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Inside Baseball | Bill Shaikin / SUNDAY REPORT

Beane to dip a toe in pro soccer

July 22, 2007|Bill Shaikin

You might have heard of this David Beckham fellow by now.

His face is all over this newspaper, and everywhere else in town. His corporate sponsors, the ones that have rewarded him with riches beyond belief, hope and pray that he compels you to think about soccer.

Billy Beane could change the way you think about soccer.

Yes, that Billy Beane. It's getting old, this business of running a contender at half the price. This isn't the year to brag about it, not with his A's on pace for their first losing season since 1998, but this is a reasonable time for the general manager to try something new.

Try a foreign language. Translate "Moneyball" from baseball to soccer.

Beane isn't running out on the A's. But he loves soccer, and his boss bought the San Jose Earthquakes last week. When the Earthquakes kick off next year, Beane could use Major League Soccer as a laboratory, testing whatever theories of soccer analysis he might conjure up.

"Billy is going to be deeply involved in soccer for us," said Lew Wolff, managing partner of the A's and now the Earthquakes.

"We're actually looking at some of Billy's concepts on how to evaluate players. We're trying to find out how we can apply some of Billy's thinking."

In the community of veteran baseball executives and scouts, in which Beane is not beloved, this will seem like so much chutzpah: The genius still hasn't won a World Series, "Moneyball" canonized him and now he thinks he can run two teams at the same time.

That would be a bit overstated. The A's remain Job One. Wolff chuckles at the thought that Beane could stretch himself too thin for the A's good.

"Billy's focus on baseball is overwhelming to me," Wolff said.

Even as he challenges conventional baseball wisdom, Beane respects the game too much to say he could run a major league team as a part-time job.

"I certainly have my hands full here," Beane said.

That he does, because the A's are an uncharacteristic mess.

If the A's fare poorly in the first half, no one pays much attention. The A's roar to life in the second half, just as surely as the Angels put a monkey on the scoreboard. Since 1999, the A's boast the best record in the majors after the All-Star break.

Not this year. They've lost 10 of their last 12 games, and Beane might not be able to roll enough sevens to work his magic in the second half.

"How about the third third?" Wolff said. "Billy keeping us where we're at has been amazing."

The A's, wracked by injuries, have used 47 players. By the end of April, they had five guys on the disabled list, including starters Rich Harden and Esteban Loaiza, outfielders Milton Bradley and Mark Kotsay and first baseman Dan Johnson.

In May, designated hitter Mike Piazza joined the list, as did closer Huston Street and his setup man, Justin Duchscherer. Bradley came off the list, went back on, came back, went back.

"It's like driving down the freeway," Beane said, "and people keep throwing spikes down in the middle of the freeway."

It's not all injuries, though. The A's lead the American League in earned-run average, but they have scored the fewest runs of any team in their division.

For a team that values on-base percentage so highly, Kotsay (.271), shortstop Bobby Crosby (.274) and third baseman Eric Chavez (.308) have dragged down the offense, and only Chavez has any power to compensate. Catcher Jason Kendall was at .261 when the A's traded him, handing the position to Cal State Fullerton product Kurt Suzuki.

With injury comes opportunity, and the occasional silver lining: Designated hitter Jack Cust, rescued from the minors, leads the AL West with 17 home runs -- more than Vladimir Guerrero, Adrian Beltre or Sammy Sosa. Chad Gaudin has developed nicely behind Dan Haren in the rotation, and Santiago Casilla wowed in relief, giving up two runs in 25 innings, with 24 strikeouts.

By the time the A's might make another playoff run next season, the Earthquakes will be kicking off.

Beane is neither foolish enough to say that he can translate baseball data into soccer models nor bold enough to say what revelations he might have had about evaluating soccer players.

"Is it different? No question," he said. "But there's something that can be measured on a play."

Return on investment can be measured too, and Beane is convinced there will be one. He owns a small stake in the A's and Earthquakes, so the issue is not academic to him.

"From an ownership group standpoint, this is part of the umbrella," he said. "This is not only a growing business. It's a growing sport.

"Beckham has been on the front page of not only sports pages but all over newspapers and magazines."

Beckham will fade, and soccer will need another bold splash. Beane ought to trade for Nomar Garciaparra and play him on the A's and Earthquakes. Better yet, a package deal: Nomar plays for the A's, and his wife Mia Hamm plays for the Earthquakes.

Twice the talent, none of the fluff: It's a better deal than David and Victoria Beckham.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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