Minor League Transactions: Dec. 13-23
Please see Trade Central for more on the prospects involved in December trades, and please see my Twitter timeline for more on some of the players referenced in this installment. […]
By Michael Lewis
Chapter 5: The Jeremy Brown Blue Plate Special
What I have tried to do with my work is to make baseball more fun.
When you think of intellectuals influencing the course of human affairs you think of physics, or political theory, or economics. You think of John Maynard Keyness condescending line about men of actionhow they believe themselves guided by their own ideas even when they are unwittingly in the thrall of some dead economist. You dont think of baseball, because you dont think of baseball as having an intellectual underpinning. But it does; it had just never been seriously observed and closely questioned, in a writing style sufficiently compelling to catch the attention of the people who actually played baseball. Once it had been, it was only a matter of timea long timebefore some man of action seized on newly revealed truths to gain a competitive advantage.
By the time he became the general manager of the Oakland As, in 1997, Billy Beane had read all twelve of Bill Jamess Abstracts. James had something to say specifically to Billy: you were on the receiving end of a false idea of what makes a successful baseball player. James also had something general to say to Billy, or any other general manager of a baseball team who had the guts, or the need, to listen: if you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done. A full decade after James stopped writing his Abstracts, there were still two fresh opportunities for a team willing to take them to heart. One was simply to take the knowledge developed by James and other analysts outside the game, and implement it inside the game. The other was to develop and extend that knowledge. The Oakland As had done both, though it would be wrong to say that, in using Jamess ideas, they aped James. As the Elias Sports Bureau had proven when they tried to rip off the Abstract, it was impossible to ape James. The whole point of James was: dont be an ape! Think for yourself along rational lines. Hypothesize, test against the evidence, never accept that a question has been answered as well as it ever will be. Dont believe a thing is true just because some famous baseball player says that it is true. "Anyone who thinks he is aping me, isnt," said James.
As late as June 4, 2002, the day of that years amateur player draft, there were still big questions about baseball crying out for answers; a baseball diamond was still a field of ignorance. No one had established the most efficient way to use relief pitchers. No one had established to the satisfaction of baseball intellectuals exactly which part of defense was pitching and which fielding, and so no one could say exactly how important fielding was. No one had solved the problem of fielding statistics. And no one had figured out how to make the amateur draft any more than the madness it had always been. James hadnt worried too much about the amateur draftprobably because the players statistics, before the Internet came along, werent available to him to analyze. But in a newsletter he wrote for eighteen months in the mid-1980s, to a tiny audience of subscribers, he had argued persuasively that the South was overscouted and the Great Lakes region was underscouted. He also looked into the history of the draft and discovered that "college players are a better investment than high school players by a huge, huge, laughably huge margin." The conventional wisdom of baseball insidersthat high school players were more likely to become superstarswas also demonstrably false. What James couldnt understand was why baseball teams refused to acknowledge that fact. "Anti-intellectual resentment is common in all of American life and it has many diverse expressions," he wrote, advancing one theory. "Refusing to draft college players might have been one of them."
Still, James had never tried to show how the statistics of a high school or a college player might be used to make judgments about his professional future. The question of whether college performance translated into a professional career simply hadnt been answered, at least not publicly. Privately, Paul DePodesta, the head of R&D for the Oakland As, had made his own study of it.
As a result of that study, the Oakland As front office, over the silent shrieks of their own older scouts, were about to implement a radical new idea about young men and baseball. Lives were about to change, of people who had no clue that they were on the receiving end of an idea. As the scouts poured into the draft room, and stuffed their lower lips with chaw, a catcher with a body deemed by all of baseball to be unsuited to the game sat waiting in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Jeremy Brown had no idea why what was about to happen to him was about to happen to him.
The morning of the amateur draft, Billy Beane arrived at the Coliseum earlier than usual and took the place he had occupied for the previous seven days. At dawn the room seemed more glaringly impersonal than usual; its cinder-block walls were the bright white of an asylum cell. The only hint of a reality outside were the four cheaply framed posters of former As stars: Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Dennis Eckersley, Walt Weiss.
It was still early, a full hour before the draft, and the younger scouts trickled in to report their savings. Its actually against Major League Baseball rules for teams to negotiate with players before the draft, but every team does it anyway, though not, perhaps, with the As enthusiasm. One of the first scouts to arrive is Rich Sparks ("Sparky"), who covers the Great Lakes region for the As. Sparky has just finished a conversation with Steve Stanley, a center fielder from Notre Dame, and hes pleased. Steve Stanley was yet another example of the strange results you obtained when you ceased to prejudge a player by his appearance, and his less meaningful statistics, and simply looked at what he had accomplished according to his meaningful stats. The Major League Scouting Bureau lists Stanley at five foot seven and 155 pounds, but thats wildly generous. Despite his sizeor perhaps because of itStanley has a gift for getting on base. To judge crudely, with the naked eye, he already plays a better center field than Terrence Long, the As big league center fielder. And yet the scouts long ago decided Stanley wasnt big enough to play.
Stanley has told Sparky that he expected to go after the fifteenth round of the draft. In other words, he expects to be taken by a team simply to fill out its minor league roster, not because the team thinks he has a chance of making it to the big leagues. Sparky has just informed Stanley that the As are willing to make him a second-round draft pickand a genuine big league prospecton the condition that he agree to sign for $200,000, or about half a million dollars less than every other second-round pick will sign for. Other teams will assume that Billy Beane is interested in all these oddballs because he cant afford normal players, and Billy encourages the view. And its true he cant afford anyone else. On the long cafeteria table in front of Billy sat an invisible cash register, and inside it the $9.4 million his owner had given him to sign perhaps as many as thirty-five players. The As seven first-round picks alone, paid what their equivalents had received the year before, would cost him more than $11 million. Billy uses his poverty to camouflage another fact, that he wants these oddballs more than the studs he cannot afford. He views Stanley as a legitimate second-round pick. Since no one else does, he might as well save money on him.
"Sparky, we all right?" asks Billy.
"Yeah, sure," says Sparky. "I thought he was going to jump through the phone when I told him."
Billy laughs. "Pumped, are we?"
"I think hed play for free," says Sparky.
After Sparky comes Billy Owens ("Billy O"), the young scout who covers the Deep South and is thus responsible for all communication with the University of Alabama catcher, Jeremy Brown. "Billy O looks like a Jamaican drug lord, doesnt he?" shouts Billy Beane, as Billy O ambles into the draft room. Billy O doesnt bother to smile. Too much trouble. He somehow conveys the idea of a smile without moving a muscle.
"Were all right, huh?" says Billy.
"Yeah, we all right," says Billy O.
"Does he understand?"
"Oh he understands."
Billy O is what youd get if you hammered Shaquille ONeal on the head with a pile driver until he stood six foot two. Hes big and wide and moves only when he is absolutely certain that movement is required for survival. Hes shrewd, too, and can see what you mean even if you dont. Over the past few days Billy O has come to see that he has a novel task: giving Jeremy Brown a new opinion of himself. He took it in small steps; he didnt want to shock the kid. "That boy told me hed be happy to go in the first nineteen rounds," says Billy O. "I told him, think top ten. Im telling you, that guy was so happy when I told him that. Next day I called him back and say, shrink that to five. Im not sure he believed me. Yesterday, I called him and said, You got a chance to make six figures and the first number is not going to be a one. The boy had to sit down."
But it was what happened late the night before that really struck Billy O. Hed called Jeremy Brown to tell him that the Oakland As were thinking of drafting him with the fifth of their seven first-round picks, the thirty-fifth overall pick. To that, Brown hadnt said anything much at all. Just "Thank you very much but I need to call you back." Seconds later hed called back. It turned out he thought the guy who had just called him wasnt Billy Owens, Oakland As scout, but a college teammate of his masquerading as Billy O. "He thought it was a crank call," says Billy O. "He said he wanted to make sure it was me, and that I was serious."
Jeremy Brown, owner of the University of Alabama offensive record books as a catcher, has been so perfectly conditioned by the conventional scouting wisdom that he refused to believe that any major league baseball team could think highly of him. As he eased himself into the radically new evaluation of his talents, he heard Billy O lay down the conditions. There were two. One was that he would sign for the $350,000 the As were offering, which was nearly a million dollars less than the thirty-fifth pick of the draft might expect to receive. The other was he needed to lose weight. "I said this is the Oakland As speaking to you, and the Oakland As do things differently," said Billy O, fresh from the strangest pre-draft chat hed ever had with an amateur player. "I told him how this was the money and it was as much as he was ever gonna get and it was non-negotiable. I said the Oakland As are making a commitment to you. You gotta make a commitment to us, with your body."
It had to be the most energizing weight loss commercial in history, even if it was delivered by an unlikely pitchman. At the end of it, Brown had sounded willing to agree to anything. At the same time, he still didnt really believe any of it. And that worries Billy Beane.
"You wanna go home tonight?" he now asks Billy O. What hes really asking is: Do you think you need to be there in the flesh, to keep Jeremy Brown sane? To remind him that the Oakland As have just radically increased his market value, and that he should remain grateful long enough to sign their contract. Once Jeremy Brown becomes a first-round pick, the agents, heretofore oblivious of his existence, would be all over him, trying to persuade him to break the illicit verbal agreement hed made with the As.
"No," says Billy O, and takes his seat in the ring of scouts . "I told him those agents are going to be calling him and telling him all kinds of sh--. The boys all right."
"Hey," says Sparky, brightly, to Billy O, "your guy could eat my guy for dinner."
"And would," says Billy O, then shuts his mouth, to achieve perfect immobility.
Billy Beanes phone rings.
"Hey Kenny," he says. Kenny Williams, GM of the Chicago White Sox. Williams has been calling a lot lately. He wants to trade for the As starting pitcher, Cory Lidle. But this morning it isnt Lidle he wants to talk about. Hes calling because the White Sox hold the eighteenth pick in the draft, two behind the As first selection, and he wants to find out who the As plan to draft. He doesnt come right out and say it; instead, he probes Billy about players, thinking he might trick Billy into tipping his hand. "Were in front of you so dont try to play secret agent man," Billy finally says. "Dont worry, Blanton might get to you." Joe Blanton is a pitcher at the University of Kentucky. Billy likes him too.
Billy hangs up. "Hes going to take Blanton," he says. A useful tidbit. It fills in the white space between the As first pick and their second, the twenty-fourth of the entire draft.
No one is thinking about the twenty-fourth pick of the draft, however. The twenty-fourth pick of the draft feels years away, and irrelevant. With the twenty-fourth pick of the draft, and all the other picks they have after that, the As will pursue players in whom no one else has seen the greatness. Jeremy Brown is the extreme example of the phenomenon, but there are many others.
Nick Swisher is a different story; Swisher many teams want. No one utters Swishers name, but everyone knows that Billys obsessed with the kid. Here in the asylum cell Swisher already feels owned. The scouts were already sharing their favorite Swisher stories. The Indians GM, Mark Shapiro, goes to see Swisher play, and instead of sticking to his assigned role of intimidated young player under inspection by big league big shot, Swisher marches right up to Shapiro and says, "So what the hells up with Finleys old lady?" (Chuck Finley is an Indians pitcher who had filed assault charges against his wife.) Great story! The kid has an attitude.
Billy has to work to hide how much he likes the sound of that descriptive noun. Attitude is "a subjective thing." Billys stated goal is to remain "objective." All these terribly subjective statements about Swisher keep popping out of his mouth anyway. Swisher has an attitude. Swisher is fearless. Swisher "isnt going to let anything get between him and the big leagues." Swisher has "presence." The more you listen to Billy talk about Swisher, the more you realize that he isnt talking about Swisher. Hes talking about Lenny Dykstra. Swisher is the same character as the one that had revealed Billys shortcomings to himselfmade it clear to him that he was never going to be the success everyone said he was born to be. That hed need to figure out all by himself how to be something else. No wonder that on the subject of Nick Swisher Billy sounds somewhat less than "objective." Hes talking about a ghost.
At first, theres no hint of trouble. The scouts have called around and have a fair idea of who will draft whom with the first fifteen picks. All is clear for the As to draft Nick Swisher with the sixteenth pick of the draft. Its Billys best friend in baseball, J. P. Ricciardi, the GM of the Blue Jays, who, twenty minutes before the draft, calls to tell Billy that all is no longer so clear. The sound of J.P.s voice initially causes Billy to brighten but whatever he says causes Billy to say, "F---! I got to go." He punches his cell phone off and hurls it onto the table.
"Span f---ed us," he says. "His agent just asked for $2.6 million and f---ing Colorado cant get a contract done." Denard Span is a high school center fielder, who was meant to be drafted by the Colorado Rockies with the ninth pick of the draft. Now, it seems, he wont be.
When seventeen-year-old Denard Span announces that he wont stand for a penny less than $2.6 million, his stock plummets. No one wants to touch him out of fear they wont be able to persuade him to sign for a sensible sum of money. Spans name clatters down toward the bottom rungs of the first round, and triggers a mind-numbingly complex chain reaction at the top. The Mets, who hold the pick immediately before the As, the fifteenth overall, had been set to take one from a list of four pitchers: Jeff Francis, who was also on Billys wish list, and three high schoolers, Clinton Everts, Chris Gruler, and Zack Greinke. Everts, Gruler, and Greinke were probably spoken for by the Expos, Reds, and Royals. That left Francis, free and clear to fall to the Mets with the fifteenth pick. Colorados bungling of negotiations with their first choice had just screwed that up. Colorado was now taking Francis. Thats what J.P. has just told Billy. He knows this because the Mets next choice after their four pitchers was Russ Adams, whom the Blue Jays intended to take with the fourteenth pick. The Mets next choice after Adams was Nick Swisher. Swisherlike Lenny!was going to be a Met.
Billy calls Steve Phillips, the Mets GM, out of some vague notion he might talk him out of taking Swisher. There is no more reason for him to think he can do this than there was for Kenny Williams to think he could trick Billy into tipping his hand. It is the nature of being the general manager of a baseball team that you have to remain on familiar terms with people you are continually trying to screw. In his six years on the job Billy has had such a gift for making grotesquely good dealsfor finding what other people want, even if they shouldnt want it, and giving it to them in exchange for something a lot betterthat he thinks he can do it here. But he cant; theres nothing to trade. Its against the rules to trade draft slots. The thirty or so people in the draft room hear one side of Billys awkward conversation:
"What about Everts, you hear anything on that?" he asks, teasingly.
Pause. Phillips tells him that the Montreal Expos are taking Everts.
"What about Greinke or Gruler?"
Pause. Phillips tells him that they are being taken by the Royals and Reds.
"Yeah. Im just as pissed as you are."
He hangs up, and, dropping the pretense that his pain is not unique in the universe, shouts, "F---!"
Anyone who walked in just then and tried to figure out what was happening would have been totally mystified. Thirty men sit in appalled silence watching one man fume. Finally Billy says, "Theyre taking Swisher." Just in case anyone in the draft room is feeling at ease with that fact, he rises and swats his chair across the room. Wed been here more than an hour, thinking about nothing but Swisher, and until that moment no one had mentioned Nick Swishers name.
"We should be all right," says someone, recklessly.
"No. Were not all right," says Billy. Hes in no mood to feel better. "Greinke, Gruler, and Everts arent going to be there. F---ing Colorados taking Francis. J.P. is going to take Adams, and once Adams is gone, were f---ed."
Nick Swisher is, at best, the Mets sixth choice: the Mets dont even begin to appreciate what they are getting. The Mets are taking Swisher reluctantly. If Billy had the first pick in the entire draft hed take Swisher with it. He appreciates Swisher more than any man on the planet and Swisher . . . should . . . have . . . been . . . his! And yet Swisher will be a Met, almost by default.
"F---!" he shouts again. He reaches for his snuff. He hasnt slept in two days. Its a tradition with him: he never sleeps the night before the draft. Hes too excited. Draft day, he says, is the one day of the baseball year that gives him the purest pleasure.
Except when it goes wrong. He claws out a finger of snuff and jams it into his lip. His face reddens slightly. The draft room, at this moment, has an all-or-nothing feel to it. If the Oakland As land Nick Swisher, nothing could mar the loveliness of the day. If they dont, nothing that happens afterward can make life worth living.
Any very large angry man can unsettle a room, even a room full of other large men, but Billy has a special talent for it. Five minutes after hes spoken to Phillips he is still so upset that no one in the room utters a peep, out of fear of setting off the bomb. The mood is exactly what it would be if every person in the room was handed his own personal vial of nitroglycerin. You could see why guys used to come down from the bullpen when Billy Beane hit, just to see what he would do if he struck out. To describe whatever hes feeling as anger doesnt do justice to it. Its an isolating rage: he believes, perhaps even wants to believe, that he is alone with his problem and no one can help him. That no one should help him.
The space around Billys rage is perfectly still. Paul DePodesta stares quietly into his computer screen. Pauls seen Billy in this state often enough to know that its not something you want to get in the middle of. Paul knows that Billy, to be Billy, needs to get worked up. "I think Swisher will get to us," Paul says quietly, "but Im not going to say that right now."
Finally the miserable silence is punctuated by the ringing of scouting director Erik Kubotas cellphoneonly instead of ringing it plays, absurdly, Pachelbels Canon. Erik snatches it quickly off the table. "Oh, is that what it is?" he says into the phone, in a clipped tone, and hangs up. The draft room has become a symbolist play.
Billys phone rings. Its Kenny Williams again. Williams is of no current interest to Billy. Nothing the White Sox do will alter Billys chances of getting Swisher.
"Whats up Kenny," Billy says rather than asks.
Whats up is that Kenny has just heard that Billy isnt getting Swisher, and fears that Billy will take his first choice. Billy doesnt have time for other peoples fears just now; if hes going to be miserable everyone else is going to be, too. "You were going to get Blanton," he says. "But you aint getting him now."
He hangs up and calls Steve Phillips again. Thats his style: if he doesnt get the answer he wants the first time, he calls again and again until he does. To come between him and what he was after at just that moment would have been as unwise as pitching a tent between a mother bear and her cub. Phillips answers on the first ring.
"Hear anything?" Billy asks.
Pause. Phillips says he hasnt.
"Yeah," says Billy, glumly. He begins to sympathize with Phillips for getting stuck with Swisher. Then Phillips says something new, that causes Billys mood to shift. Frustration is shoved aside by curiosity.
"Well, thats a f---ing light at the end of the f---ing tunnel."
He clicks off and turns to Paul. "He says if Kazmir gets to him hell take him." Scott Kazmir is yet another high school pitcher in whom the As havent the slightest interest. Billys so excited he doesnt even bother to say how foolish it is to take a high school pitcher with a first-round pick. Everyone looks up at the white board and tries to figure out if Kazmir, the Mets new sixth choice, will get to the Mets. He might; no other team has said definitely that they will take him. But then no one has any idea what either the Detroit Tigers or the Milwaukee Brewers, who pick seventh and eigth, intend to do. Something not terribly bright, it was a fair bet, if they just continued doing what they had done in the past. And that was a problem: picking a high school pitcher like Kazmir is exactly the sort of not-so-bright decision both franchises had a knack for making.
"Fielder could help us here," says Chris Pittaro, finally.
Fielder is the semi-aptly named Prince Fielder, son of Cecil Fielder, who in 1990 hit fifty-one home runs for the Detroit Tigers, and who by the end of his career could hardly waddle around the bases after one of his mammoth shots into the upper deck, much less maneuver himself in front of a ground ball. "Cecil Fielder acknowledges a weight of 261," Bill James once wrote, "leaving unanswered the question of what he might weigh if he put his other foot on the scale." Cecil Fielder could have swallowed Jeremy Brown whole and had room left for dessert, and the son apparently has an even more troubling weight problem than his father. Heres an astonishing fact: Prince Fielder is too fat even for the Oakland As. Of no other baseball player in the whole of North America can this be said. Pittaro seems to think that the Detroit Tigers might take Fielder anyway, for sentimental reasons. And if the Tigers take him, they trigger a chain reaction that ends with the Mets getting one of their first six choices.
Before anyone has a chance to figure out whether Kazmir will get to the Mets, the draft begins. As it does, the Oakland As owner, Steve Schott, enters the room, followed shortly by the As manager, Art Howe. Howe stands in the back of the room with his jaw jutting and a philosophical expression on his face, the way he does in the dugout during games. It is one of the mysteries of baseball that people outside it assume the manager is in charge of important personnel decisions. From the start to the end of this process Howe has been, as he is with all personnel decisions, left entirely in the dark.
The As scouting director, Erik Kubota, takes up his position at the speakerphone and tells everyone else to shut up. Everyone in the draft room is about to learn just how new and different is the Oakland As scientific selection of amateur baseball players. The As front office has a list, never formally written out, of the twenty players theyd draft in a perfect world. That is, if money were no object and twenty-nine other teams were not also vying to draft the best amateur players in the country. The list is a pure expression of the new view of amateur players. On it are eight pitchers and twelve hittersall, for the moment, just names.
Two of the position playersKhalil Greene and Russ AdamsBilly already knew would be gone before the As picked, and so he hadnt even bothered to discuss them during the meetings. His best friend J. P. Ricciardi would take Adams, and another close friend, Kevin Towers, the GM of the San Diego Padres, would take Greene. Two of the pitchersRobert Brownlie and Jeremy Guthriewere represented by the agent Scott Boras. Boras was famous for extracting more money than other agents for amateur players. If the team didnt pay whatever Boras asked, Boras would encourage his client to take a year off of baseball and reenter the draft the following year, when he might be selected by a team with real money. The effects of Borass tactics on rich teams were astonishing. In 2001 the agent had squeezed a package worth $9.5 million out of Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks for a college third baseman named Mark Teixeira. The guy who was picked ahead of Teixeira signed for $4.2 million, and the guy who was picked after him signed for $2.65 million, and yet somehow between these numbers Boras found $9.5 million. By finding the highest bidders for his players before the draft and scaring everyone else away from them, Boras was transforming the draft into a pure auction.
Billy couldnt afford auctions. He had $9.5 million to spend and Boras had let it be known that whichever team drafted Jeremy Guthrie was going to cough up a package worth $20 millionor Guthrie would return to Stanford for his senior year. The Cleveland Indians had agreed to pay the price, and so the Indians would take Guthrie with the twenty-second pick.
Of the sixteen players on his list he could afford, and stood any chance of getting, Billy thinks he might land as many as six. But the truth is he doesnt know. It was possible hed only get one of the players on the wish list. By the time the As made their second pick, the twenty-fourth of the draft, all of them might be gone. If they got six of the players on their wish list, Paul said, theyd be ecstatic. No team ever came away with six of their top twenty.
The room remains silent. The entire draft takes place over speakerphone, far away from the fans. In the draft Major League Baseball has brought to life Bill Jamess dystopic vision of closing the stadium to the fans and playing the game in private. Pro football and pro basketball make great public event of their drafts. They gather their famous coaches and players in a television studio and hand them paddles with big numbers on them to wave. Football and basketball fans are able to watch the future of their team unfold before their eyes. The Major League Baseball draft is a conference callnow broadcast on the Web.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, owners of the worst regular season record in the 2001 season, have the first overall pick. A voice from Pittsburgh crackles over the speakerphone:
"Redraft number 0090. Bullington, Bryan. Right-handed pitcher. Ball State University. Fishers, Indiana."
Just like that the first $4 million is spent, but at least it is spent on a college player. ("Redraft" means he has been drafted before.) The next five teams, among the most pathetic organizations in pro baseball, select high school players. Tampa Bay takes a high school shortstop named Melvin Upton; Cincinnati follows by taking the high school pitcher Chris Gruler; Baltimore follows suit with a high school pitcher named Adam Loewen; Montreal follows suit with yet another high school pitcher, Clinton Everts. The selections made are, from the As point of view, delightfully mad. Eight of the first nine teams select high schoolers. The worst teams in baseball, the teams that can least afford for their draft to go wrong, have walked into the casino, ignored the odds, and made straight for the craps table.
Billy and Paul no longer think of the draft as a crapshoot. They are a pair of card counters at the blackjack tables; they think theyve found a way to turn the odds inside the casino against the owner. They think they can take over the casino. Each time a team rolls the dice on a high school player, Billy punches his fist in the air: every player taken that he doesnt want boosts his chances of getting one he does want. When the Milwaukee Brewers take Prince Fielder with the eighth pick, the room explodes. It means that Scott Kazmir probably will be available to the Mets. And he is. And the Mets take him. (And spend $2.15 million to sign him.) Sixteen minutes into the draft Erik Kubota leans into the speakerphone, trying, and nearly succeeding, to sound cool and collected.
"Oakland selects Swisher, Nicholas. First baseman/center fielder. Ohio State University. Parkersburg, West Virginia. Son of ex-major leaguer Steve Swisher."
"Prince Fielder just saved our paint," says an old scout. Even the fat players who dont work for the As do the As work.
Billy is now on his feet. Hes got Swisher in the bag: who else can he get? Theres a new thrust about him, an unabridged expression on his face. He was a bond trader, who had made a killing in the morning and entered the afternoon free of fear. Feeling greedy. Certain that the fear in the market would present him with even more opportunities to exploit. Whatever happened now wasnt going to be bad. How good could it get? The anger is gone, lingering only as an afterthought in other peoples minds. He was no longer in the batters box. He was out in center field, poised to make a spectacular catch no one expected him to make. "Billys a shark," J. P. Ricciardi had said, by way of explaining what distinguished Billy from every other GM in the game. "Its not just that hes smarter than the average bear. Hes relentlessthe most relentless person I have ever known."
Billy moves back and forth between his wish list and Paul and Erik. Paul to check his judgments, Erik to execute his wishes. Like any good bond trader, he loves making decisions. The quicker the better. He looks up at the names of the players on the white board and listens to the speakerphone crackle. Three pitchers from the wish list (Francis, Brownlie, and Guthrie) go quickly. Sixteen players that he badly wants to own remain at large. The As second first-round pick is #24 (paid to them by the Yankees for the right to buy Jason Giambi), followed rapidly by #26, #30, #35, #37, #39. Billy has agreed with Erik and Paul to use #24 to get John McCurdy, a shortstop from the University of Maryland, the second hitter on the wish list. McCurdy was an ugly-looking fielder with the highest slugging percentage in the country. Theyd turn him into a second baseman, where his fielding would matter less. Billy thought McCurdy might be the next Jeff Kent.
The White Sox come on the line. "Here goes Blanton," says Billy.
When Kenny Williams told Billy an hour before that the White Sox were taking Blanton, Billy couldnt but agree that it showed disturbingly good judgment. Blanton was the second best pitcher in the draft, in Billys view, behind Stanford pitcher Jeremy Guthrie.
A White Sox voice crackles on the speakerphone: "The White Sox selects redraft number 0103, Ring, Roger. Left-handed pitcher. San Diego State University. La Mesa, California."
"You f---ing got to be kidding me!" hollers Billy, overjoyed. He doesnt pause to complain that Kenny Williams had told him he was taking Blanton. (Was he afraid Billy might take Ring?) "Ring over Blanton? A reliever over a starter?" Then it dawns on him: "Blantons going to get to us." The second best right-handed pitcher in the draft. He says it but he cant quite believe it. He looks at the board and recalculates what the GMs with the next five picks will do. "You know what?" he says in a surer tone. "Blantons going to be there at 24."
"Blanton and Swisher," says Erik. "Thats a home run."
"The Giants wont take McCurdy, right?" says Billy. The San Francisco Giants had the twenty-fifth pick, the only pick between the As next two. "Take Blanton with 24 and McCurdy with 26."
"Swisher and Blanton and McCurdy," says Erik "This is unfair." He clicks the button on the speakerphone, and his voice shaking like a man calling in to say he holds the winning Lotto ticket, takes Blanton with the twenty-fourth pick, pauses while the Giants make their pick, then takes McCurdy with the twenty-sixth.
Everyone in the room, even the people in the back who have no real idea what is going on, a group that includes both the manager and the owner of the Oakland As, claps and cheers. The entire room assumes that if Billy gets what he wants it can only be good for the future of the franchise. This is now the Billy Beane Show, and its not over yet.
Billy stares at the board. "Fritz," he says. "Itd be unbelievable if we could get Fritz too." Benjamin Fritz, right-handed pitcher from Fresno State. Third best right-handed pitcher in the draft, in the opinion of Paul DePodestas computer.
"Theres no chance Teahens gone before 39, right?" says Paul quickly. He can see what Billy is doing. Having realized that he can get most of the best hitters, Billy is now seeing if he can also get the best pitchers, too. Pauls viewthe "objective" oneis that the hitters are a much better bet than the pitchers. He thinks the best thing to do with pitchers is draft them in bulk, lower down. He doesnt want to risk losing his hitters.
"Teahen will be there at 39," says Billy.
No one else in the room is willing to confirm it.
"Take Fritz with 30, Brown with 35, and Teahen with 37," Billy says. Erik leans into the speakerphone, and listens. The Arizona Diamondbacks take yet another high school player with the twenty-seventh pick and the Seattle Mariners take another with the twenty-eighth. The Astros take a college player, not Fritz, with the twenty-ninth. Erik takes Fritz with the thirtieth.
"We just got two of the three best right-handed pitchers in the country, and two of the four best position players," says Paul.
"This doesnt happen," says Billy. "Dont think this is normal."
As the thirty-fifth pick approaches, Erik once again leans into the speaker phone. If he leaned in just a bit more closely he might hear phones around the league clicking off, so that people could laugh without being heard. For they do laugh. They will make fun of what the As are about to do; and there will be a lesson in that. The inability to envision a certain kind of person doing a certain kind of thing because youve never seen someone who looks like him do it before is not just a vice. Its a luxury. What begins as a failure of the imagination ends as a market inefficiency: when you rule out an entire class of people from doing a job simply by their appearance, you are less likely to find the best person for the job.
When asked which current or former major league player Jeremy Brown reminded him of, Paul stewed for two days, and finally said, "He has no equivalent." The kid himself is down in Tuscaloosa, listening to the Webcast of the conference call, biting his nails because he still doesnt quite believe that the As will take him in the first round. Hes told no one except his parents and his girlfriend and them hes made swear they wont tell anyone else, in case it doesnt happen. Some part of him still thinks hes being set up to be a laughingstock. That part of him dies the moment he hears his name called.
"Oakland selects redraft number 1172. Brown, Jeremy. Catcher. University of Alabama. Hueytown, Alabama."
Minutes after Erik speaks his name, Jeremy Browns phone begins to ring. First its family and friends, then agents. All these agents hes never heard of want to be in his life. Scott Boras suddenly wants to represent Jeremy Brown. The agents will tell him that they can get him at least half a million dollars more than the As have promised. Hell have to tell them that hes made a deal with the As on his own, and that he intends to keep his end of it. And he does.
The next two hours are, to Billy Beane, a revelation. When the dust settles on the first seven rounds, the As have acquired five more of the hitters from Billy and Pauls wish listTeahen, Baker, Kiger, Stavisky, and Colamarino. When in the seventh round Erik leans in and takes the last of these, an ambidextrous first baseman from the University of Pittsburgh named Brant Colamarino, Paul wears an expression of pure bliss. "No one else in baseball will agree," he says, "but Colamarino might be the best hitter in the country." That told you how contrary the As measuring devices were: they were able to draft possibly the best hitter in the country with the 218th pick of the draft. Then Paul says, "You know what gets me excited about a guy? I get excited about a guy when he has something about him that causes everyone else to overlook him and I know that it is something that just doesnt matter." When Brant Colamarino removes his shirt for the first time in an As minor league locker room he inspires his coaches to inform Billy that "Colarmarino has titties." Colamarino, like Jeremy Brown, does not look the way a young baseball player is meant to look. Titties are one of those things that just dont matter in a ballplayer. Billys only question for the coaches was whether a male brassiere should be called a "manzier" or a "bro."
Most every other team looks at the market pretty much the same way, or at any rate acts as if they do. Most teams, if they kept a wish list of twenty players, would feel blessed to have snagged three of them. The combination of having seven first-round draft picks, a deeply quirky view of baseball players, and a general manager newly willing to impose that view on his scouting department has created something like a separate market in Oakland. From their wish list of twenty they had nabbed, incredibly, thirteen players: four pitchers and nine hitters. They had drafted players dismissed by their own scouts as too short or too skinny or too fat or too slow. They had drafted pitchers who didnt throw hard enough for the scouts and hitters who hadnt enough power. Theyd drafted kids in the first round who didnt think theyd get drafted before the fifteenth round, and kids in lower rounds who didnt think theyd get drafted at all. They had drafted ballplayers.
It was as if a big new market-moving Wall Street money manager had sprung into being, and bought shares only in vegetarian restaurants, or electric car manufacturers. With a difference. A revaluation in the stock market has consequences for companies and for money managers. The pieces of paper dont particularly care what you think of their intrinsic value. A revaluation in the market for baseball players resonates in the lives of young men. It was as if a signal had radiated out from the Oakland As draft room and sought, laserlike, those guys who for their whole career had seen their accomplishments understood with an asterisk. The footnote at the bottom of the page said, "Hell never go anywhere because he doesnt look like a big league ballplayer."
Billy Beane was a human arsenal built, inadvertently, by professional baseball to attack its customs and rituals. He thought himself to be fighting a war against subjective judgments, but he was doing something else, too. At one point Chris Pittaro said that the thing that struck him about Billywhat set him apart from most baseball insiderswas his desire to find players unlike himself. Billy Beane had gone looking for, and found, his antitheses. Young men who failed the first test of looking good in a uniform. Young men who couldnt play anything but baseball. Young men who had gone to college.
The fat scout ambles in. Hes one of the older scouts, and like most of the others, hell leave the Oakland As at the end of the season, and find a team that cares about what he knows. All these misshapen players coming in will drive all of these old scouts out. But for now the older scouts are, mainly, amused. "Just talked to Kiger," the fat scout says laconically. Mark Kiger plays shortstop for the University of Florida. A machine for wearing down opposing pitchers, and getting himself on base. Too small to play pro ballor so they said. Now a fifth-round draft choice of the Oakland As.
"What did he say?" asks Billy
"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you," says the fat scout, and then laughs. "He just wanted to get drafted."
It counted as one of the happiest days of Billy Beanes career. He cant have known whether he had simply found a new way of fixing irrational hopes upon a young man, or if he had, as he hoped, eliminated hope from the equation. But he thought he knew. At the end of the day he actually looked up with a big smile and said, "This is maybe the funnest day I have ever had in baseball." Then he walked out the back door of the draft room and into the Coliseum. He had another, bigger missile to fire at the conventional wisdom of major league baseball. It was called the Oakland As.