longer. Billy vanished sometime between the Josh Donaldson trade and the election of you-know-who. I’m pretty sure that neither Donaldson or you-know-who had anything to do with Beane’s disappearance, but the CIA is on the case.

While we wait for the WikiLeaks report on Billy, it’s important to look back on the career of the most famous general manager in baseball history. People who knew nothing about baseball knew the name, Billy Beane. He was a rock star among the front office suits. Hiro Nakajima once signed a contract with the Athletics because he regarded Billy as “extremely sexy and cool.” Of course, the A’s had just paid Hiro $6 million to play two seasons of minor league ball but so what? I’m still laughing about that press conference. Has anyone ever called Brian Sabean sexy and cool? Ever?

Billy was probably the first general manager to take the internet seriously. Remember when Beane used to do an annual interview with Tyler Bleszinski, the founder of Athletics Nation? Those interviews were the best, no bull-shit assessments of baseball reality I ever read. They were the highlight of every off-season. Those were the days! There was a reason why the Athletics, boasting one of the most anemic attendance records in baseball, had one of the highest comment rates on SB Nation—Billy Beane. If the Athletics had not promoted him to GM, I’m pretty sure Athletics Nation would not exist.

Man, how I pitied fans of other teams. The Mariners? How about the Padres, the Brewers, or the Angels? Perhaps the Nationals? Draft choices, big payroll, big free agent signings, a new stadium, and look what the their fans were worried about, how many innings Stephen Strasburg should pitch. We A’s fans never worried about piddling stuff like that. We knew Billy would have traded Strasburg’s ass out of DC for nine AA pitchers and Ryan Sweeney.

That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Remember when Billy traded Ricardo Rincon three times while he was still in the visiting team shower? Remember when Billy bought a pitcher for $1 and started him in a World Series game! (My grief may be getting the better of my memory.) It’s easy to remember the time Billy fired half the team in June because, of course, he did it every season.

When things weren’t working, Beane made changes quickly, irrevocably, for better or worse. For 17 years, he was the most interesting thing the A’s produced: A major league phenom failure turned price-to-performance front office wizard. He was a fearless, wheeling-dealing dynamo. We A’s fans had trouble keeping up.

Billy embarrassed richer, slower teams on and off the field. Baseball traditionalists were pissed, too. They accused him of being an egomaniac because he wrote a book, and directed a movie, about himself. Joe Morgan still hasn’t gotten over that.

The fraternity of baseball executives and media were consoled because Beane didn’t win the Big One, the World Series, the last game of the season. Indeed, he didn’t even get out of the first round of the playoffs. Not even Billy could finesse his way out of that reality. Except for one thing, Billy retired as a player in 1989. Yeah, I looked it up. Not once during his front office career did Beane strike out or overthrow the cutoff man. GM’s get the players. The players play the game, and the players succeed or fail. That’s why the best players make ten times more per season than the best front office guys.

Of course, you might say Billy was indirectly responsible for the playoff losses. One theory was, his constant churning of the roster created psychological tensions which destroyed his players’ ability to function in the clutch. This was true only if you believe professional ballplayers lead sheltered lives. They don’t. Baseball is a tough, itinerant business. It’s up or out, and no crying. A typical player changes teams, and teammates, every year for decades before earning a chance to stay in one town for a measly three years. I had no idea such an unsentimental system could produce so many snowflakes but, according to the churn theory, it does.

People accused Billy of callousness for trading players like stocks. That perception was wrong. He traded them as if they were derivatives, puts and calls, assets whose value decays rapidly over time. Sounds tough, but that’s what ballplayers are. Rich Hill and Ben Zobrist were perfect examples of time-dated derivatives. So, too, was Coco Crisp, and his case perfectly illustrates why it is foolish to hold on to a declining asset too long.

Billy once knew that better than anyone. Now, apparently, he has struck a Forstian bargain to behave himself. Too bad. Billy Beane always made the trades that gave A’s fans hope. Give him credit. We shall not see his equal any time soon, unless Vladimir Putin releases him from his confinement aboard a barge on the Volga River.

Wake me when it happens.