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Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

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market for baseball players was by its nature unsystematic.
Unsystematic — and yet incredibly effective.

The absence of cash is always a problem for a man on a shop-
ping spree. Ricardo Rincon would be owed $508,000 for the rest of
the season, and that is $508,000 the Oakland A's owners won't
agree to spend. To get Rincon, Billy must not onlv persuade Indi-
ans GM Shapiro that his is the highest bid; he must find the
money to pay Rincon's salary. Where? If he gets Rincon, he doesn't
need Mike Magnante. No one else does either, so he's unlikely to
save money there. No matter what he does, the A's will wind up
eating Magnante's salary. But he might well be able to move Mike
Venafro, the low-budget left-handed reliever he had just sent down
to Triple-A. Venafro is a lot younger than Magnante. Other teams
might be interested in him.

This gives Billy an idea: auction Mike Venafro to teams that
might be competing with him for Ricardo Rincon.

He knows that the San Francisco Giants are after Rincon. He
knows also that the Giants don't have much to spend, and that, if


offered a cheaper option, they might be less incHned to stretch for
Rincon. "Let's make them skinnier," he says, and picks up the
phone and calls Brian Sabean, the GM of the Giants. He'll offer
Venafro to the Giants for almost nothing. In a stroke he'll raise
cash he needs to buy Rincon (because he won't have to pay
Venafro's salary) and possibly also reduce his competitor's interest
in Rincon, as they'll now see they have, in Venafro, an alternative.

Brian Sabean listens to Billy's magnanimous offer of Mike
Venafro; all Billy wants in return is a minor league player. Sabean
says he's interested. "Sabes," Billy says, after laying out his pro-
posal, "I'm not asking for much here. Think it over and call me

The moment he hangs up he calls Mark Shapiro, current owner
of Ricardo Rincon, and tells him that he has the impression that
the market for Rincon is softening. Whoever the other bidder is,
he says, Shapiro ought to make sure his offer is firm.

As he puts down the phone, Paul pokes his head into the office.
"Billy, what about the Mets on Venafro? Just to have options."
Sabean is the master of the dry hump. Sabean is always expressing
what seems like serious interest in a player, but when it comes
time to deal, he becomes less serious.

"The Mets could be after Rincon," says Billy.

The phone rings. It is Mark Shapiro, calling right back. He tells
Billy that, by some amazing coincidence, the other buyer for Rin-
con has just called to lower his offer. Billy leans forward in his
chair, chaw clenched in his upper lip, as if waiting to see if a fly
ball hit by an Oakland A will clear the wall. He raises his fist as it
does. "I just need to talk to my owner," he says. "Thanks, Mark."

He puts down the phone. "We have a two-hour window on Rin-
con," he says. He now has a purpose: two hours to find $508,000
from another team, or to somehow sell his owner on the deal.
Never mind that his owner, Steve Schott, has already said that he
won't spend the money to buy Rincon. He shouts across the hall.
"Paul! What's left on Venafro's contract?"


"Two hundred and seventy thousand, eight hundred and thirty-
three dollars."

He does the math. If he unloads Venafro, he'll still need to find
another $233,000 to cover Rincon's salary, but he isn't thinking
about that just yet. His owners have told him only that they won't
eat 508 grand; they've said nothing about eating 233 grand. He has
two hours to find someone who will take Venafro off his hands.
The Mets are a good idea. Billy picks up the phone and dials the
number for Steve Phillips, the general manager of the Mets. A sec-
retary answers.

"Denise," says Billy, "Billy Beane, Vice President and General
Manager of the Oakland Athletics. Denise, who is the best-
looking GM in the game?" Pause. "Exactly right, Denise. Is Steve

Steve isn't there but someone named Jimmy is. "Jimmy," says
Billy." Hey, how you doin'? Got a question for you. You guys look-
ing for a left-handed reliever?"

He raises his fist again. Yes! He tells Jimmy about Venafro. "I
can make it real quick for you," he says. He knows he wants to
trade Venafro, but he doesn't know who he wants in return.

How quicks

"Fifteen minutes?"


"I can give you names in fifteen minutes," says Billy. "Yeah,
look I'd do this if 1 were you. And I'm not shitting you here,
Jimmy. I'm being honest with you."

Paul sees what is happening and walks out the door before Billy
is finished. "I gotta find some more prospects," he says. He needs
to find who they want from the Mets in exchange for Venafro.

Billy hangs up. "Paul! We got fifteen minutes to get names." He
finds Paul already in his office flipping through various handbooks
that list all players owned by the Mets. He takes the seat across
from him and grabs one of the books and together they rifle
through the entire Mets farm system, stat by stat. It's a new game:


maximize what you get from the Mets farm system inside of fif-
teen minutes. They're Uke a pair of shoppers who have been
allowed into Costco before the official opening time and told that
anything they can cart out the door in the next fifteen minutes
they can have for free. The A's president, Mike Crowley, walks by
and laughs. "What's the rush?" he says. "We don't need Rincon
until the sixth or seventh inning."

"What about Bennett?" asks Paul.

"How old is he?" asks Billy.


"Fuck, he's twenty-six and in Double-A. Forget it."

Billy stops at a name and laughs. "Virgil Chevalier? Who is

"How about Eckert?" says Paul. "But he's twenty-five."

"How about this guy?" says Billy, and laughs. "Just for his name
alone. Furbush!"

Anyone older than about twenty-three who is desirable will be
too obviously desirable for the Mets to give up. They're looking for
a player whose promise they have a better view of than the Mets.
Someone very young. It will be someone they do not know, and
have never seen, and have researched for thirty seconds.

"How about Garcia?" Paul finally asks.

"What's Garcia? Twenty-two?"

"Twenty-two," says Paul.

He shows Billy the stats for Garcia and Billy says, "Garcia's
good. I'll ask for Garcia." He gets up and walks back to his office.
"Fuck!" he says, on the way. "I know what I'll do. Why don't we
go back to them and say, 'Give us cash too!' What's the difference
between Rincon and Venafro?"

Paul punches numbers into his calculator: 232,923.

"I'll ask him for two hundred and thirty-three grand plus the
prospect," says Billy. "The money doesn't mean anything to the

Being poor means treating rich teams as petty cash dispensers:


$233,000 is the difference between Venafro and Rincon's salaries
for the rest of the season. If he can get the Mets to give him the
$233,000, he doesn't even need to call his owner. He can just make
the deal himself.

He pauses before be picks up the phone. "Should 1 call Sabean
first?" He's asking himself; the answer, also provided by himself,
is no. As Billy calls Steve Phillips, Paul reappears. "Billy," he says
"you might also ask for Duncan. What can they say? He's hitting

"Who would we rather have, Garcia or Duncan?" asks Billy.

The Mets' secretary answers before Paul. Billy leans back and
smiles. "Denise," he says, "Billy Beane. Vice President and Gen-
eral Manager of the Oakland Athletics. Denise, who is the coolest
GM in the game?" Pause. "Right again, Denise." Denise's laugh-
ter reaches the far end of Billy's office. "Billy has the gift of mak-
ing people like him," said the man who had made Billy a general
manager, Sandy Alderson. "It's a dangerous gift to have."

This time Steve Phillips is present, and ready to talk. "Look,
I'm not going to ask you for a lot," says Billy generously, as if the
whole thing had been Phillips's idea. "I need a player and two hun-
dred and thirty-three grand. I'm not going to ask you for anyone
really good. I have a couple of names I want to run by you. Garcia
the second baseman and Duncan the outfielder who hit .217 last

Phillips, like every other GM who has just received a call from
Billy Beane, assumes there must be some angle he isn't seeing. He
asks why Billy sent Venafro down to Triple-A. He's worried about
Venafro's health. He wonders why Billy is now asking for money,

"Venafro's fine, Steve," says Billy. He's back to selling used cars.
"This is just a situation for us. I need the money for . . . something
else I want to do later."

Phillips says lie still wonders what's up with Venafro. The last
few times he's pitched, he has been hammered. Billy sighs: it's


harder turning Mike Venafro into a New York Met than he sup-
posed. "Steve, me and you both know that you don't judge a
pitcher by the last nine innings he threw. Art misused him. You
should use him for a whole inning. He's good against righties too!"

For whatever reason the fish refuses the bait. At that moment
Billy realizes: the Mets are hemming and hawing about Venafro
because they think they are going to get Rincon. "Look," says
Billy. "Here's the deal, Steve." He's no longer selling used cars.
He's organizing a high school fire drill, and tolerating no cutups.
"I'm going to get Rincon. It's a done deal. Yeah. It's done. The
Giants want Venafro. I've told them they can have him for a
player: Luke Robertson."

"Anderson," whispers Paul.

"Luke Anderson," says Billy, easing off. "We like Anderson. We
think he's going to be in the big leagues. But I'd like to deal with
you because Sabes doesn't have any money. You can win this
because you can give me two hundred thirty-three grand in cash,
and he can't. I don't have to have the two hundred thirty-three
grand in cash. But it makes enough of a difference to me that I'll
work with you." He's ceased to be the fire drill instructor and
become the personal trainer. You can do it, Steve! You can win!

Whatever place he's reached in the conversation, he likes.
"Yeah," he says. "It doesn't have to be Garcia or Duncan. I'll find
a player with you. If it makes you feel better." (/ want you, and
only you, to have Venafro.) "Okay, Steve. Whoever calls me back
first gets Venafro." {But if you drag your heels you'll regret it for
the rest of your life.)

Billy's assistant tells him that Peter Gammons, the ESPN
reporter, is on the line. In the hours leading up to the trade dead-
line Billy refuses to take calls from several newspaper reporters.
One will get through to him by accident and he'll make her regret
that she did. Most reporters, in Billy's experience, are simply try-
ing to be the first to find out something they'll all learn anyway
before their deadlines. "They all want scoops," he complains.


"There arc no scoops. Whatever we do will be in every paper
tomorrow. There's no such thing as a paper that comes out in an

It's different when Peter Gammons calls. The difference
between Gammons and the other reporters is that Gammons
might actually tell him something he doesn't know. "Let's get
some info," he says, and picks up the phone. Gammons asks about
Rincon and Billy says, casually, "Yeah, I'm iust finishing up Rin-
con," as if it's a done deal, which clearly it is not. He knows Gam-
mons will tell others what he tells him. Then the quid pro quo:
Gammons tells Billy that the Montreal Expos have decided to
trade their slugging outfielder, Cliff Floyd, to the Boston Red Sox.
Billy quickly promises Gammons that he'll be the first to know
whatever he does, then hangs up the phone and says, "Shit."

Cliff Floyd was the other player Billy was trying to get. "There's
more than one season," Billy often said. What he really meant was
that, in the course of a single season, there was more than one
team called the Oakland Athletics. There was, for a start, the team
that had opened the season and that, on May 23, he'd booted out
of town. Three eighths of his starting lineup, and a passel of pitch-
ers. Players who just a couple of months earlier he'd sworn by he
dumped, without so much as a wave good-bye. Jeremy Giambi, for
instance. Back in April, Jeremy had been Exhibit A in Billy Beane's
lecture on The New and Better Way to Think About Building a
Baseball Team. Jeremy proved Billy's point that a chubby, slow
unknown could be the league's best leadoff hitter. All Billy would
now say about Jeremy is that walking over to the Coliseum to tell
him he was fired was "like shooting Old Yeller."

There was a less sentimental story about Old Yeller, but it
never got told. In mid-May, as the Oakland A's were being swept
m Toronto by the Blue Jays, Billy's behavior became erratic. Dri-
ving home at night he'd miss his exit and wind up ten miles down
the road before he'd realize what had happened. He'd phone Paul
DePodesta all hours ot the night and say, "Don't think I'm going


to put up with this shit. Don't think I won't do something." When
the team arrived back in Oakland, he detected what he felt was an
overly upbeat tone in the clubhouse. He told the team's coaches,
"Losing shouldn't be fun. It's not fun for me. If I'm going to be mis-
erable, you're going to be miserable."

Just before the Toronto series the team had been in Boston,
where Jeremy Giambi had made the mistake of being spotted by a
newspaper reporter at a strip club. Jeremy, it should be said,
already had a bit of a reputation. Before spring training he'd been
caught with marijuana by the Las Vegas Police. Reports from
coaches trickled in that Jeremy drank too much on team flights.
When the reports from Boston reached Billy Beane, Jeremy ceased
to be an on-base machine and efficient offensive weapon. He
became a twenty-seven-year-old professional baseball player hav-
ing too much fun on a losing team. In a silent rage, Billy called
around the league to see who would take Jeremy off his hands. He
didn't care what he got in return. Actually, that wasn't quite true:
what he needed in return was something to tell the press. "We
traded Jeremy for X because we think X will give us help on
defense," or some such nonsense. The Phillies offered John Mabry.
Billy hardly knew who Mabry was.

On the way to tell Jeremy Giambi that he was fired, Billy tried
to sell what he was doing to Paul DePodesta. "This is the worst
baseball decision I've ever made," he said, "but it's the best deci-
sion I've made as a GM." Paul knew it was crap, and said so. All
the way to the clubhouse he tried to talk Billy down from his
pique. He tried to explain to his boss how irrational he'd become.
He wasn't thinking objectively. He was just looking for someone
on whom to vent his anger.

Billy refused to listen. After he'd done the deal, he told reporters
that he traded Jeremy Giambi because he was "concerned he was
too one-dimensional" and that John Mabry would supply help on
defense. He then leaned on Art Howe to keep Mabry out of the
lineup. And Art, occasionally, ignored him. And Mabry proceeded


to swat home runs and ,i;amc-winnin,t; hits at a rate he had never
before swatted iheni m his enine professional career. And the
OakUind A's began to win. When Billy traded Jeremy Giambi, the
A's were 20-25; they had lost 14 of their previous 17 games. Two
months later, they were 60-46. Everyone now said what a genius
Billy Beane was to have seen the talent hidden inside John Mabry.
Shooting Old Yeller had paid off.

Neither his trading of Jeremy Giambi nor the other moves he
had made had the flavor of a careful lab experiment. It felt more as
if the scientist, infuriated that the results of his careful experi-
ment weren't coming out as they were meant to, waded mto his
lab and began busting test tubes. Which made what happened now
even more astonishing: as Billy Beane sat in his office in July, just
a few months after he'd chucked out three eighths of the starting
lineup, he insisted that the shake-up hadn't been the least bit
necessary. Between phone calls to other general managers he
exphnned how the purge he'd conducted back in May, m which
he'd ditched players left and right, "probably had no effect. We
were 21-26 at the time. That's a small sample size. We'd have
been fine if I'd done nothing." The most he will admit is that per-
haps his actions had some "placebo effect." And the most aston-
ishing thing of all is that he almost believes it.

Two months later, he still didn't want to talk about leremy
Giambi. All that mattered was that the Oakland A's were winning
again. But they were still in third place in the absurdly strong
American League West, and Billy worried that this year good
might not be good enough. "We can win ninety games and have a
nice little season," he said. "But sometimes you have to say 'fuck
it' and swing for the fences."

And so he flailed about, seemingly at random, calling GMs and
proposing this deal or that, trying to make a Fucking A trade.
"Trawling" is what he called this activity. His constant chatter
was a way of keeping tabs on the body of information critical to
his trading success: the value the other GMs were assigning to


individual players. Trading players wasn't any different from trad-
ing stocks and bonds. A trader with better information could
make a killing, and Billy was fairly certain he had better informa-
tion. He certainly had different information. In a short two months
with the Oakland A's, for instance, Carlos Pena had transformed
himself from a player Billy Beane coveted more than any other
minor leaguer into a player everyone valued more highly than
Billy did. He knew — or thought he knew — that Carlos was over-
valued. The only question was: how much could he get for him?

Dangling Carlos from a hook, Billy tried to lure the Pittsburgh
Pirates into giving him their slugging outfielder Brian Giles. When
the Pirates resisted, he offered to send Carlos and his fourth out-
fielder Adam Piatt to Boston for outfielder Trot Nixon, and then
send Trot Nixon and the As flame-throwing Triple-A reliever,
Franklyn German, to Pittsburgh for Giles. Again, no luck. He then
gave up on Giles and tried and failed to talk Cleveland's GM,
Shapiro, into sending him both his ace, Bartolo Colon, and his best
hitter, Jim Thome, for Cory Lidle and Carlos Pena.

In all of this Billy Beane was bound to fail a lot more than he
succeeded: but he didn't mind! The failure wasn't public; the suc-
cess it led to was. Trawling in late June, using Carlos Pena as
chum, he stumbled upon a new willingness of the Detroit Tigers
to trade their young but expensive ace, Jeff Weaver. Billy didn't
have much interest in Jeff Weaver (at $2.4 million a year, pricey)
but he knew that the Yankees would, and he had long coveted the
Yankees' only young, cheap, starting pitcher, Ted Lilly (as good as
Weaver, in Billy's view, and a bargain at $237,000). He sent Carlos
Pena to Detroit for Weaver, then passed Weaver to New York for
Lilly plus a pair of the Yankees' hottest prospects. Somehow, in
the bargain, he also extracted from Detroit $600,000. When Yan-
kees GM Brian Cashman asked him how on earth he'd done that,
Billy told him that it was "my brokerage fee."

That had happened on July 5. He wasn't finished; really he was
just getting started. He made a run at Tampa Bay's center fielder


Randy Winn and while Tampa Bay's management was willing to
talk to Billy, they were too frightened of him to deal with him.
One former Tampa executive says that "after the way Billy took
[starting pitcher Cory] Lidle from them, they'll never deal with
him again. He terrifies them." He came close to getting Kansas
City outfielder Raul Ibanez, but then Ibanez went on a hitting tear
that led Kansas City to reevaluate his merits and decide that Billy
Beane was about to pick their pockets again. (The year before, at
the trade deadline, Billy had given Kansas City nothing terribly
useful for Jermaine Dye, just as, the year before, he'd given them
next to nothing for Johnny Damon.)

With Carlos Pena gone, Billy re-baited his hook with Cory
Lidle. Lidle had pitched poorly during the first half of the season
but he w^as starting to look better. When Lidle went out to pitch,
Billy rooted for him as he never had before — not simply for Lidle
to win but for Lidle's stock to rise. Kenny Williams, CM of the
Chicago White Sox, expressed an interest in Lidle. Billy suggested
a package that would yield, in return, the White Sox's slugging
outfielder Magglio Ordonez. The White Sox declined, but that
conversation led to another, in which Billy discovered that the
White Sox were willing to part with their All-Star second baseman
and leadoff hitter, Ray Durham. To get Durham and the cash to
pay the rest of Durham's 2002 salary, all Billy had to give up was
one flame-throwing Triple-A pitcher named Jon Adkins. Over the
past eighteen months Billy had traded every pitcher m the As
farm system whose fastball exceeded 95 miles per hour — except

Ray Durham, acquired on July 15, had been a Fucking A trade.
(It quickly inspired an article on baseballprospectus.com, the lead-
ing sabermetric Web site, with the title: "Kenny Williams, A's
Fan.") In getting Durham, Billy got a lot more than ]ust half of a
season from a very fine player. Durham would he declared a Type
A free agent at the end oi the season. Lose a Type A free agent and


you received a first-round draft pick plus a compensation pick at
the end of the first round. If Kenny WiUiams valued those draft
picks properly, he would have kept Durham on until the end of
the season, and then let him walk. Those two draft picks alone
were worth paying Ray Durham to play half a season; they were
certainly worth more than the minor league pitcher the White Sox
acquired for Durham.

This trading strategy came with a new risk, however. Baseball
owners and players were, by the end of July, at work hammering
out a new labor agreement. The players were threatening to strike;
the owners were threatening to let them. The Blue Ribbon Panel
Report had put oomph behind a movement, led by Milwaukee
Brewer owner and baseball commissioner Bud Selig, to constrain
players' salaries and share revenues among teams. One of Selig's
proposals — tentatively agreed to by the players' union — was to
eliminate compensation for free agents. No more draft picks. Billy
Beane was making a bet: it wouldn't happen. The only way a new
labor agreement occurs, he assumed, is if the players agree to some
form of constraint on market forces, either through teams sharing
revenues or some form of salary cap. And if they agree to that, the
owners will be so relieved that they give the players what they
want on every smaller issue.* "This is a small issue in the big pic-
ture," he says. "The history of the union negotiations tells you
that they're never going to acquiesce to the slightest detail. If the
owners do get revenue sharing, it's going to be, 'Grab your ankles.'
It's going to be, 'Do what you want with me. Beat me like a farm

* You might think the players would want to eliminate the need for the rich
teams that signed free agents to compensate the poor ones that had lost them. The
practice was a tax on free agency. But the practice also gave the players' union veto
power over any changes that the owners might want to make in the amateur draft,
and this they valued even more highly.

t He was right about the draft picks.


Whereupon he hent over to illustrate what the owner of a base-
hall team mi.qht look like, were he to play the farm animal.

C^htt Flovd was Ray Durham all over again. Floyd would be a
free agent at the end of the season and so, like Durham, a tieket
for two more first-round draft picks. The trouble with Floyd, from
the point of view of an impoverished team looking to acquire hmi,
was that he was the only big star still left on the market. "Fiis
value will only fall so far," says Billy.

In the time he spent trying to nail down Rincon, he had lost
Floyd. Or so it seemed. Now he notices he has a voice mail mes-
sage. While he was talking to Gammons, someone else called.
Fie's thinking it might be Sabean or Phillips calling to take
Venafro's 270 grand paycheck ott his hands. Money is what he
needs, and he hits his telephone keypad as if there's money inside.
There isn't. "Billy," says the soft, pleasant, recorded voice. "It's
Omar Minaya. Call me back, okay?" Omar Minaya is the Mon-

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Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 17 of 24)