Stacked Decks

A series of bold moves by the A's and the Tigers stoked rumors of a rivalry, but the (god)fathers of the deals swear it's not personal, just business
August 11, 2014

FIRST THE A'S acquired starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs, on July 5. On July 23 the Tigers picked up closer Joakim Soria from the Rangers. Then came baseball's trade deadline, July 31: In the morning the A's added Red Sox ace Jon Lester, and late in the afternoon the Tigers pried away the Rays' ace, David Price.

It was billed as an arms race, a chess match, a pose-off, a prizefight. In one corner was well-heeled, well-coiffed Detroit general manager Dave (the Iron Brow) Dombrowski. In the other was the A's longtime plucky underdog, Billy (the Stalker) Beane. That one-on-one dynamic seemed to be confirmed when it was reported last Thursday that Dombrowski, having acquired Price mere ticks before the deadline, engaged in some light trash talk by texting Beane, "You have 1 minute to acquire Chris Sale," in reference to the White Sox' No. 1 starter.

There were, however, a few problems with the prevailing narrative. Beane says he texted Dombrowski, not vice versa: "You gave me only one minute to try and get Chris Sale," he wrote. And he did it to subvert the popular notion that he and his Tigers' counterpart had engaged in a two-man transactional war, not to confirm it. At one point he even included a smiley-face emoticon.

The idea that the A's were gunning for the Tigers—who, it should be noted, have eliminated Oakland from the playoffs in consecutive years—aggravates Beane because it overlooks the very real threats his team faces within the AL West. As of Sunday the Angels were 66--44, one game behind the A's and five wins ahead of the Tigers. "What fool would do this job for this long, have a one-game lead and start talking about October?" Beane asks. "When I first heard, 'This is done only for October—bulls---! You desperately want to make the playoffs, and you desperately want to win the division so you don't play in the one-game playoff. I can't imagine a bigger faux pas than looking forward two months when you've got a really good team right behind you."

Beane also didn't like the suggestion that he and Dombrowski engaged in an emotionally driven game of one-upmanship instead of a series of carefully considered, if bold, tactics. "We had lost two starters to injury in spring training, had to substitute two guys in, and the back end of our rotation was on fumes," Beane says. "I had to make sure we didn't run out of gas. And, simply put, Lester's a No. 1 starter. Those guys are rarely, if ever, available. If that caliber of player is out there, you go get him."

The A's July trades attracted so much attention not just because of the players they acquired but also those they gave up, which included their top prospect, the 20-year-old shortstop Addison Russell (to the Cubs), and their cleanup hitter, Yoenis Cespedes (to Boston). The organization had invested a lot of capital in both, monetary and emotional. Before they drafted Russell 11th overall in the 2012 draft, Beane and his top two lieutenants, David Forst and Farhan Zaidi, had watched him in person—they still laugh about how Zaidi tripped in the bleachers, spilling an enormous tray of food—and they have tracked his progress each day since. They had taken a major gamble on Cespedes, signing the Cuban escapee to a four-year, $36 million contract in February 2012, and watched him become an All-Star.

The bottom line is that in an age in which most clubs maintain a white-knuckled grip on their assets, both the A's and the Tigers stand out because they do not. "That's how you get good players—by trading good players," says Beane. It seems obvious, but it has become so rare a strategy that when clubs pursue it, the public immediately believes that some other factor, a sub-rosa rivalry, must be in play.

It isn't. Beane and Dombrowski were simply doing what has made them the second- and fifth-longest tenured GMs in the league. And among the most successful too. "I'm not going to complain about the excitement," Beane says of the modern playoff system, "but it's almost like this cruel game show. You realize that sometimes you're spinning the wheel." Beane's actions last week were all about giving the A's a better chance of landing this year's top prize, and perhaps the bigger news is that such a seemingly basic strategy has come to seem so unusual, and even vaguely suspicious.

NFL

Play Rehearsal

30

Extra Mustard

32

SI Edge

KD's Fridge

34

Faces in the Crowd

36

Dan Patrick

Michael Strahan

38

The Case for

Rickie Fowler

40

GO FIGURE

2

Backboards broken this year by Louisville's Montrezl Harrell. The 6'8" forward shattered one in Tampa on April 28 and another during a summer league game on July 27.

$636,000

Amount donated to Norwegian soccer club FL Fart (which translates to "Speed" in English) by recently deceased 91-year-old fan Erling Andreassen. The amount represents the fan's entire estate, minus medical and funeral costs.

10 INCHES

Depth of the water that submerged the court at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion after a water main burst on July 29. The building had reopened in 2012 after a $136 million renovation.

19

Years since the Cowboys have appeared in the NFC championship game. The club mailed tickets to each potential home playoff game, including that one, to season-ticket holders in early August.

6:27

Time in hours and minutes of the Cubs' 16-inning win against the Rockies on July 29. It was the longest game in franchise history for both Chicago (20,684 games) and Colorado (3,451 games).

256 MILLION

Amount, in gallons, of beer sold in Germany in June, the same month the nation's World Cup team began its run to a title in Brazil. It was the most in that month since 2010, the last time the World Cup was played.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY TREVOR LAZARUS: JULIAN H. GONZALEZ/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.COM (PRICE) PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY TREVOR LAZARUS: THEARON W. HENDERSON/GETTY IMAGES (LESTER) PHOTOJOE MURPHY/GETTY IMAGES (HARRELL) PHOTODANIEL LOISELLE/GETTY IMAGES (BEER) THREE PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)