Billy Beane is one of the most celebrated sports general managers ever, and the Oakland A's GM is about to become even more so with the release of the movie Moneyball, in which he is portrayed by Brad Pitt. Beane isn't worried that it won't look too good if his team is still around .500 -- the A's are three games under right now, at 27-30 -- when the movie hits big screens, reportedly on September 23.
"Why?'' he said by phone. "They are completely separate entities. One is a Hollywood production. The other is real life.''
Beane said he has seen the movie but declined to say how it turns out. But assuming the Hollywood version follows the storyline of the best-selling book of the same name, Beane can do no wrong. He is as brilliant as he is innovative. And while that may be so, in real life his A's haven't exactly been dominating the AL West the past few years following the string of success that inspired the Michael Lewis book. Going into this season, the A's had posted four straight non-winning seasons (a .500 record in 2010 was preceded by three losing years). That down period followed eight straight winning seasons from 1999-2006 that included four division titles and one wild card despite the team's low revenues and correspondingly low payroll.
Beane definitely has a few detractors, particularly among scouts who felt slighted by the book, which praised him mostly for taking advantage of market imbalances but also for his reliance on stats and computers as much as scouts. Those detractors can point to Oakland's average of 77 wins the last four seasons heading into this one as evidence that Beane's approach isn't fool-proof. The A's payroll has remained well below average (at $66 million, it ranks 21st of 30 teams). While they are still better than their payroll, thanks largely to one of the better and deeper pitching staffs in the game, they aren't where they expected to be.
Those expectations were overshadowed recently by a major distraction when Beane's hand-picked choice to manage the team, boyhood friend Bob Geren, had an unflattering spotlight put on him. Respected but struggling A's reliever Brian Fuentes made critical comments about Geren that were followed by an even harsher slam of Geren by former A's pitcher Huston Street. After a bitter defeat, Fuentes called Geren's handling of him "pretty poor,'' and said there was "zero communication'' between the two men. That harsh assessment triggered one of the most negative reviews of a manager ever when the Rockies' Street texted to the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser that Geren was the "least favorite person I have ever encountered in sports from age 6 to 27.'" It's rare to hear two such ruthless reviews about a current manager, and it inevitably shined a light on the tight relationship between Beane and Geren, who was the best man at Beane's wedding.
Beane dismissed Street's comments, saying, "I'm not necessarily going to care what is said by one player from three years ago,'' and chalked up Fuentes' words to a difficult stretch. "There were a lot of close tough games and everyone was on edge,'' Beane said. "The issue was handled (in house) instantly and the case was closed.''
Maybe so, but the A's will have to recover for Geren not to remain an issue. Initial difficulties and defeats under Geren were understandable as the small-revenue team was beginning a rebuilding phase when he took over before the 2007 season. However, a fifth straight non-winning season in his five years wasn't part of the plan. As a former ballplayer who rose from being an advance scout for Oakland to become by far the most widely admired general manager in the game, Beane is undeniably one of the smartest men in baseball, if not the smartest. He must know his manager has the potential to be a continuing topic.
Fair or not, Beane's close relationship with Geren became an issue again thanks to Fuentes' comments. There have been whispers in the past about a communication issue regarding Geren, and it doesn't help that the perception exists that he got the job because of his tight relationship with the boss, and has a better chance of keeping it for the same reason. Beane disputes that perception but he does have to walk a fine line between being supportive and appearing too supportive. He has backed his manager, but also disputed a story I heard from a person claiming Beane told him Geren was "the best manager in baseball,'' saying that's just not something he'd say. Beane is in a tough spot here. He knows whatever he says is being viewed through the prism of the perception that he and Geren are buddies. If he's too complimentary, he risks feeding the widely-held belief that Geren is a made man.
Beane's public comments, while kind, remain somewhat more circumspect. "The position itself is challenging, and even more challenging when we have a consistently inconsistent start,'' Beane said of being A's manager. He maintained that he's "not one to evaluate employees publicly," but eventually added, "Under the circumstances, he and the staff have done the best job they can, understanding three starting pitchers went out and the closer just came back.'' Which sounds like a highly-couched passing grade.
The outside reviews regarding Geren aren't all that glowing (though most aren't as bold as Fuentes, who had to know about the Beane-Geren relationship). But what matters is Beane's evaluation, and he knows his own communication with Geren is excellent. "Given the choice, I'd rather have a good relationship than a poor one,'' Beane said, adding that he can "separate the professional and personal relationships.''
That won't necessarily alter the perception that Geren has a unjustified grip on his job that's usually reserved for icons like Tony La Russa or Mike Scioscia. The relationship might slightly benefit Geren (it very likely got him the job), but in the end, Beane has to know he must do what's right for the organization. Beane doesn't soft-sell the team's ability in an effort to protect Geren, that's for sure. Beane gave a fair evaluation of that, saying, "We all think we're good enough to compete.''
Barring a string of Fuentes-like evaluations from A's players (which won't happen), Geren almost surely gets the year, which happens to be the last one on his contract. But there appears to be tremendous pressure on him for the first time.
Beane's own spot is set and his reputation forever sterling. He was so coveted as a GM that the A's did something no other team has done for its GM, and that is to make him a part owner (sources indicate he owns about four percent of the team). Ever since the book explained in detail why he's so far ahead of his competitors, his speaking fees are through the roof. Beane absolutely glows in the book, and it can't hurt a person's image to have Pitt play them.
The team could still steal a tight division, which would raise Beane's profile further. One competing GM maintained they are a threat because "their pitching is so strong and deep'' despite an offense that can tend to be moribund. Beane himself acknowledged that in the American League West, the Rangers "have the best offense ... I don't think there's any getting around that.''
Injuries have been a killer for Oakland this year, with starting pitchers Dallas Braden, Tyson Ross and Brandon McCarthy all out simultaneously, with Braden gone for the year. But other issues have crept in, too. Most obviously, the team can't hit. They are 26th in runs with 202 and 27th in OPS -- one of the new stats that were part of the sabermetric revolution ignited by the Moneyball book -- at .659, even below 15 of 16 National League teams that don't have the benefit of the designated hitter (only the Padres are lower).
Oakland enters the weekend last in the four-team AL West but just four games out of first. However, Beane's all-pitch, no-hit team may need a Hollywood ending to reach the World Series that his eluded him during his storied tenure.
• Beane did the right thing by telling his catcher Kurt Suzuki to do what he could to avoid major home plate contact. It has been proven not to be worth it, as Buster Posey's devastating injury has shined a light on the danger of home-plate collisions.
• Giants manager Bruce Bochy's campaign to protect catchers with new rules is admirable even if there appears to be little momentum to change them. Giants GM Brian Sabean's comment about the baserunner -- "If I never hear from (Scott) Cousins or he never plays another game in the big leagues, I think we will all be happy" -- was over the top, though. Cousins' play was within the rules given that Posey had part of the plate blocked and there's no obligation to slide. One of the problems in legislating the play is the fear that baserunners might be hurt more if they were forced to slide into the catcher.
• The Padres' Heath Bell is believed to seek at least a three-year deal in the range of other top closers not named Mariano. And even if Bell takes a discount, which he's suggested he would, that would still put him at $10-to-12 million a year for the three years, too rich for San Diego, which understandably isn't up for spending 20 percent of its payroll on a reliever, even an excellent one. So if the Padres don't play themselves into the race, look for Bell to go. Teams that could be interested include the Cardinals, White Sox, Rangers, Angels, Phillies, Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies and Yankees
• Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran should interest the Yankees and possibly the Red Sox, which always make things interesting.
• Kirk Gibson's no-nonsense approach is paying of for the surprising Diamondbacks. In his first full-year as manager, he has stressed accountability, and a team that underachieved in recent years has obviously listened to his message.