The Toronto SkyDome is nearly empty on this May afternoon. While concessionaires busily prepare their stands, a dark-haired young man dressed in a gray sport coat and navy-blue trousers sits in the first row of seats with his legs crossed. The Seattle Mariners trickle out of the visitors' dugout for batting practice, and several players notice the young man, who is reading a green notebook that bears the insignia of the Oakland Athletics.
Dave Cochrane, a utility infielder, looks over, squinting. "Beanie, is that you?" he asks, concealing a smile with his fielder's glove. "Ni-ice jacket. And what are those? Loafers, Beanie? And that hair, it's all preppy."
Beanie is the nickname of Billy Beane, baseball's youngest advance scout. He retired from the playing field earlier this year at 28, an age at which most pros are just reaching their prime. Players such as Cochrane, who rode the buses with Beane during his playing career, can't figure out what he is doing in such stylish clothes.
"People don't believe me," Beane says, "but I'm happier scouting than I ever was playing."
An advance scout is the chief spy in a baseball team's intelligence network. He is the man sent out to gather information on his club's next opponent and pass on his discoveries to the coaching staff and the players. No team in baseball has a network quite like that of the A's, nor do many teams put as much time and effort into major league scouting as the A's.
Ron Schueler, Oakland's special assistant to the vice-president of baseball operations, was the main brain of its major league network during the A's championship season of '89. Among baseball people, he is regarded as the game's best advance scout. The A's also know him to be a sound judge of young talent, so in an effort to give Schueler more time to work on the '90 spring draft (the A's had seven picks in the first two rounds) as well as his other duties, they decided to bring in another advance man.
Beane, a first-round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1980, spent the better part of four months in the big leagues with the A's last year after signing as a minor league free agent. He filled in for the injured Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, in the outfield and at first, respectively, and also made his first major league appearances at catcher and third base. His contributions on the field were not large (.241, 11 RBIs), but he made such an impact in the clubhouse and the dugout that it led to his current position.
"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."
Beane relished his role on the Athletics' bench. Ten years of discipline and attentiveness in places like Portland, Ore.; Toledo; and Tidewater had not gone to waste. "I couldn't help but study every opponent; it was my favorite part of the game," he says. "I think I was just too much of a fan to be a great player, though. I remember facing Tom Seaver in an exhibition game and thinking, ——, will you look at the way he dips and drives! How was I supposed to hit?"
At one time, the Mets envisioned Beane as one of the cornerstones of their outfield, opposite another '80 first-rounder, Darryl Strawberry. "Billy Beane can do just about anything," Strawberry said in 1985 when Beane was at Tidewater hitting .284 with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs. Beane was tabbed by the New York media as a replacement in leftfield for the Mets' aging George Foster, but Beane was sent to Minnesota early the following year as part of a trade for Tim Teufel. He spent the next three seasons bouncing back and forth between the big leagues and the minors. In August '89, when Beane's wife Cathy told him they would be having their first child, Beane's perspective on his baseball career changed.
"I had been thinking about getting into some front-office work after I retired," Beane says. "But when this opportunity came up, I figured, why wait?" His advance scout's salary won't approach the $150,000 he made last year as a big leaguer, and the travel can be grueling, but Cathy and their baby girl, Casey, now have a permanent home in Rancho Bernardo, Calif.
For four or more days each week Beane scrutinizes the next team on Oakland's schedule, marking the idiosyncrasies of each player on his intricately detailed charts. He is especially mindful of any weaknesses that the A's might be able to exploit in an upcoming series. On the day Oakland is to meet the scouted opponent, Beane usually takes an hour and a half to deliver his report to La Russa and the A's coaching staff, either in person or via a telephone conference call.
"He has a very analytical mind," says La Russa of Beane. "He knows what to look for, and he's not afraid to have an opinion."
Says Beane, "I know they wouldn't have hired me if they thought I was just going to tell them to throw everybody hard stuff in and breaking stuff away. Anybody could tell them that. I'm an opinionated guy, not a yes-man. They knew that when they hired me."
One of baseball's senior advance scouts, Baltimore's 77-year-old Birdie Tebbetts, believes that Beane's young scouting eyes are an asset. "Sometimes, when a veteran gets up, all the older scouts start talking about supermarket prices," Tebbetts says. "And the kid will notice something that we all missed."
But the most difficult part of Beane's job is scouting rookies, the players with no major league history. That's when it's up to the scout to find the weaknesses in a batter's strike zone or to break down an opposing pitcher's repertoire. Beane is aware that his report on a newcomer is the only information the A's will have on that player before a game. "Tony and Dune [Dave Duncan, the A's pitching coach] are more confident going into a game against Roger Clemens or Mark Langston than they are facing some wild-eyed kid just up from Double A," says Beane.
Still, though there is pressure in the job, there is also reward. "Probably the biggest thrill is that Tony La Russa calls me up to talk baseball, to ask me my opinion," says Beane. "As a player, I always wanted to just sit down with him and pick his brain. Now I do that all the time, and I'm getting paid for it!"